It would take years to document the crimes of European colonialism, and nora chipaumire only has three days. So the choreographer focuses on what she knows best — the outrages the British perpetrated in her native Zimbabwe. “Nehanda,” the immersive theater work in three parts that chipaumire’s pickup company premiered Sept. 16-18 at Montclair State University, plunges us into an ongoing struggle for freedom and human dignity.
The opening salvo in this season’s Peak Performances series at the Alexander Kasser Theater, “Nehanda” provided an extraordinary multi-sensory experience that felt at times chaotic, but was never less than thrilling.
To break the grip of colonial power, chipaumire began by dismantling the conventions of European theater, in which performers typically address themselves to the shadow of a royal presence seated in the auditorium. Instead, in “Nehanda” viewers were invited to join the community that chipaumire created onstage.
“Invited” is not the same thing as “commanded,” however, and we were free to sit on plastic milk crates scattered among the performers, or in the usual auditorium seats. We were at liberty to come and go. At the end of a show, the performers simply wandered off without the usual smiles and groveling for applause. In Part Three, viewers were offered microphones, and given a chance to speak. Few had anything to say, however, and perhaps the most important takeaway from “Nehanda” was the way our social structures — even our theaters — have conditioned us to silence and passivity. We think of ourselves as free, but genuine freedom disconcerts us, just as genuine involvement requires independent thought and action.
Chipaumire has described “Nehanda” as a “juridical opera” because her jumping off point was the 1896 trial of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, a Shona leader whose ability to channel an ancestral “lion spirit” encouraged resistance to British rule in Africa. Rather than present 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 who continue to seek our enslavement. Gwinyai Rutsito is credited with the piece’s “Shona spiritual dramaturgy.”
Part One contrasted the joyous beauty of African song and dance with the pompous antics of a monarch-clown (Peter van Heerden) who pretended to lord it over the assembly. In a nighttime atmosphere watched over by stars and illumined by twinkling miners’ lamps, the troupe’s musicians produced gorgeous sonorities with polyrhythms and singing. Van Heerden, as the “queen,” intruded into this musical wonderland in grotesque whiteface, swanning and extending a hand to be kissed. Chipaumire could not have chosen a more perfect gesture to illustrate the undead spirit of feudalism, since only two weeks ago, Britain’s incoming prime minister abased herself before Elizabeth’s royal hand. At Montclair, van Heerden’s bogus “queen” found no knuckle-kissers — thank goodness.
Dancers traversed the space individually at first, moving with an exaggerated slowness that transported us to a mystic realm. Later they found solidarity in an upstage “prison,” forming their own dancing architecture within its slatted walls. Perhaps it was the inmates’ ability to enter a spiritual dimension that allowed them gradually to escape and melt away.
Chipaumire joined in the singing, and often addressed the crowd. Though it could be difficult to understand her, at one point she demanded that Nehanda’s stolen bones be returned to her native land. Union Jacks hung menacingly over the auditorium, while projections included a photo of the signers of the Rudd Concession (a surrender of mineral rights) and one that depicted the 1884 Berlin conference at which European powers conspired to create a legal framework for African colonization. Falling over one another in their greed, these powers dignified their chaotic scramble for resources with the word “civilization.” Technological development is not synonymous with civilization, however, as we may yet learn.
Part Two featured passionate drumming and an outpouring of energetic dancing. Maintaining her place in a grand circle, chipaumire tossed her head while her body bent and feinted, and her midriff vibrated. This evening had a Christian theme, however, and soon the choreographer was at the microphone again calling for the New Jerusalem. Instead, we got the suicide of Judas, played by tyroneisaacstuart, who danced his way into a noose. A resurrection occurred, when McIntosh “SoKo” Jerahuni performed a stamping solo on an upstage platform, his shadow dodging on the wall behind him. The cast exited, mournfully blowing horns.
In Part Three all Hell broke loose, as the murmuring community began to chant, “No peace, no justice.” Sirens were heard, and megaphones distributed. Everyone was interviewed, but no one could be understood. We had already heard chipaumire recite excerpts from the long “Bill of Rights” that hung in a scroll from the rafters: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, Everywhere is War.”
Finally the cast abandoned us, and the cacophony was replaced by silence — a silence that felt disturbing since it was now our turn to act.
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