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Fluid
Deliverance
OKWUI
OKPOKWASILI
& HELGA DAVIS

Okwui
Okpokwasili
& Helga Davis

In Conversation on the
Mystery of Process and
Somatic Authority

Where there had been twenty, there were now two. Each of us formidable in height, unapologetically dark, with strong handsome faces.

It had been a long day. The idea now was to choose one of us to be the other side of the brain to a white counterpart. Over and over again we took turns with the language and movement with the two remaining white actors and when all possibilities of pairings had been exhausted, we were asked to read the text together. As we began to speak, the thing that everyone seemed to be waiting for all day was finally happening. The words made their meaning, their music, known to us. As we spoke, our two warm velvety voices rolled the words out of obscurity. We turned them like candy in our mouths. 

After, the room fell into a deep silence. We were thanked and excused. Both of us. But before leaving the playing space I approached . “That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done. They will never cast both of us. No matter what happens please, let’s find each other.”

While I went on to perform the role of Character 1 in Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ seminal work Einstein on the Beach for the next three years, Okwui continued on her magnificent artistic path and won the McArthur Genius Award in 2018. I never forgot the experience of looking into the mirror of Okwui Okpokwasili.

In 2017 we were asked by TRIPLE CANOPY to collaborate on a piece in celebration of our dear friend, Hilton Als. With a brilliant sound and set design by Peter Borne, The Twins made their official, theatrical debut. At long last, we were moving closer to one another, there was nothing to do but surrender, and remember. Remember. Remember. Remember.

This podcast was edited for brevity and clarity.

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HELGA DAVIS:

Where there had been 20, there were now two. Each of us, formidable in height, unapologetically dark, with strong, handsome faces. It had been a long day. The idea now was to choose one of us to be the other side of the brain to a white counterpart. Over and over again, we took turns with the language and movement with the two remaining white actors. And when all possibilities of pairings had been exhausted, we were asked to read the text together. As we began to speak, the thing that everyone seemed to be waiting for all day was finally happening. The words made their meaning, their music known to us. As we spoke, our two warm, velvety voices rolled the words out of obscurity. We turned them like candy in our mouths.

After, the room fell into a deep silence. We were thanked and excused, both of us. But before leaving the playing space, I approached, "That was one of the most beautiful things I've ever done. They will never cast both of us. No matter what happens, please, let's find each other." While I went on to perform the role of character one in Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ seminal work ‘Einstein on the Beach’ for the next three years, Okwui continued on her magnificent artistic path and won the MacArthur Genius Award in 2018. I never forgot the experience of looking into the mirror of Okwui Okpokwasili.

In 2017, we were asked by Triple Canopy to collaborate on a piece in celebration of our dear friend Hilton Als. With a brilliant sound and set designed by Peter Born, ‘The Twins’ made their official theatrical debut. At long last, we were moving closer to one another. There was nothing to do, but surrender and remember, remember, remember, remember.

(pause)

HELGA:

And the reason it feels important for me to read that to you and to tell you that is because there's so much we can't tell each other right now, because there's so much noise. And no matter how great our practices of self-care, of self-awareness, no matter, there aren't so many opportunities for us to look at one another and remember why. 

OKWUI OKPOKWASILI:

It's interesting because I do sometimes feel like you are my elegant half.

HELGA:

You are so silly.

OKWUI:

You are the one. But I think it shifts. I've seen you on an edge. I can feel you sometimes on the edge. But the sense of you and I playing along a spectrum. So you being my elegant half, and then maybe I can be your elegant half. You raging and then my rage. There's just a number of spaces I feel that we have traveled together, even in the small moments where we have worked together. I don't know why we understand how to play the full spectrum of the possibilities of who we are and what we might feel. Because I think they're oftentimes, because of who we are, because of our darkness, our Blackness, the depth of our voice, people expect this authority. They say “power”. They say “elegance.” They say “grace,” and sure. Right? But we are human-

HELGA:

Also.

OKWUI:

Yes. Especially. Also, and especially. And so when do we get the space or how do we make the space to not be trapped by those mirrors? Because as much as people might ascribe elevation to those particular ideals, there's also a kind of, there’s a negation. There's a limit, a restriction, a feeling of being disciplined. You're all of these- People don't realize to some degree, I don't want to be your goddess. I don't want to be your whore or your mammy either. There's a lot else. And I feel like we get to be in the a-lot-else space when we're together. When we've been together on stage, in practice. When we were together in the Robert Wilson room. We get to be in spaces that are what I love, especially, may be illegible to you outside, but absolutely known to us. It's a slippery space. 

OKWUI:

And I think that part of me, I don't know what I expected. I haven't really been out. I don't go out so much. I've been having Zoom conversations. I'm working on projects. But to be embodied with someone, to be embodied with you, and the memory of what we recognized in each other, and how we've been able to meet. Because I had heard of you since the ‘Hot Mouth’ days. I had seen you in St. Anthony's. I’d also been arrested by your regal presence. I've heard you sing, the range and power of your vocal, not just your voice, but your imagination with where you go in your music. Yes, it's astounding. It's virtuosic, it's amazing. But there are so many other levels. And so it was wonderful to me to be able to feel like we were unlocking that in each other.

