INTERVIEW: Okwui Okpokwasili With Tara Aisha Willis

Okwui Okpokwasili. Image: MacArthur Foundation


Performance-maker Okwui Okpokwasili jumped on a call with Tara Aisha Willis, just ahead of the opening events of Danspace Project’s 10th anniversary Platform, Utterances from the Chorus co-curated by Okpokwasili and Danspace Executive Director and Chief Curator, Judy Hussie-Taylor. The Platform is built around the questions, “How do we weave a collective song? How can the voice and body be a site of resistance and transformation? How can we share artistic practices—between artists and between artists and audiences?” The month-long series will also include the New York premiere of Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head, a durational, improvised, and communal performance with a rotating cast, which takes on the first of those three questions.

Tara Aisha Willis (Rail): When did you start thinking about the theme and framework for the Platform as a way to think about performance, to hold a conversation?

Okwui Okpokwasili: I’ve been thinking about creating a collective sonic experience that’s durational and improvisational since my research for Poor People’s TV Room (2017), looking at embodied protest practices, particularly of women in southeastern Nigeria. There was one practice called “sitting on a man”: women come together and go to someone, usually a man, an official, or somebody who has done egregious harm. These collectives would go into the private space of a man and address their grievance with song, with dance—until he’s like ‘okay fine, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’ I was interested in this idea of shared creation over a period of time, with a force of intention. A clear desire and a shared language, shared concern—I found it interesting to imagine having a group come together to, not necessarily address a grievance outwards, but address the community itself. Inward restoration. Improvisational spaces can wake up our own listening capacities, to feel and vibrate in the [distance] between [ourselves and] others. But also the question of a chorus. People talk about Fannie Lou Hamer leading a group of black folks in song when their bus was stopped by police after they attempted to register to vote—to start singing to gird people’s strength up. That sonic gesture is powerful and restorative. I started to imagine the space where you could create a structure for this to happen with the public in 2014: to strengthen and nourish the capacity to listen to yourself while also being in conversation and in communion with others, through a creative practice.

We’re all feeling a tremendous amount of grief and strain. The constant violence of the current administration. What they’re doing to undocumented folks crossing borders, behaving violently against people who are suffering and trying to escape from suffering. We know our wealth has created the conditions of that suffering. We can put our bodies on the line and protest, vote, try to spread the word. I just feel we need a space where we can hear each other, listen to each other. What’s the space in a song? There’s a space for a cry, for a laugh, for intuition.

In earlier iterations we worked with less quotidian movement phrases, but we’ve streamlined it—a slow walk, a slow movement through space. Gestures come out of what needs to happen to relieve yourself from where the blood may be flowing as you move slowly. We keep it as quotidian as possible. We still have turns and stops, things to do with the fingers; if you find somebody in the space you can mirror or echo them. There’s still—I don’t know what you would call [them]—strategies or principles we are developing. It’s a strange and beautiful thing.

Rail: It’s interesting, you blur how you talk about [your new piece, Sitting on a Man’s Head,] with the Danspace Platform.

Okpokwasili: It’s also not a piece—that’s so interesting, to catch myself. It’s a practice.

Rail: Both of these structures [Sitting on a Man’s Head and the Utterances from the Chorus Platform] hold these questions about sonic, physical, emotional strategies for coming together.

Okpokwasili: It all fits: Sitting on a Man’s Head is the anchoring practice for the main inquiry of the festival. There’s this relay of information: how we collaborate, work in communities, and sustain community.

Rail: The way you’re framing all of it around practice… It strikes me that we’ve had all these Danspace Platforms over the past several years that are historical—

Okpokwasili: Like Lost and Found.

Rail: And the Judson [Dance Theater anniversary] one and...

Okpakwasili: Reggie [Wilson]’s.

Rail: And also Ishmael [Houston-Jones]’s first one, the Parallels anniversary. But this one feels very present-tense. Even though it’s an anniversary year for the Platform, it’s very present: being here together, in ecstatic, oral, moving, sounding action. The present-ness of your performing and your work also dovetails with the past in its own way, with historical thinking and memory. With what can’t quite be retold. In an interview you did with Jenn Joy you said something about “visceral recall,” the labor of trying to remember an unclear past. I’m also thinking about the Saidiya Hartman book [Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019)] that the Platform title refers to, that’s about the 1900s. How do you see the relationship with what comes before this present moment of gathering, in this Platform and in Standing on a Man’s Head?

