In the anti-colonial 'Nehanda' at ArtsEmerson the stirring beat goes on (and on)
Interrogating what the body holds is central to Nora Chipaumire’s art. The Zimbabwe-born creative has developed numerous choreographic concert pieces performed worldwide, including “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” which considers the struggle of the “African male through the lens of capitalism, Christianity, colonialism and liberation.” Chipaumire’s latest offering, “Nehanda,” at ArtsEmerson through May 21, feels like it lives deep in the body, rumbling, roiling, and exploding forth through guttural vocalizations, movement, and percussion.
When produced in full in New York last September at the Alexander Kasser Theater, the five to six hour-long work was performed over several days. The version of the show at ArtsEmerson is roughly two hours sans intermission, but it still feels a tad too long.
At the start, the group of performers stands in a circle, ushering the crowd in by lightly shaking netted maracas that produce the sound of steady rain on glass. Numerous unreadable papers are suspended from the ceiling, and small lantern-like lights are all around the stage, beneath milk crates and hung from above. Some audience members sit on crates onstage and become immersed in the concert. The entire theater is aglow in red as the light filters through a British flag, and a big noose hangs above a big black barrel to the left of the stage.
There’s no narrator or text to provide a sense of place or context within the slice of “Nehanda” that’s on offer. After watching and experiencing the musical movements Chipaumire and the other artists journey through, it becomes clear how the audience might rely on text, familiar dialogue or multi-media projections for comfort. Without it, they must listen with their spirits and trust that the artist will shepherd them through.
The first several songs move at a feverish pace and evoke a visceral reaction in this audience member. I want to move and sing along in the call and response as I pick up the rhythms and patterns. The music-making thunders ferociously, and it’s easy to get caught up in the expansive soundscape the artists create. Even without understanding the language used by the vocalists, I am not untouched by its beauty. After a while, it almost seems too sacred to watch and, for me, calls to mind elders in the American Black church tarrying for hours, hoping to catch the holy spirit. Later in the show, Christianity does show up with a bit of scripture being preached and Chipaumire uttering what sounds like “blood and the bible.”
The show, or concert really, was conceived as an opera with its narrative rooted in history. The work centers on Nehanda, an ancestral spirit that the Shona people of Zimbabwe and central Mozambique revere that only uses women as mediums. In the late 19th century, Nehanda's medium was Charwe Nyakasikana, who orchestrated the first uprisings in British-occupied Southern Rhodesia in 1896 and 1897. Charwe helped lead Chimurenga (“War of Liberation”) against British settlers in Mashonaland (now in Zimbabwe) in 1896. Later, she and four others were captured, put on trial, and killed by the British.
Chipaumire writes on her site that Nehanda offers a legal and philosophical defense for the first heroes of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and that the libretto stems from the court case “The Queen vs. Nehanda” (1898).
The second part of the show slows down a little. I catch the word “Nehanda” in one of the songs, and the male performers move more slowly, a careful, exaggerated processional that might nod to the anti-colonial resistance via uprisings that this work is built around.
More than an hour into the show, despite the heartfelt music with its intense harmonies, driving drum beats, along with other instrumentation and dance, I still feel like I’m waiting for something to happen. Finally, as restlessness settles within, something does happen. The music turns ominous; a bright, shrill soprano sings and the show reaches its pinnacle. And still, the show persists.
Chipaumire points out in her online description of the work that the performance is an immersive, “durational spectacle…” But when the show ended as the last musician, a saxophonist, headed out, and the lights came on, I still hoped for the reward of some sort of conclusion for enduring.
“Nehanda” runs through May 21 at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theater.