So to come here, I didn't know. I felt pretty easy. I was like, "It's going nice. Helga and I are going to sit." And then when I see you I'm like, "Oh my god, I actually haven't see..." Just like that impact of being embodied with you. And then when you're like, "I'm going to hug you." And I'm like, "We're going to touch each other." And then you keep going further and further into the memory, and you actually read out this beautiful story. Thank you. Which is our truth and fiction. And I feel such...

HELGA:

And our history.

OKWUI:

It's overwhelming. You just overwhelmed me. There’s such a treasure too. The treasure that I feel like you... That's the elegance. But it's you Helga, you understand these treasures. I know it. Anyway, the treasure of making that connection, the difficulty of it. And the work that so many people do to not allow that, to not open up that space.

HELGA:

Talk a little bit about how you make these stories that you make.

OKWUI:

I think I make them by thinking about something that, it's like a wonder. I wonder. I wonder about my friend who was 11 and 12, and I knew she was fucking and having sex. And she was explaining... can I say these things? No. Sorry.

HELGA:

Yes, you can.

OKWUI:

And she had talked about blow jobs and then we wrote these notes, because I was like, "What's a blow job? What's all of this?" And she had boyfriends and stuff. But then I also remember she was called slut bitch, whore. And then I also thought about there were some girls, I remember there was a girl, and I may have said this once before, oh, my goodness, her name was Anita. And she had buck teeth. And she had her overbite and people didn't like her. They called her ugly. And I remember seeing five boys just dry humping her against the school, the one of the backyard fences. And I remember thinking, and she was yelling and screaming, and there were adults in the yard. And we went to the adults and we were like, "Hey, they're doing something to her. I think they're hurting her." And the adults pushed us aside and just looked away and just told us to go away, get back in line. And this was in the '80s. And I remember thinking, when I looked at I thought, "Oh, I know they don't like her, because they call her ugly." Because sometimes you would think when you would see boys rubbing up against girls and they would be upset. But they might be pretty girls and you would think, "Oh, they like each other," or, "This is an expression of this boy's attraction to her."

But with this girl and what they were doing to her, all of a sudden, in my little mind, it became clear, "Oh, people can do this thing to you. They can rub up against you, hump you, grab you, and it's not because they like you." In fact, it's because they really don't like you. So I was pregnant and I was thinking about girlhood and girls and innocence. And I was remembering these things. And the question was, how do those girls experience desire? What do they remember about that? How do they disentangle violence from pleasure? Where can they find pleasure? What kind of-

HELGA:

And where do they learn it? Where do they learn to discern pleasure from violence?

OKWUI:

So Bronx Gothic came from me thinking about girls, desire, pleasure and violence. And how much of it I was surrounded by, at a very young age. 

HELGA:

Growing up in a household that was what? 

OKWUI:

Growing up in a house that was super, super conservative. Very Nigerian, first generation. You never talk about sex. You never talk about having boyfriends or girlfriends. It was very controlled. You're going to school. My parents did not have time for anyone to talk about boyfriends and girlfriends. They had come here from escaping the… I mean they had come to this country right before the Biafran War and couldn't go back because the impact of the Biafran War on their community in the South East Village, where they lived and their families lived, was a devastating impact. And some people say maybe those areas haven't recovered from that war, which ended in 1971.

HELGA:

Still.

OKWUI:

Yeah. So, to think, "We're not coming here to this country for you to have boyfriends and talk about sex. You better get to school. You better let me see some good grades. And actually, I don't want to hear you talk at all, unless I speak to you first. We're going to church." Do you know what I mean? So I learned about sex, I learned about violence, I learned about desire from the schoolyard and from my neighborhood, growing up in Parkchester in the Bronx and going to Castle Hill, or just doing what I do, even though I was a pretty mellow and good kid. So that's what happens. I feel like I'm some- I’m going back into the past or Poor People's TV Room. I'm thinking about what happened to those women who stood up to a colonial or an imperial government in Nigeria? What happened to those women who started a war? Do they live in me still? Were any of them my grandmothers, my great, great grandmothers, my great, great, great, great grandmothers?

So then I started to ask my parents questions, and they didn't really remember much about it. Because, again, I don’t know if this is… I feel like this might be a particularly Western condition, problem, or particularly this is the imperial project. You go into a country and you do what you can to erase the history of the people that are actually living there and who have a history there. So my parents, having grown up in and been educated in missionary schools, run by the Anglican Church of the Queen's Government, of the Queen's… I don't know what you would call her empire or whatever… have no interest in teaching indigenous children of Nigeria about the efforts of women to overturn the colonial government. Because they saw it as the existential threat to their history and memory that it was. So my parents didn't know too much about it. So then I actually had to research it. And I think that even Poor People's TV Room is about fragments and shards and what you might capture and the attempts at recall.

