Bronx Gothic – Okwui Okpokwasili
Muscle twitch now spasm, palms flexed and head shake no no yes. Fast heels and feet treading, grounding down but pulsing up. Pelvis everything, heat radiating, sweat, kick sharply, blink, unmissed. In a crowd alone, quick crumple, sudden squeezes, long release.
Okwui Okpokwasili dances in a corner, faced away. Her body; a violent shudder, a pleasurable eruption, a private sexuality.
Okpokwasili puts it into words herself. “The world becomes a universe in my belly.”
Bronx Gothic is a solo performance created and performed by Okpokwasili, with directing and design collaborator Peter Born. Part dance, part spoken monologue, a dream-like personal excavation into the deep histories – both playful and painful – of childhood, of being black, of being a woman, and of discovering the layers of sexuality.
The Bessie-award-winning Okpokwasili premiered Bronx Gothic in 2014 at PS 122, and the work has since toured nationally and internationally, now returning to New York, presented by New York Live Arts.
“I wanna share something with you,” the first words she speaks. This is a storytelling, reminding of times when histories were preserved this way. From gothic horror (her microphone doubles as a menacing under-face light) to coming-of-age schoolbook literature; from beat poetry open-mic to fireside storytelling.
Amidst Born’s domestic marshes of lampshade discards, with light ebbing behind a white curtain backdrop, Okpokwasili reads from private notes passed between 11-year old school girls; frankly exchanged speculations on sex; letters sent to end friendships; lessons in lucid dreaming.
Her text is intricately woven. Okpokwasili moves us back and forth in time seamlessly, literarily disorienting but never lost. Autobiography and fiction dissolve into each other, as do the experiences of her characters; herself, a best friend, a boyfriend, a mother; all reside in her transforming body.
What unfolds is a portrait of collective experiences, transcending the purely personal. The fear and aggression instilled by a young mother’s rhyming wisdom “When bitches bleed, they lose speed.” A stream of racial abuse transformed into a break-neck poetry. The vivid torment of hellish dreams; bodies burning in boiling oceans.
At one moment, we are revealed to Okpokwasili, the lights encompassing the audience. Our relationship to observing is one of mannered composure.
As a point of contrast, at a recent night of performance titled afroFUTUREqu##r – an evening of “Afro-future-queer” performances curated by Thomas F. DeFrantz and niv Acosta – the culture of that audience, more predominately African-American, was to engage directly with the performance; to speak to the performers, to sing along when music was sung, to clap out rhythms for the performer to dance to, all without invitation required. The exchange was overwhelmingly celebratory.
Okpokwasili is speaking to a different audience, and she is conscious of this context. She is looking to us across a distance, aware of how far we may feel from each other’s experiences, but inviting us to imagine our togetherness.
But her physicality… it is something so vital, performing seems an essence of her. She is a magnet for the gaze, her “belly” the center of an ever-expanding creation. Every narrative she tells can be profoundly understood in her opening dance, before the language translates it for us. Her pain, pleasure, fear, shame, sociality, sexuality; I know it through this quivering aggressive ritual. Embodied wisdom bursting.