A fever dream’s fractured sounds and images pulsed in “Poor People’s TV Room,” the multidisciplinary work that ran for two performances at the American Dance Institute in Rockville this weekend. Conceived and co-written by New York-based writer, performer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili, the 90-minute piece tossed up a farrago of movement, spoken word and scenic picture. There’s a hallucinatory anecdote about a woman growing a tail, another about an embodied time machine. A faceoff between two dancers whose feet drummed the same insistent rhythm. A mysterious tinsel-bright figure glimmering through a translucent sheet. Periodic allusions to Oprah Winfrey.
Further complicating the package were the show’s announced historical inspirations (mentioned in the advance billing): the 1929 Igbo Women’s War (a protest against the British colonial regime in Nigeria) and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign (calling for the safe return of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram in 2014). It all made for a jarring and occasionally mystifying brew, as Okpokwasili and three other performers — Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young — spoke or danced (writhing yoga poses, solos with twitching arms and more), sometimes against a background of clanking or droning sounds.
Contributing to the bleak mood was the set, initially framed by translucent sheeting. (Okpokwasili’s frequent collaborator Peter Born directed and co-wrote the show and designed the lighting and scenic elements.) The set featured, in one corner, the likeness of a room rooted in a vertical plane — so that figures who were, from our viewpoint, lying down seemed to be standing upright. Reinforcing the illusion, an onstage television set played footage of this area, reoriented to a normal perspective. The conceit emphasized the show’s overarching theme: women perceiving or envisioning themselves — often self-consciously, as if from the outside — in the context of a discordant world.
“Poor People’s TV Room” was at its most frustrating when it featured overlapping conversations that were impossible to understand. It was at its most appealing in its final moments, when all the performers moved in sync for the first time, softly stomping while chanting singsong lines that evoked resilient women defying adversity.