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HELGA:

But how do you even start making work? So, if you have these parents who are here for you, they're working their 20 jobs… 

OKWUI:

*Nigerian Accent* 40 jobs! What do you mean 20 jobs?!

*both laughing* 

HELGA:

*Nigerian Accent* I am sorry. 40 job. 40 job for you. 

OKWUI:

I know. That’s right.

HELGA:

There were 40 job for you to come and go to school. *end Nigerian accent* And you're going to do what?!

OKWUI:

Oh, my gosh.

HELGA:

Okay. So, talk about that! Just talk about that for a second.

OKWUI:

Well, I think in Igbo culture, too, people want folks to be useful. There's no higher quality than being useful to the people around you. Useful to your family. Useful to your community. So I almost think, more than status, the reason why there are so many - I think, at least in my family and Igbo culture, as I don't want to essentialize - but it is a very high honor to have a doctor in your family. I think even more than a lawyer, more than an accountant, more than an oil exec. I think doctor. And even my father's mother was a midwife and a nurse. His father was a nurse. And even I can see within my family; I have two older brothers and two younger sisters. One is a doctor, an osteopath, and the other one is a child psychiatrist. So she went to med school. Another one does early child development. It's almost like a stereotypical… Nigerians…

HELGA:

Overachieving.

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OKWUI:

But this, the sense of usefulness. Because even now as my parents get older, the gratitude that I have, though, of the health of so many of the people in my family even though we're separate.

HELGA:

How old are your parents now?

OKWUI:

Look at me, I have to count. My daddy was 33 when he had me, which means...

He is in his early eighties. My mom's in her late seventies. And at this point, they're going through things, normal aging things. But they have people they can call. My brother, my sister and I have a, one of my first cousins who's in this country now, she's an OB -GYN. Her sister in Nigeria is an OB-GYN. She has a brother here who is a doctor and is in public health-

HELGA:

And they think what of you?

OKWUI:

Oh, the MacArthur helped them come to terms with certain -

HELGA:

Come to Jesus. 

OKWUI:

*laughing* No, I have to say they're very lovely. And they know, they don't waste any time in talking about how proud they are of every single one of their children, including me. And it's very sweet. I think that they have seen my work before some of the recognition, they were confused, but in the same time, they’re parents. I remember my mother came to see a show of mine when it was at Performance Space New York in the downstairs space. And the chairs are uncomfortable and she had bought a huge bouquet of flowers. And during the performance, I could hear them, *makes scuffling sounds* ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff, rattling. And even Mark…

HELGA:

Mark Russell?

OKWUI:

Mark Russell, I remember I think he sat behind her. And I think he was obviously at this point at the public or under the radar. And he was like, "Oh, that's your mother, because I was so annoyed at the woman sitting in front of me who could not stay still and stop ruffling her...” And I thought, "Well, she was nervous. She was really nervous." And that was one moment I thought, I get that. She wants so much from me, I don't even know if they can watch what I'm doing. There's just a sense of, "I hope she's okay." And that was a time, we were downstairs. I feel like she must have come to a show… what do we have maybe 10, 15 people in the audience? There's all this hope and memory bundled up for her; she's watching. But it's true. They would have loved it if I could have just, I don't know, gotten a TV show. Gotten Oprah on my side. You know? What they considered the tangible results of success, or the tangible markers. The things that they can look to. You own things. You have a certain kind of comfort. You live in a building with an elevator. There were just certain things for them that were, that they thought, "What are the levels of comfort that if we see she has that, then we're going to be cool, we're going to be fine? I can sit here in one of her shows and not nervously ruffle my stuff.”

HELGA:

So, bring all of that back ‘round to your creative process, because all of that is a part of you now, right?

OKWUI:

Yeah, of course.

HELGA:

And then you also have some dance and movement.

OKWUI:

Yeah, yeah. Can I tell you? I don't know, “what was I thinking” sometimes is also my question. I know that, as much work as my parents had done to make sure we did well, as hard as they worked, whenever Roots comes on television five days that week, we're all sitting and watching it. There is a Black person on TV, "Everybody, come to the…" So there was some sense of, when I was a kid, I recognized that there was this absence. In the popular cultural framework, there was a space that Black people didn't exist in. They existed on the margins. And when you did get a chance to see them, you rushed. And I can recognize that seeing them was some kind of reflection of your own existence. You've talked about this. It's the space. You see them, but then you see you. Right? We read Dostoyevsky. We also see ourselves. You know what I mean?

OKWUI:

I remember you talking about the sound of music and you saw Julie Andrews, and you were like, "That's my family. That's my mother." Right? But still, when you see somebody Black out there….as a very young child I felt that acute sense of, there are more of us, doing a lot. I want to think about that. I want to make stories. I want to make that space for that range. The world that is outside my door with not just the unfortunately maybe-sick Vietnam vet who lived on the first floor and freaked us all out. He was like the one white man left in the building. But the Puerto Rican people on the first floor, the Jewish folks on our floor, the Irish folks, but also, the Korean folks, the Vietnamese folks, the ladies from Barbados, who hung out with my mother. I feel like Lady Anne Dunbar. Was she related to Paul Laurence Dunbar, but she also lived in the neighborhood. She was quite elegant. Another Nigerian expat girlfriend of my mother's, who was also going to Colombia, doing her doctoral work. So the beautiful Jamaican man who was living with the beautiful Nigerian woman, they both were at Columbia doing doctoral work. And I was always like, "Do they live together, because they aren't married, right?” And then this beautiful Jamaican man, who was brilliant, and his incredible daughter, Tracy, who could write backwards with her left hand in perfect cursive. This was the Bronx. And I'm watching television and all I see is “Family Ties?” No offense. There's space for that.

