When Nora Chipaumire comes bounding onstage this weekend in Miami, the Brooklyn-based dancer will be costumed as a champion boxer, shielded by shoulder pads, gloves, baggy black pants and West African talismans. Her two opponents, Shamar Watt and Pape Ibrahima N'diaye, will snarl like warriors and pound their puffed-out chests. Chipaumire, meanwhile, will invoke her late father's name, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, a man she barely remembers.
Her battle is more emotional than any boxing match. Chipaumire is really swinging at the troubled history of black masculinity in "Portrait of Myself as My Father," a dizzying play whose stage is a makeshift boxing ring. The experimental dance work (the word "father" is crossed out on the playbill), which she wrote and directed, will kick off the 2016-17 Miami-Dade College's Live Arts season Oct. 14-15 at the Goldman Warehouse at Miami Light Project in Wynwood.
Raised by her mother and sisters in Zimbabwe, Chipaumire says the work was inspired by her estranged father, who died in 1980 and left the family when she was 5. The long absense of her father provoked questions about black manhood, stereotypes and racism in Africa and America, she says.
"I cast my dad as a superhero as I try to negotiate for the black man," says Chipaumire, also a choreographer, reached by phone in New York. "I play my own father, and he is fighting history, fighting for survival and the black man's role in Western democracy, which is the Jeffersonian idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Chipaumire doesn't trade jabs in the boxing ring so much as fire off a booming manifesto to her two cohorts onstage, Watt and N'diaye, who she says function as "specters of my father."
In writing the project, Chipaumire says she discovered that her father wasn't the deadbeat dad she imagined he was. He was a rural schoolteacher, a complex intellectual with a drinking problem who couldn't hack fatherhood.
"He wasn't a monster," Chipaumire says. "But this isn't really a project of forgiveness. I'm grappling with my relationship with the men in my life. My father navigated Western ways of life as a schoolteacher, instead of as a traditional African farmer."
A boxing ring is an apt anology for the black male, Chipaumire says. Like prizefighters, African males were historically marketed and sold based on strength, endurance and charisma.
"It's the stereotype of the mandingo, the negro superathlete, who are masters of strength and sexual gymnastics," Chipaumire says. "These are the stereotypes I see. People think Africa is a place where environmentalists go to save trees and elephants. I'm interested in saving people."
Chipaumire, who has collaborated with Miami Light Project and MDC Live Arts three times since 2012, has devoted her nonprofessional life to teaching dance classes in Zimbabwe, including in her hometown, Zarare. MDC Live Arts director Kathryn Garcia came to know Chipaumire through her two earlier productions at the college, the autobiographical work "Chimurenga" and a performance based on South African activist-singer Miriam Makeba.
Describing "Portrait of Myself as My Father" as "topical and necessary," Garcia says the play addresses black masculinity during a period when racially fueled violence persists in the news.
"She's not afraid to get messy with the play, to tackle all the difficult racial issues about the examination of black males," Garcia says. "It's really a gutsy piece."
"Nora Chipaumire: Portrait of Myself as My Father" will be performed 8 p.m. Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., in Miami. Admission is $30. Call 305-576-4350 or go to MiamiLightProject.com.
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