It was already dark as we entered the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater Saturday night. We could make out the back wall of the stage and, in front, a geometric design roughly resembling a large "W." The rest was littered with light fixtures, rocks and other barely discernible shapes.
Then it started getting darker, possibly in order to shed light on "Miriam," Nora Chipaumire's latest performance piece ... and her best.
The dripping water from a plastic bottle, suspended front and center, started to take on a whole new significance. It was part of Ms. Chipaumire's grand plot to play with the senses, perhaps to hear the dance and see the music with images so vibrant that it all toyed with any commonplace perceptions.
A door opened from the back. Heavy feet hit the stairs to the stage. The light fastened to the performer's head played over the stage. There was a leg extended from a pile of rocks.
We heard small cries of anguish. Or were they squeaks? Then low grunts, like a male voice. How many performers were present?
"You should always remember to smile" -- or something like that -- came from the sound score. Somehow it was something both ominous and magnificent. At that point, I became a willing hostage.
By her own admission, Ms. Chipaumire was inspired by South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, with religious elements gleaned from the Christian source, Mother Mary. But this "Miriam" took on a whole mesmerizing life of its own as the hourlong piece, brilliant in its own right, progressed.
There were a mirror and a laughing duet, dazzlingly performed by Ms. Chipaumire and her magnificent partner, Okwui Okpokwasili. Mocking? Celebratory? Both? There were primitive squats and then Ms. Chipaumire washed the paint from her face.
The layers overlapped, sometimes uncomfortably, but gradually weaving a dance fabric that was as rich and curious as the continent itself. This became a work about Africa, then about what it means to be a woman, a mother.
It hit home. And I smiled.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at email@example.com. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com. First Published April 23, 2013 4:00 AM