And so I think as a kid I felt charged by people around me and I don't know that I could necessarily always write something that would replicate the experience, exactly. But to think about that charge, that charge moves me. The charge of bodies moving like atoms to shape some kind of form and material. I was charged with that. I feel charged with that. But it's true as I got older, the ways in which I would tap into the charge of being with bodies was different.

Yes, movement. It's one thing to go from, yes, my ballet class or your jazz class. There are certain forms that were de rigueur. Everyone learned it if you acted. You took all of these classes but then when you're faced with Butoh, you're faced with other ways of people moving their bodies, that- is that dance? But whatever that is, there is an entirely new space of being opening up to me. When I first saw, is it Min Tanaka? I remember seeing him. The way certain bodies and certain movements and certain practices also take you away from the thing you believe about what something should be. And as some artist said, she saw Ralph Lemon's work and it rearranged the furniture in her. It just rearranges the furniture in your brain. And I'm thinking, "Yes, okay,” there was some point along the line where I needed to see things that rearranged the furniture in my head. That rearranged how I believe dance worked.

HELGA:

And so, you started making that work?

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OKWUI:

Yeah. I've been writing since I was seven. Like, since I've thought about the charge of all of the world around me not being, I had been writing. But then when it started to get weird was when I was older and I started to think, "Whoa…"

It's not fair. Am I trying to get away from being specific? My parents moved to New Jersey when I was in high school and they happened to be in a place where there was a performing arts center that I could do during school, as well. It was a kind of performing arts school. And one of the plays that we did, I mean, I had an acting teacher, who was really kinda scary, but was kinda brilliant. And he was a recent graduate from Mason Gross at Rutgers. He had us do the Mahabharata. Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. And that's a long piece. It said six hours, or something? Seven hours? I'm not sure. He cut it down to about two and a half hours. And so I'm 16. Had I ever been exposed to any people, any of the Gods of the Hindu Pantheon? Peter Brook, even in this idea of a multicultural theater, that particular story of the Mahabharata? For this man to say, "Here in this little New Jersey town, we're going to take this Hindu epic..." I mean, thankfully, it was a town that did have some Hindu folk, some South Asian folks who could also come in and give us some perspective around these goddesses and gods and these stories. The Mahabharata is the story of these two families. But within it is the seeds of Bhagavad Gita, which I believe is Arjuna, a great warrior, asking questions about the meaning of life. And asking questions about why one goes to war. And I believe he's having that conversation with, for lack of a better word, what would you call a Krishna in a particular form. I can't think of the word for when the gods are manifest, in particular, people and bodies. But, anyway, so the Bhagavad Gita is within the Mahabharata. And I had never heard of any of this stuff. And I was 16. And so I think at a very early age, I was around people who thought, "There are some other stories that are worth telling. There are more stories than you can imagine. There are more Gods than you can imagine."

HELGA:

Right, but there are other stories, but there's also your story. And so what I think is important and useful for people, too, is to understand how there are other stories and your story. And the way those things intersect across disciplines, so that's another thing. That is your path, is what you do. And so I think I would like for you to just speak about that, specifically. So you can see all of these things. You get exposed to so much more. And your imagination is sparked. But you also have stories. You have Bronx stories. You have Nigerian stories. You have middle child stories. You have the history of pleasure and violence in your sphere. You have a history of movement. How are you taking all of these things and synthesizing them, and making the work that you make? And what are the practices that you think an everyday person can employ, even if they don't want to be performers, to get them to their story?

OKWUI:

Yea, there are so many ways and so many possibilities, right. But I will say that, yes, you have to start with your own body. I feel you have to start with your own story, as important as it is to recognize and remember that there are so many other stories, right?. But I think Black folk know that. So in my mind, the question jars. It's literally like I have multiple lights going off in my mind right now, because did it start when I came to New York after college, and got involved with this theater company that you felt like they loved Robert Wilson, and we're doing these incredible outdoor durational pieces, GAle GAtes et al. And I was practicing with them for a piece called “Wine-Blue-Open Water.” And a number of the company members had just come back from being with Min Tanaka at his Body Weather Farm in Japan and they were guiding us in the practice of a slow walk. And I don't know that I had ever walked slowly before. And so to do this slow walk, we walk.

