Poet explores past and present identity

Students at the College are familiar with the concept of splintered identity. In fact, it’s what we come to expect: that individuals are a jumble of often incoherent perspectives and cultures. Shailja Patel’s Bwagamoyo, the second part of her series, Migritude, simultaneously upended and reinforced this notion with a fusion of spoken word poetry and scenes that drew upon both Kenya’s history and her own experiences.

From the very beginning of the performance, it was clear that Patel made a priority of drawing her audience in; many of the audience members were most likely unfamiliar with the political and social issues Kenya has struggled with over the past half century. The performance opened with Patel and her fellow performer, Owiso Odera, singing what was undeniably “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with all the accompanying motions – in Swahili. The song is a familiar throwback to childhood for audiences across the world, but Patel quickly tied it into her own story, turning her attention to all the body parts left out of the song – the soft and vulnerable parts in between the head and knees – to structure a series of poems and short, two-character scenes about her childhood and family.

The setting was used to great effect, though it consisted only of two chairs, two music stands and a projector screen. The music stand, in fact, was given a surprising poignancy: The idea of the neck, the spine and the back (and all the allusions that accompany them) were central to the play, and as different pieces exhibited everything from strength to corruption to regret, the performers smoothly slid the stand up or down. It was a simple movement, but each time it magnified the symbolism of the piece they were performing.

The pieces themselves were split roughly into two acts. The first centered around Patel’s own personal history: A Kenyan whose family hailed from India, she struggled with sexism, racism and homophobia at home and abroad when she moved first to England to pursue higher education and then on to California as she practiced poetry and performance. Though the particulars of her story were certainly unique, the representation of self in this act was familiar to this audience: She portrayed identity as an individual, personal matter, centered on the attributes that made her different from most people. In this way, the material of the first half of Bwagamoyo was immediately relatable.

The break between the two acts was fitting, as it seemed to represent a tipping point between a period in her life when, despite originating from Kenya, she did not prioritize “Kenyan” as a part of her identity, and a later one when her homeland became her primary focus. At that time, the other aspects of her identity seemed to melt into the background. Accordingly, the pieces shifted from personal accounts to ones about the escalating political crisis in Kenya, championing democratization versus the long-standing crony dictatorial power. Patel maintained ties to the previous act through the ongoing metaphor of the body and the continued theme of the “old men” who perpetuate oppression: In the first act, it was her father, while in the second, it was the powerful men attempting to hold back the development of democracy for their own gain.

Though the story as a whole was compelling, some of the individual pieces felt forced or melodramatic. Granted, my familiarity with American spoken word poetry made Patel’s British accent sound stiff and clumsy, which may reflect more on my background than the inherent quality of the poems themselves. Nonetheless, she frequently performed the poems with corresponding symbolic gestures, which took away from the sincerity of the words themselves. As for the scenes, both performers read from the music stands, which made the performance feel that much more scripted, especially as the actors were depicting Patel and her family.

Despite these minor distractions, Patel’s innovative combinations of the personal and the political, of poetry and playwriting, left me with plenty to mull over. One poem in particular exemplified her creative approach: The verse of “How Big is Your Voice?” rhythmically swaps words between lines, in the process completely jumbling parts of speech. Even though the poem was at first glance a mess, the meaning was a clear, powerful statement on finding the strength to speak out. Much as she did in  the larger work, Patel created a message out of a tangled mass of stories that not only resonated with her audience but also gave us a fresh perspective.

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