During her childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, South Asian Indian poet Shailja Patel had the distinct feeling that her world could disappear at any moment, and for good reason. In 1972, neighboring country Uganda expelled its South Asian residents, many of whom had called Africa home for generations. “I grew up very much with this sense of ‘we don’t have a future here,'” says the Oakland-based artist.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Patel’s one-woman show, “Migritude,” addresses the immigrant experience. The performance piece combines spoken word, dance, photography and 18 traditional Indian saris to unravel the notion of otherness and to explore those parts of immigrant identity that become altered, changed and sometimes lost within another culture’s dominating forces. The name of the play is a term Patel coined herself. Derived from the words “migrant,” “attitude” and “negritude,” it refers to, in Patel’s words, “a generation of migrants who don’t feel the need to be silent to protect themselves.”
The brightly colored saris Patel folds and unfolds, wraps about her body, and waves overhead during her performance are much more than props. For 30 years, Patel’s mother collected the saris for her daughter’s trousseau. Instead of passively protecting and adorning her body as they might have, had she married and remained in her native country, the garments have become active participants in Patel’s quest to reveal and celebrate otherness through rhythmic language, movement, and sharp observations about the mind, body and spirit.
Directed by Kim Cook, “Migritude” is Patel’s first one-woman show. Since arriving in the United States in 1997, Patel has been an active participant in the Bay Area’s slam poetry movement. She has won championships in competitions, including the Santa Cruz Poetry Slam and the Lambda Literary Festival, and has participated in events at colleges and cultural institutions ranging from Yale University to the Artwallah Festival in Los Angeles. She has performed in New York City’s Javits Center and Lincoln Center, San Francisco’s ODC Theatre, and many other venues.