OKWUI:

Not everyone can walk. But if you can, if you are ambulatory in some way, and you have the muscle power, I mean everyone can slow down. But even that sense of attention, all of a sudden, in this walk, you didn't skip over anything. And the fact that in this slow walk, the sensation is so heightened. And so already right there, I'm thinking, "Look at all of these opposing, this internal dynamic, while I am taking a breath to go incredibly slow, inside my heart is racing. Someone is right beside me. I can feel them. I'm not looking but it's like I can see them pass me. My hairs are standing up.” It was just so incredible. So that's just like for me, for my own self that maybe people find this in meditation too. Right? And that's maybe the power of meditation. There's no stillness until you're dead, I think, and then who knows? There's some other energy. Right?

So that sensation. That's a memory of the incredible vibration within. If you can be with that vibration within performance, it's quite powerful.

HELGA:

If you can be with it in life.

OKWUI:

Everywhere. Yes. Right, right.

HELGA:

So there's a kind of starting from the beginning?

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OKWUI:

That's right. It's like learning how to walk, literally. And-

OKWUI:

Yeah. I've been writing since I was seven. Like, since I've thought about the charge of all of the world around me not being, I had been writing. But then when it started to get weird was when I was older and I started to think, "Whoa…"

It's not fair. Am I trying to get away from being specific? My parents moved to New Jersey when I was in high school and they happened to be in a place where there was a performing arts center that I could do during school, as well. It was a kind of performing arts school. And one of the plays that we did, I mean, I had an acting teacher, who was really kinda scary, but was kinda brilliant. And he was a recent graduate from Mason Gross at Rutgers. He had us do the Mahabharata. Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. And that's a long piece. It said six hours, or something? Seven hours? I'm not sure. He cut it down to about two and a half hours. And so I'm 16. Had I ever been exposed to any people, any of the Gods of the Hindu Pantheon? Peter Brook, even in this idea of a multicultural theater, that particular story of the Mahabharata? For this man to say, "Here in this little New Jersey town, we're going to take this Hindu epic..." I mean, thankfully, it was a town that did have some Hindu folk, some South Asian folks who could also come in and give us some perspective around these goddesses and gods and these stories. The Mahabharata is the story of these two families. But within it is the seeds of Bhagavad Gita, which I believe is Arjuna, a great warrior, asking questions about the meaning of life. And asking questions about why one goes to war. And I believe he's having that conversation with, for lack of a better word, what would you call a Krishna in a particular form. I can't think of the word for when the gods are manifest, in particular, people and bodies. But, anyway, so the Bhagavad Gita is within the Mahabharata. And I had never heard of any of this stuff. And I was 16. And so I think at a very early age, I was around people who thought, "There are some other stories that are worth telling. There are more stories than you can imagine. There are more Gods than you can imagine."

HELGA:

Right, but there are other stories, but there's also your story. And so what I think is important and useful for people, too, is to understand how there are other stories and your story. And the way those things intersect across disciplines, so that's another thing. That is your path, is what you do. And so I think I would like for you to just speak about that, specifically. So you can see all of these things. You get exposed to so much more. And your imagination is sparked. But you also have stories. You have Bronx stories. You have Nigerian stories. You have middle child stories. You have the history of pleasure and violence in your sphere. You have a history of movement. How are you taking all of these things and synthesizing them, and making the work that you make? And what are the practices that you think an everyday person can employ, even if they don't want to be performers, to get them to their story?

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OKWUI:

Yea, there are so many ways and so many possibilities, right. But I will say that, yes, you have to start with your own body. I feel you have to start with your own story, as important as it is to recognize and remember that there are so many other stories, right?. But I think Black folk know that. So in my mind, the question jars. It's literally like I have multiple lights going off in my mind right now, because did it start when I came to New York after college, and got involved with this theater company that you felt like they loved Robert Wilson, and we're doing these incredible outdoor durational pieces, GAle GAtes et al. And I was practicing with them for a piece called “Wine-Blue-Open Water.” And a number of the company members had just come back from being with Min Tanaka at his Body Weather Farm in Japan and they were guiding us in the practice of a slow walk. And I don't know that I had ever walked slowly before. And so to do this slow walk, we walk. Not everyone can walk. But if you can, if you are ambulatory in some way, and you have the muscle power, I mean everyone can slow down. But even that sense of attention, all of a sudden, in this walk, you didn't skip over anything. And the fact that in this slow walk, the sensation is so heightened. And so already right there, I'm thinking, "Look at all of these opposing, this internal dynamic, while I am taking a breath to go incredibly slow, inside my heart is racing. Someone is right beside me. I can feel them. I'm not looking but it's like I can see them pass me. My hairs are standing up.” It was just so incredible. So that's just like for me, for my own self that maybe people find this in meditation too. Right? And that's maybe the power of meditation. There's no stillness until you're dead, I think, and then who knows? There's some other energy. Right?

So that sensation. That's a memory of the incredible vibration within. If you can be with that vibration within performance, it's quite powerful.

HELGA:

If you can be with it in life.

OKWUI:

Everywhere. Yes. Right, right.

HELGA:

So there's a kind of starting from the beginning?

