MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
That verbal formula of dynastic continuity, often spoken in recent days, came out of the mouth of the choreographer and performer Nora Chipaumire on Friday, but it came out barbed with sarcasm.
Chipaumire invoked the phrase in her new work, “Nehanda,” which received its world premiere this weekend at the Alexander Kasser Theater here, as part of the Peak Performances series.
The title invokes a different continuity, naming an ancestral spirit of the Shona people said to possess and guide various women throughout history, including Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana (1840-1898), who led a late 19th-century revolt against the occupation by the British South Africa Company of the land now known as Zimbabwe.
Chipaumire was born and raised in that land. And when she mentioned the coronation of Charles III and said “long may he reign,” it wasn’t with great warmth. “Nehanda” is definitely anticolonial.
What else it wants to convey is less clear. The full work is around six hours long. At Peak Performances, it was divided into three two-hour chapters, one performed each day through Sunday. I attended only the first chapter, “Natives | Empire | Jail,” and although Chipaumire calls “Nehanda” a “juridical opera” incorporating song and dance, this introductory section felt more like a concert, one more atmospheric than illuminating.
The stage had been converted into something like a shebeen: a pub, an African juke joint, with plastic crates for seats and lanterns for lighting. British flags hung from the rigging, along with handwritten banners reproducing the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Audience members had the option of sitting onstage or in the theater seats. Especially since, for much of the time, the view of the stage from the house was blocked by flats, it was better to take a seat on a crate, close to the band.
This was an eight-piece ensemble that produced a rolling river of groove. The mbira, or thumb piano, provided the main current, joined by percussion and guitar and topped by vocals in many languages other than English: ululations, choral harmonies, the growl or patter of McIntosh Jerahuni, the clarion call of the wonderful Fatima Katiji. As one song smoothly seeped into the next, listening to the music was pleasant and sufficient in itself.
But this wasn’t just a concert. Male dancers periodically moved through the space in floating slow motion, carrying their crate-seats with them, brushing close by audience members. And Chipaumire eventually spoke, alluding to the history of her homeland and the “good people who refused.” “There is so much to work through,” she said, and “No words are enough.”
Rather than words there was the performance artist Peter van Heerden, a large white man wearing nothing but leopard-print underwear, who put on white makeup, a white wig and a hoop dress missing its fabric to incarnate a travesty of Queen Victoria (in whose name the British South Africa Company did its colonizing). Van Heerden opened his arms to receive adulation and offered his hands to be kissed. He sent up imperial power with muscle poses and pelvic thrusts, laughing maniacally, weeping, warbling “Jerusalem” and “God Save the Queen.”
For a moment, it looked like there might be a confrontation — some drama, some story — between this bedraggled queen and the always formidable Chipaumire. Instead, the band played on. Whatever “Nehanda” is working through, it works through it slowly.
After a while, Chipaumire and the dancers crowded into a wooden pen or jail cell and started a singing-and-stepping sequence of compressed power. As the sequence repeated, one performer after another gradually left for the exit, the others remaining as if they hadn’t yet realized that the cell door was open. All along and after all the performers were gone, we in the audience could hear the music still going, somewhere past the exit.
Was that the sound of revolution brewing? The first part of “Nehanda” didn’t reveal an answer.
Performed Friday at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair, N.J.