Okpokwasili: [Hartman] interfaces and interferes with the archive and exposes a gap in the attempt to listen for young black women’s voices: to hear what they might be telling us beyond the framework of pathology that social workers, police records, newspaper articles impose. The gap in the failure to make space for black girls dreaming, the black girl imaginary. Her imaginative riffs are improvisations using the language people use to describe the girls, the rare speech she finds coming directly from their mouths, and her own voice—it’s a productive tension, the vibration between vocal folds necessary to produce sound. She operates speculatively, even though she has the foundation and facts of the archive. In order to breathe it into the present, she does this grounded speculation.

I think the body is now. It also holds this trace of the past. The body occupies multiple spaces. Given enough time, can you slip through or remove the layers of “now” and awaken something from the past? Some cellular information you can’t touch? That’s why I engage in slowness, taking time to do something over and over [in performance]. Your conscious mind can give way to something unconscious. When I research, I can’t find images online of women engaging in this practice of sitting on a man. What do you do when there are no records of the event? I don’t want to project anything onto it. But can I create a space where that [practice] remains in me, a part of my understanding? How can I—I hesitate to say meditate on it, but—

Rail: It’s like riffing, or imagining, or telling tall tales—

Okpokwasili: Right, and sometimes in a practice we feel that space of restoration, of taking care; sometimes it does feel like someone is screaming out, and you scream out with them or hold them. Sometimes I’m like, “could this have been what it was like? Are we hitting that feeling”?

Rail: So historical research, but into lived experiences of the past, and how those come forward. Would you place Sitting on a Man’s Head in a trajectory with Bronx Gothic (2012) and Poor People’s TV Room in terms of their relationship to storytelling or bringing historical research into the present?

Okpokwasili: Sitting on a Man’s Head is in the direct lineage of Poor People’s TV Room. Bronx Gothic also uses the body to stir up memory, but to strip away the layers put on since the occasion, the event of the memory.

When we talk about the African American experience, we think about the great rupture from the “mother country,” all that went into the creation of the condition of being African American. That’s not my lineage, I’m African, Nigerian, Igbo. My lineage is another part of the colonial rupture. Even if you stayed in the country, there was so much [memory] erased. I’m looking for a way to resonate with that path; I want to operate in the space of uncertainty—not necessarily how to undo the rupture, but to awaken something from before the rupture. That gap is a productive space to make work, but it’s also the only space I know. I look for [people to perform] and I look at their gap, and I go: “I recognize that; I don’t recognize that.” I look for people who are also reaching for something in memory—beyond ‘I remember,’ more like ‘I sense,’ or ‘there’s a possibility.’

Rail: That feels like a way of figuring out what voices need to be in the room over the course of the Platform, too. Maybe this is an impossible question to answer before it happens, but do you feel like that relationship to a past or precedent is going to show up in how the Platform conversations have been built?

Okpokwasili: People [involved in the Platform] have been looking back as well as forward, not afraid to imagine new structures grounded in research around the past. The ideas of “kin and care” and “voice and body” all come from previous Platforms. There is a lineage being followed, as well as transformed—I don’t want to say it’s indirect, but it’s an evolution. The incredible history [in Hartman’s book] around women in turn of the century cities—black women migrating from the south to urban centers, looking for liberation and having to make it themselves—from the chorus girls to the queer women “looking fine.” There’s a whole lineage shaping the space we’re operating in. How to resonate with that lineage while continuing to find what’s necessary now.

There’s a chapter in the book: “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner.” I love that title. A woman lingering in the street or out at night would be arrested for violating vagrancy laws. They’d put them into these dormitories. The conditions were terrible and there was once a huge riot where women were screaming, banging on the bars, so loud people on the streets could hear it. That, to me, is inspiring. Hartman says her book is “the fugitive text of the wayward, and it is marked by the errantry that it describes. […] I have pressed at the limits of the case file and the document, speculated about what might have been, imagined the things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility” (xiv). Pushing the limits of the archive. Errant speculation, rooted in the archive. I don't hue to the archive like someone with her scholarly bona fides. But I am trying to consider what it might have been to inhabit the flesh in the archive. To reverberate with what traces the archive left in that flesh.