OKWUI:

That's right. It's like learning how to walk, literally. And-

HELGA:

And how to listen with your whole body, with your whole self. And then what? And then making work with and on your own body and your own self.

OKWUI:

And I have to say also working with Ralph Lemon. Right? So there is starting from the beginning, relearning how to listen, tapping into all of the senses. In the Western world, we rely way too much on sight. So, yeah, how to listen with your skin. There's that. When you're tapping back into the enormity of vibration within and the memory that that releases. How can you find stillness? Tap into that vibration, access the memory. But then there is the space of the imagination, the wildness that says.. and this I definitely feel I learned with Ralph Lemon, because he would create these spaces and scores in rehearsals for you to range wildly.

HELGA:

Range or rage?

OKWUI:

It could be both. For instance, when we were working on a piece, he tasked all of us with building a map of the postbellum and antebellum South using a table, a glass of milk, I'm forgetting maybe two other objects. What does that mean? Is it a moving map? Do I move from antebellum to postbellum? Am I actually going to see time move through the Civil War? Or am I just going to think of my body moving from abjection to freedom? What is freedom? And my thing ended with moving a table and attempting to drink a glass of milk. And then, finally, it just spills. And, obviously, we didn't use that in the piece in the end, but how to also create conditions for the wild range of the imagination that may bring you through levels of rage, and the sublime, as well. So there's that. So I have to say that I have tremendous gratitude for Ralph, for that space that he always makes in some way. And then I eventually did go to the Body Weather Farm in the late '90s.

HELGA:

What is that?

OKWUI:

So the Body Weather Farm was a space created by Min Tanaka and a number of the people in his company, Plan B, in a village outside of Tokyo, where they were farming, organic farming, but also doing these extensive workshops – in a practice he was calling “body weather,” but sometimes people might say it is an extension of Butoh. But there are donkeys to attend to, goats to milk. There's rice to pick in the rice paddies. There are other vegetables to be harvested-

HELGA:

And it informed your practice in what way?

OKWUI:

Well, then, so you have the practice of farming in the day, and then you are doing workshops in the afternoon and you are working with image. Because there is, I think, another space of imagination, where there's an image for your head, there's an image for your chest. Imagine a garden growing above your head, but then imagine your belly opening and your intestines are falling out or there's a snake in your spine. And maybe you're walking with your child feet or you're walking with your feet on ice, your arms are smoke. So you're working with all of these images, what happens if you slow one down, or slow which parts down, and then maybe you'll have a partner who pushes one part of your body so that you're going in one direction, while you're working with these images. And so the interest is not in even being able to create the images, so that they are legible to somebody watching, but how do you work with these images to then get into a particular state of being? And maybe this isn't his intention, but I felt sometimes I might try to stay with some of the images. But when you're working in such a way, maybe all of a sudden I just feel like my body is changing. I'm becoming something other than myself.

HELGA:

So your furniture is being moved around.

OKWUI:

My furniture is being moved around, but not because I'm watching it but because I'm in there fucking with it. And then sometimes you would do that in a stream. Or you would climb up a tree and your partner would be down there, and they would maybe yell an image to you up in the tree. And I'm from the Bronx, I don't climb trees. I don't go into dirty public streams. So this is one of those moments for me of thinking about the imaginative space within, but then also thinking about how my space within is held by, protected by what is without. How the image work I might be doing, how I fall back, but I'm held by the tree or -

HELGA:

And you're also a Black woman. Doing-

OKWUI:

And they let me know that in Japan.

HELGA:

Doing this work. And so say something about that.

OKWUI:

Oh, my gosh.

HELGA:

But even in this country, you're-

OKWUI:

Yeah, yeah.

HELGA:

First say what that means, they let you know that in Japan, and then just talk about-

OKWUI:

I mean, there just weren't many Black people in Japan. And so when I left the Body Weather Farm and went to Tokyo, and just getting onto the subway, every time I had to do such a deep plié to get in, you know what I mean? To avoid hitting my head against the rim of the subway border. And I'd always duck and then get into the car and emerge and stand up straight at my full height. And half of the train cars would look up and be like, "Whoa." Maybe it doesn't happen so much anymore, but, yes, at the time in the '90s.

HELGA:

And that does what? What effect does that have?

OKWUI:

Oh, my goodness, it has the effect of getting really old really quick, because I feel like, “yes, I am this tall," but it starts to feel like, "you know I'm not a monster, right? You know that I'm just a woman, right?" Because I feel like they don't know what they're looking at. And so I'm not going to try to explain because I feel that once you turn away and stop thinking about it… but if you keep looking at me, it's just going to get weirder and weirder for you. Turn away. Be at ease.

But I guess I always felt like, I'm not going to allow that to, in any way, keep me from exploring whatever it is I need to explore. I have a journey that's like, we're all in our bodies. Like, “you who just saw this creature move into the subway, I don't know where you're going from here, how long this memory is going to be with you. So me, the woman, Black woman who is entering the subway, I don't need to carry your memory with me. Or your ideas about what I might or might not be with me beyond this moment. And may it end soon, actually."

