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They were handing out ear plugs at the entrance to the nora chipaumire performance at Carolina Performing Arts on the 10th. They should have been handing out welding goggles. Not only was portrait of myself as my
father loud at times, it involved eye-damaging bright lights pointed at the audience. Like many of the people seated around the four sides of the stage in this Loading Dock presentation, I was squinting, shielding my eyes with the program and even closing one eye and covering it – and I still have a burnt spot more than 12 hours later.
Why do people do this? You can make art about torture, but art as torture is a FAIL. In the midst of the performance, chipaumire broke from script to yell at someone in the audience: "turn off your motherfucking phone!" I should have followed instinct to surge up and yell at her to turn off the motherf**king lights. The only point I can imagine for this blinding of the audience was that somehow this demonstrated something of what it is to be a black African man.
I can't tell you what that is, or even for sure that that is what she was talking about, because sometimes she seemed to be talking about black men in America. But not sure about that either, because, although chipaumire was yelling into a microphone, her words were often incomprehensible in the general noise of the sound score (by Philip White, Afro-beat, heavy on bass reverb, and very interesting and thrilling when one was not trying to pick out the spoken words). It was a long 75 minutes.
But when chipaumire spoke without the music; when the bodies unfettered by words moved with the music; when one could look without blinders, the piece was flabbergastingly fine. Its off-the-top-of-the-chart intensity was pushed to the limit in the constrained stage space. The performance area was barely separated from the audience by elastic webbing which formed a "boxing ring" in which chipaumire could use athletics and their competitions as metaphors in her search into who and how her father – and by extension, African men – could have been/are/might become. (The Zimbabwean artist had not really known her father, who died in 1980.) chipaumire was tethered to one of the two male dancers by both black and white bands; she wore heavy football padding on chest and shoulders; she had an amulet of masculinity on an elastic cord, hanging heavy and swinging between her legs; a big phallic microphone suspended from the ceiling added its black cord to the shifting tangle. At times she danced in a mask. The man in the ring with her wore red shorts with a spiked codpiece over, and the third man wore red athletic pants and various other changing costume parts. He did most of the moving of the lights; he had welding goggles. All three dancers stretched the boxing ring's boundary, pushing it into the audience with their bodies. The highly audible language in the ferocious final section pushed beyond the boundary of what a white woman can put into print, even as a quote, and was deeply disturbing.
Because I couldn't make out so much of chipaumire's spoken word – which was clearly an equal component in the mix – I can't feel sure of the exact meaning of those words. I probably missed a third of the visual trying to protect my eyesight. But the energy of released rage and disgust and desolation in the piece were unmistakable, so maybe chipaumire thwarted her audience on purpose, so that we would not simply keel over under the force of her manifesto.