Rail: [Hartman is] pushing on the archive in ways that are parallel to, or because of, how these girls and women are pushing on the rules and regulations around them. The method is parallel to the content.

Okpokwasili: She sees that they were engaged in a radical reformation of how one lives in a world that is not interested in your life, acts violently on you, doesn't make room for your imagination. To consider that a black woman coming from the South, barely a generation from enslavement… These are the acts of somebody who has a radical imagination about how to live other lives: the ideal is not a picket fence, a house, a job.

Rail: It's not even just about being in defiance of, or opposite, that ideal; it’s about expanding the whole terrain of possibility.

Okpokwasili: It's alongside. It's another artery.

Rail: That's beautifully put. You use a similar collection—making visible, audible, physical, fleshy—of these black women and girls’ voices, that precede the performance. It’s parallel to making audible a physical practice, collecting as a group in the present. Maybe there’s a third parallel to curating a platform where you're bringing together different people to have something to say together.

Okpokwasili: To bring all of those possibilities, methods, experiments, into—I don't want to say contention, but into closer relationship, direct transmission, in a cross-pollinating space. People have asked me, ‘what is your expectation for this Platform’? I don't have a desired outcome. I only understand that it's a practice for discovering and learning something I couldn't imagine before. Sparking a new question, a new possibility of thinking, being, and opening up to potential collaborators.

Rail: There’s also the two-volume Platform book. Creating a conversation around everything, before the actual event. And then an after-reverberation. Is that about processing how the initial conversation shifts?

Okpokwasili: It is resonant with the space we're trying to make. The first part resonates with past questions, events, moments from folks who have been connected to these [Platforms], where you bring them all together to grapple with questions. The “utterance from the choir” [in this Platform] is about bringing folks into relationship—what are the elements and possibilities of creating a choral node? The second [publication] will be what “happened.” It's not about creating a performance and having language around what it will be, the questions it asks. Rather, what is this deliberate space of being liberated from an end result or trying to project a meaning for that end? We know as practitioners and performance-makers, a lot of this language is created to give an anchor. But we also know it's not actually the piece as it unfolds in real time. I'm always in contention with this idea of art as an object. As a performer, you're always in relationship to the thing you make disappearing quickly after it's made. Improvisation is the ultimate in disappearance, an anti-authoritarian, anti-authorial space. When it comes to a practice, it’s outside my capacity to have one voice say what the anchor is: How does the catalog exist alongside these unfolding and transmuting practices? How can the catalog not be concerned with anchoring people in time and space around one idea?

Rail: I think about it cosmologically: each Platform’s curator creates a constellation, organizing ideas, bodies, and spaces. A temporary philosophy. So your mind—how you've been thinking and working—is infused across [the Platform], but it has a life of its own. We come to Danspace and live in that world for a while.

Okpokwasili: When you say “your,” you don't just mean me, it’s about the people that come in and are these constellations, in this universe. Shaping and reshaping those ecosystems. Instead of starting with a container, the core thing we’re working on is the engine at its center. Some people [in the Platform] are in conversation with each other and with the past. [For example,] I am looking at [Hartman’s] work and other people, [like Simone Leigh,] are also looking at [Hartman’s] work. It does feel like all these recombinations.

Rail: The “chorus” is a network of influence, different people picking up ideas. I hear you saying, “I've been studying this person's writing, and I’m looking at this other person, who's looking at that same person's writing.” It’s an endless rabbit hole in many directions at once.