HELGA:

And where does that come from? But it takes a kind of strength and knowing and courage and you may not think of it that way, but I think for most people who are navigating spaces where they feel other - and I think that's most of us at least sometimes. How are you navigating that space? And how come you can keep choosing yourself and your experience?

OKWUI:

Because I'm so hard headed.

HELGA:

Ah, Okay. That's one answer.

And do these practices come in to informing your ability to stay grounded?

OKWUI:

Okay. I don't know that I can always stay grounded.

HELGA:

Okay. Stay grounded in that belief.

OKWUI:

In the thing. Yeah. I can't find another belief. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, somehow maybe those practices are a part of it. But maybe it's also I'm too old to do something else. And seriously, because ever since I was a kid, though, in the Bronx, it's like, "Yes, I'm Black, but I'm African." I heard people talk about my family living in the bush, living in trees, girl. And my feeling would be like, "Have you all been to Nigeria? Do you know that people actually don't live..." So as a kid, I was like, "Okay. You guys are making fun of me. You're calling me ugly. You're calling me Black. You're saying I'm from a bush. But I've been to Nigeria. And I've seen how people live and I know that that's not true." So there's also that feeling of I don't know where it comes from to some degree of being like you're saying these things about me, I may be ugly, but I know my parents don't live in trees, or my family didn't live in trees. There was some way in which I was always able to argue back, even if I didn't say it out loud. I would just go past it.

OKWUI:

Where does that come from? Like I said, I was writing since I was like seven and reading and the librarian would bring me books. And let me not forget getting Ntozake Shange's “For Colored Girls” at 15. And reading that and saying, "What is a choreopoem? This is amazing and what is a choreopoem? Oh, I can understand some things about this. And some things I can't and I may never know." And then that comes back in college when every theater group with women of color was doing “For Colored Girls,” and doing it differently. And then it's like, "Oh, so this choreopoem idea is a framework for possibility." And that's Blackness, that's Black women. Here's a framework, and this is possible. The imagination of a framework where something might be possible. I'm not even interested in the outcome at that point. I'm not interested in the outcome. I'm interested in how do I make a framework for the possibility of something that I may not imagine? But I'm curious.

So I feel like somehow that comes in. And, luckily, as a child, there was some instinct in me to, whenever I get pushback or violence, I could just somehow move back. I would get into some fights, because sometimes when you're growing up in the Bronx, and you know this, because you're from the Bronx. There's a time you got to fight, just so that they know you're not easy prey. That was before maybe people might have guns and-

HELGA:

I did all my fighting in Harlem, for the record, since we're talking about it. Between first and fifth grade.

OKWUI:

And how did it feel?

HELGA:

In retrospect, what is fascinating to me about it was how organized it was. That whatever the issue was, came up very quickly. The disagreement tended to be between myself and the same person, always. And then there was an agreement that after school we would fight. And then everybody would go to the yard, we would fight, and then I would go to piano lessons, or wherever I was supposed to... I would go to Harlem Hospital to meet my mom, after her shift was over. But it was very organized. And I was not afraid of that energy in myself. I would fight boys, girls, tall, whatever, taller than me. It didn't matter. Because I was pretty much as I am now, in terms of my body, but I'm scrappy. And there were just certain things I couldn't tolerate.

OKWUI:

And you knew, at that early age, that for people to understand you couldn't tolerate it, you had to fight. And that meant skin to skin. That meant maybe rolling around, hair pull. It's so funny, because I think that's the last thing I want for my daughter. That's the last thing.

HELGA:

So you have a-?

OKWUI:

I have a nine-year-old daughter. That's the last thing, I don't want her to do that. But I have to say when she was a little kid, we were in Italy and she was playing a game with a kid. It was like a football or something, some kind of ball. He grabbed it from her. And I thought they were playing nicely. But at one point you could see she thought, "No, this isn't the way to grab it." And she just jumped on him, tackled it, and they were just rolling around, and it wasn't good and we had to separate them. But inside I felt, "That's right. You make it known. You make it clear." But I wouldn't say that out loud, because, no, that's not how we do things. But there was a little bit of pride. But I don't want her to do that. But at the same time, because she doesn't have any brothers. Do you have…you have like…

HELGA:

Five brothers.

OKWUI:

Older and younger?

HELGA:

No, all older and by many, many, many, many years. So in a way, I'm an only child. And I always think of them as a hand, because they are a year or two between each other and I feel like that's how they grew up. They function like a hand.

OKWUI:

But is that a hand that could protect you and hold you if you needed it? Did you ever feel like that hand was there for that? (short pause) Okay, if you can't answer that, you don't have to.

*emotional silence*

HELGA:

I hadn't thought about that.

*long pause*

OKWUI:

Do you love them?

HELGA:

Well, my answer... I should clean my... (pause) And it's funny how that works, isn't it? Boy. Okay. Tissue, please.

HELGA:

I have a therapist who would say to me that our greatest gifts are born of our deepest wounds. And I think part of how I am in the world, and the kinds of spaces that I'm interested in making, have everything to do with that wound of feeling not protected or needing to protect myself and needing to be medicine in that way. And it's part of my own healing, as well, is to make what I didn't have. That feels like one of my charges.

