It takes a few seconds for the stage to come into focus, but once it does, you soon realize you’re in the presence of a someone with a special, sacred magnetism. Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, the South African performance artist, sits in a cushioned armchair at the top of the stage — a throne, although weathered and turned away from the audience, from which his image, in a live video feed, is projected onto the rear wall of New York Live Arts, larger than life.
With his back to the crowd, the immensity of his rippling flesh isn’t yet discernible. Later he uses his size to his advantage; as for now, he’s a heap of white fabric. But even though he’s bound, mummy-like, in cloth, and beneath that, strips of Saran Wrap, you can still sense his prickly power. Gradually, he breaks through his cocoon and emerges — with some twists and turns involving juicy oranges and references to dictators, including (in a video) a dancing Vladimir Putin — into something like a butterfly.
In this one-man show by the veteran South African choreographer Robyn Orlin — political, poignant and mercifully funny — Khoza, stunningly loose and in command of the crowd, reveals a quick mind and lissome physicality. He’s almost a stand-up comedian. The evening-length work, “And so you see … our honorable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice …,” copresented by French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival, is also Orlin’s New York City debut. (Long titles are her thing.)
Aptly felt are the words, “And so you see.” As Khoza becomes more and more visible, so does the heart of this work: how Khoza — a healer, a dancer, a Black man, a gay man — leads the way into the future. Or at least the fantasy of what a future could be. All the while he exposes and revels in those ever-familiar sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. Mozart’s “Requiem” plays off and on; Khoza sings along.
Once he is unwrapped from the cloth by Thabo Pule, the production’s video and sound manager who otherwise sits behind a table at the back of the stage manning a camera, Khoza is still bound tightly in plastic. It covers all of him but his nose and mouth, which gives his flesh a translucent glow and makes, through the moving mound of his abdomen, his breathing visible. Gleaming under Laïs Foulc’s stark lighting, Khoza holds a bowl of oranges and a knife and peels one before slicing pieces and jamming them into his mouth. Laughing all the while like a deranged sword swallower, he licks the blade and shoves it even deeper down his throat. His knife skills are laudable.
Eventually he uses the knife to cut through the cellophane, slicing it clean as if it were flesh. He ravages oranges, tearing their skins with his teeth and dripping juice down his throat and over his body. It’s a mess. It’s funny. He shines the lights on the crowd and asks for two people in the audience to come onstage. “I know I’m from Africa,” he says. “But I do not bite. I am not a savage.”
He sprays his body with water and gives the volunteers washcloths to wipe him clean, guiding them along with lines like “You’re not just cleaning the counter” and “focus on my toes.” Khoza seems to be one of those people who can turn any old thing into a party. He transforms himself into a Nubian queen, layering his fingers with sparkling rings while getting ready for a special date. It turns out to be with Putin.
When Putin appears on video — dancing like an awkward marionette, with a jerky, persistent rhythm — Khoza, at first, flirts and giggles like a schoolgirl, but then becomes incensed when Putin stops moving: “What, you don’t want to dance with me because I am a man? Or you don’t want to dance with me because I am a Black man? Which one is it?”
“And so you see” can slide into the obvious, but Khoza has a way of steering this ship into deeper layers, richer dimensions. He has such buoyancy and wit that even when the subject matter is dark, he manages to bathe the stage in light. In the end, he paints his body blue, staining the skin on his face, his back, his legs. “You see, my friend Putin, that it is better to dance with your weapons than to kill with them,” he says. “It is better to dance than to kill.”
He traverses the stage, wrapping a feather and fabric concoction by the costume designer Marianne Fassler around his body, as he vocalizes mournfully: a requiem for a new generation. Pule comes close again, this time projecting a photograph onto Khoza’s body: a boy wearing butterfly wings and holding a gun. A child who has already become an adult, a soldier. It veers into heavy-handed territory. Khoza, though, is mesmerizing. He is the butterfly, and this work wouldn’t survive without him.
“And so you see … our honorable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice …”
Through Saturday at New York Live Arts; newyorklivearts.org.