At Peak Performances, nora chipaumire’s dynamic “Nehanda” explores the struggle for freedom

PHOTOS MARINA LEVITSKAYA

Choreographer nora chipaumire performed in her own “Nehanda” at Montclair State University, September 16-18.

It would take years to document the crimes of European colonialism, and nora chipaumire is only three days old. The choreographer therefore focuses on what she knows best: the atrocities committed by the British in her native Zimbabwe. “Nehanda,” the immersive three-part play that Chipaumire’s pickup truck company premiered Sept. 16-18 at Montclair State University, immerses us in an ongoing struggle for freedom and human dignity.

The opening salvo to this season’s Peak Performances series at the Alexander Kasser Theater, “Nehanda” provided an extraordinary multi-sensory experience that felt chaotic at times, but was never less than thrilling.

nora chipaumire in “Nehanda”.

To break the grip of colonial power, Chipaumire began by dismantling the conventions of European theater, in which performers typically address the shadow of a royal presence seated in the auditorium. Instead, in “Nehanda,” viewers were invited to join the community chipaumire created on stage.

“Invited” is not the same as “ordered”, however, and we were free to sit on plastic milk crates scattered among the performers, or in the usual seats in the auditorium. We were free to come and go. At the end of a show, the performers simply walked away without the usual smiles and crawling for applause. In the third part, viewers were offered microphones and given the opportunity to speak. Few people had anything to say, however, and perhaps the most important lesson of “Nehanda” was how our social structures – even our theaters – have conditioned us into silence and passivity. We think of ourselves as free, but true freedom baffles us, just as true involvement requires independent thought and action.

Chipaumire has described “Nehanda” as a “legal opera” because its starting point was the 1896 trial of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, a Shona chief whose ability to channel an ancestral “lion spirit” encouraged resistance to the British rule in Africa. Rather than presenting the drama of Nehanda’s trial and execution à la Joan of Arc, however, Chipaumire has fashioned a ritual that both summons Nehanda’s spirit and exorcises the demons that continue to seek our enslavement. Gwinyai Rutsito is credited with the play’s “Shona spiritual dramaturgy”.

Peter van Heerden in “Nehanda”.

The first part contrasted the joyful beauty of African song and dance with the pompous antics of a monarch-clown (Peter van Heerden) who claimed to dominate the assembly. In a nocturnal atmosphere watched over by the stars and lit by the twinkling of miners’ lamps, the musicians of the troupe produced magnificent sounds with polyrhythms and songs. Van Heerden, as “Queen”, burst into this musical wonderland with a grotesque white face, waving and reaching out a hand to be kissed. Chipaumire could not have chosen a more perfect gesture to exemplify the undead spirit of feudalism, as only two weeks ago Britain’s new Prime Minister bowed before Elizabeth’s royal hand. In Montclair, van Heerden’s fake “queen” didn’t find finger kisses – thank goodness.

The dancers first crossed the space individually, moving with an exaggerated slowness that transported us to a mystical realm. Later, they found solidarity in a secluded “prison”, forming their own dance architecture within its slatted walls. It is perhaps the inmates’ ability to enter a spiritual dimension that gradually enabled them to escape and blend in.

Chipaumire joins in the singing and often addresses the crowd. Although it may be difficult to understand her, at one point she demanded that Nehanda’s stolen bones be returned to her homeland. Union Jacks hung menacingly above the auditorium, while projections included a photo of the signers of the Rudd Concession (a surrender of mining rights) and a photo that depicted the 1884 Berlin Conference during which European powers conspired to create a legal framework for African colonization. Falling on each other in their greed, these powers graced their chaotic scramble for resources with the word “civilization.” However, technological development is not synonymous with civilization, as we can still learn.

tyroneisaacstuart in “Nehanda”.

The second part featured passionate drumming and an energetic dance outpouring. Keeping her place in a large circle, chipaumire shook her head as her body arched and feigned, and her belly vibrated. This evening, however, had a Christian theme, and soon the choreographer was on the microphone again calling for New Jerusalem. Instead, we got the suicide of Judas, played by tyroneisaacstuart, who slammed his way into a noose. A resurrection occurred, when McIntosh “SoKo” Jerahuni performed a stamping solo on a backstage platform, his shadow dodging on the wall behind him. The cast walked out, sadly blowing horns.

In part three, all hell broke loose, as the whispering community began chanting, “No peace, no justice.” Sirens were heard and megaphones distributed. Everyone was questioned, but no one could be understood. We had already heard chipaumire reciting extracts from the long “Bill of Rights” hung on the rafters: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and definitively discredited and abandoned, Everywhere it is war.”

Eventually the cast gave up on us and the cacophony was replaced by silence – a silence that felt unsettling since it was now up to us to act.

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