The core image of Portrait of Myself as My Father, presented during the final days of this year's Philly Fringe Festival, was unforgettable. Created by Zimbabwean choreographer Nora Chipaumire, center stage was a boxing ring with white ribbon ropes. A cord bound Chipaumire to dancer co-star, Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (aka Kaolack), but they were also tethered by wires to a rear balcony.
You got the idea. Even as Chipaumire exhorted her father to assume a true masculinity, it took shape within a larger context that constricted and confined.
A third dancer - athletic, Jamaican-born Shamar Watt - strutted around the ring, both an enabler and an interested observer. At the end he jumped inside, knocking over the posts and demanding to know "what is this all about." Carrying Kaolack on her back, Chipaumire told him: "It is about my father."
Chipaumire lost her own father at an early age. (In the title, the word Father is crossed out). In this work, she imagines the reality of the African man. Her Kaolack is a wildly changeable fellow, simultaneously free and enslaved. Fittingly, the performance venue was a transitory place, the rear loading dock of the Philadelphia Art Museum - a perfect site for identities in flux.
The dancers moved lantern lights around so you were always seeing them differently as they threw great shadows on the walls. Sometimes Kaolack assumed the form of an elite athlete - a boxer or runner in the mold of an Ali or Bolt. Sometimes he transformed himself into an effete man. But often he simply stalked about the stage and glowered at the audience in such savage anger he scared the pants off you.
Costuming was ragtag and bizarre, as though these lives were pure improvisation. Wires and chords did not stop Chipaumire from undulating to scores of dance forms as she shouted encouragements and taunts at her father. The dancers were equally mercurial toward the audience, mocking and teasing but also asking for our applause, suggesting an unsettled need for approval.
And mind you, this was only "Round One." Chipaumire invited the audience to return on Saturday night for the last show, "Round Two," implying this match is far from over, and that the African struggle and our uneasy relationship with each other is likely to go on for some time.