OKWUI:

That also feels like the charge of human existence. Because it feels like all of the pain and anguish and violence comes from the inability to address the wound. And I think as a culture, we're experiencing that, but as individuals, how do we find that?

HELGA:

And how do you make it in your work?

OKWUI:

I guess it's, I'm not trying to be evasive, either, but there's a part of me, also, that feels there are a number of wounds?

HELGA:

There are wounds and then there are the things that you are curious about.

OKWUI:

Yes. But the things that I am curious about are clearly about making the space for imagination, making the space to go beyond what people imagine you to be. And I'm not talking about reaching levels of virtuosic peaks of technical success and ability. I'm just talking about the space to be deeply flawed and stooped over and hunched and sometimes in a corner deeply afraid. How do I say that you got to do that, you need to do that right now?

HELGA:

And that's part of your work?

OKWUI:

I think so. Yeah. And this also addresses what I was talking to you about being this big, tall, Black woman presence. As Black women, we have always navigated a space in this culture that not only wants to trouble or make problematic the idea of our worth, our humanity, but also our woman-ness. As you know, there are so many ways in which we are outside or othered from spaces of protection and worth and value. And so I guess some people would find power in being considered this tall…

HELGA:

Don't forget regal.

OKWUI:

... regal, authoritative presence. Shouldn't that be great for you? Shouldn't that feel good? But it's no. That continues to relegate me to a particular position and one that you're comfortable with. I don't want to be concerned with your comfort. Do you know what I mean? Yes. Anyway, so I think that…and having to represent something, not wanting to humiliate your parents and make them feel you represent for them, but then also for Black people. What is this space where I don't have to represent for Black people? What is this space where I don't have to represent for my parents? But I think that it is about addressing, for me, just this is enough. This is enough. Because I don't know. I don't necessarily feel that way. 

HELGA:

What is enough, Okwui?

OKWUI:

Whatever I imagine I must investigate, is enough. I don't have to worry about what someone imagines I should be doing. If I say I want to be a performer or an artist, then you imagine, “well, that's fine.” But you imagine maybe - or a dancer - you imagine maybe Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of Harlem.Those are spaces too. But that's not what I mean. You don't see what I mean. And that's okay. You don't need to see what I mean. I'm investigating, so what is it to try to investigate this thing, and it feels so small and so private. But it's an investigation in saying, "Your imagination has value. Where you want to go and what you want to think about has value. Find that. Chase it. It's okay." And if you are the only Black woman here, that's alright, too. Do you know what I mean? So that's the work. That's another kind of work.

OKWUI:

What happens when you're in spaces that are very white, but they're navigating particular spaces you're interested in, aesthetically. But then it's like, "Oh, no, you're not the only... There are Black people doing this. How do I find them?" Because if I was reading about Ntozake Shange when I was 15, don't tell me in 1990-whatever, "I don't know of Black people do this.” But why can I find Ishmael Houston Jones? Why can I find Ralph Lemon? Why can I find BB Miller? What's going on at Urban Bush Women and the women coming out of Urban Bush Women? Well, Grisha Coleman and Hot Mouth. Do you know what I'm saying? So, it was just this, what do you do when you want to navigate these spaces of other people chasing a particular imagination and a possibility and a question? And the most prominent ones are white spaces.

HELGA:

And so, the answer to that is what?

OKWUI:

Research. You just have to keep -

HELGA:

Research and to say…

OKWUI:

You've just got to keep the eyes... 

HELGA:

This is enough.

OKWUI:

This is enough, but almost like a wild eyed, hungry search. This isn't enough. These white people in these experimental spaces, they're fine. I also don't want to be their sort of elegant, really imposing the black specter that's always somehow been over them, or is somehow like a mirror for some dark part of themselves that hovers. I don't want to do that anymore. I don't want to be that and I know I need to make my own shit. But also, there are other Black people doing shit. Chasing something. There are other Black people chasing something, chasing a question, chasing a possibility, creating frameworks that create more questions, because, don't get me wrong. Obviously, the beauty of an Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison doing “Cry” is not something to be fucked with. It's not something to disparage. It is something to express tremendous gratitude for, but it's not the only thing. And so it takes this crazy kind of hunger. Like a wildness, just keep eyes wide open.

I was temping at a place, you know. You do your survival jobs as you work for free at night. And I remember being at a temp job and I would clock all of the Black people. And I would clock the Black people who had dreads, who had a particular diet, whose dreads were dyed a particular way, who had a kind of scent for me. And I would follow them. And I would go where they went. Because I was like, "I know you're there." And that's part of how you do it. You can go to the library too. You can go to the Lincoln Center Library and go to the performing arts library and do some research. *laughing* But, no, I would track people. I guess, it's like you're looking for your tribe. And so that's also part of it. You're not alone, because sometimes I would feel alone.

Image
Image
Fluid
Deliverance
OKWUI
OKPOKWASILI
& HELGA DAVIS