Okpokwasili: It's interesting to look at Akwaeke Emezi's novel Freshwater, which is an exploration of being possessed by multitudes; that problem of the subject considered through a Western gaze. There are Ọgbanje children in traditional Igbo culture: those who have one foot in the spirit world and one in the earth world. Emezi writes this character who’s always in conversation with the “others” who want her to go back to that [spirit world]. [Within your] interior space, you aren’t alone. You’re in conversation with spirits [and ancestors]; you’re the manifestation of what’s come before. I remember my mother told me not to be an organ donor because when I come back in my next life I'll be missing that organ. She was raised Christian. But there were these residual things in her mind. I have an uncle who named his son, “the return of his father,” but then when he was born again as Christian, he changed that name because in Christian theology there is no return, no reincarnation. People living under Western principles are always on shaky ground. The interior, ongoing multitudes—that's the space I occupy. That's the work and reading I have been doing.

Rail: It fits into these parallels we're talking about, the present practice or action or vocalization refracting the past. And the method and the content reflecting each other.

Okpokwasili: How do we contend with being in a Western world that is trying to say “we are alone” or “we possess this land”? Here are the borders. Here's where we begin and you end. The whole colonial project is an exercise in extending the geographically prescribed body. The nation, not as land bordered by ocean, but as an idea projected around the world. That theft of resources, building wealth that excluded many folks who generated that wealth. Corporate bodies recognize no borders and can project themselves across space.

But this [project] is for individuals, human beings, for another sense of value: how we need each other to sustain each other. Protecting bodily integrity, but also opening up that body. Understanding the chorus, the flesh, the land-body, and the tributaries running through the “other” into you and back to the other. I'm interested in existing in those tributaries. It's essential right now. There’s always that question in performance. Your body makes a bridge to other bodies in a vulnerable, strange, unpredictable exchange. Their presence will do something to you and you’ll do something to them—collide with their histories and memories, while they're flooded with yours.

Rail: It’s specific to performance.

Okpokwasili: And to practice. I want more of that space. I was some years ago at [Min Tanaka’s] Body Weather Farm in Japan. Some of the practices we did, we would work in streams: we’d lie down and other people would move you, or you’d be up in a tree and people would call out prompts. What happens to your body when the wind comes through? It just opened me up for all of the elements you can dance and move with, from somebody's voice, the anchor of the tree trunk, or the ants you might feel crawling on your legs. That broke open something wide and wild for me in terms of sensation.

Rail: The practice comes into a chorus, a porousness with other people.

Okpokwasili: I had this experience working with Ralph [Lemon]. When we were working on Come Home Charley Patton, he said, ‘make a map of the postbellum and antebellum South using a table and a glass of milk.’ I don't even think there was a pen or a pencil involved. Making a map with these things, you’re saying, ‘how does my body experience fit in relationship with those objects?’ Abstracting, but also grounding yourself in a flesh-memory and not being concerned with the outcome, whether it reads a certain way. Being in the practice of imagining potential, and being unfinished. Trying to become undone from all the ways you hold your body, all that we hold as our self, to become something alongside or other.

Rail: It makes sense that you're having a hard time articulating it. It's what you were saying about the Platform: ‘I can't know what it is until it happens.’

Okpokwasili: I almost don't want to know what it is. That's a very simple thing I keep trying to elaborate on. That sense of being one among multitudes within yourself. Symbolically within yourself, but also outside of your body.

Rail: All you can do, and this conversation is an example, is repeatedly try to find ways of articulating something that's impossible to articulate. You refer to past examples or things you know, to ground it in concreteness. But none of them are the thing itself. Yet again, the method and content of this conversation are parallel.

Okpokwasili: The thing that I'm failing to elaborate or define is not a thing to be defined because it's not a thing. We did an iteration [of Sitting on a Man’s Head] in Houston, working with the artist-activators who are a core part of refining the practice. When we opened the practice to the public, you saw people who are like, ‘Oh my God, how the fuck do I get out of here? What is this?’ And then people who stayed and returned and returned. A group of women who were the godmothers of the child of someone involved in the practice left, and he stayed. I remember seeing them come back, like, ‘where's our godson that we came in with?’ It does nothing for many people. And then does everything for some. I would hope, with any performance, that it's not the same experience for everybody. I know what it does for me and the multitudes within me, my feeling of connection, but it’s absolutely not stable and definable.

Rail: I wrote down a quote from Hartman’s book about her subject matter: “…the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked but is nearly unimaginable” (xiv). That “nearly unimaginable” thing is the zone you’re in here.

Okpokwasili: It’s the one I’m in and the one I love.