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IMPRESSIONS OF: Okwui Okpokwasili's "Bronx Gothic"

IMPRESSIONS OF: Okwui Okpokwasili's "Bronx Gothic"
Garnet Henderson/Follow @garnethenderson on Twitter

By Garnet Henderson/Follow @garnethenderson on Twitter
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Published on October 28, 2015
Photo: Ian Douglas

A Captivating Force of Extremes

New York Live Arts

October 21-24, 2015

Writing, performance, and sound design by Okwui Okpokwasili

Direction, visual, and sound design by Peter Born

When the audience is ushered into the theater for Okwui Okpokwasili's Bronx Gothic, she is already deep into her performance. She faces an upstage corner, her entire body vibrating, shaking, and jerking in tremors both wild and minute. They seem to travel from the ground, through her feet, and up the entire length of her body. Her back, exposed by the low, scooping cut of her dress, glistens with sweat.

The New York Live Arts theater has been transformed. Seating is on the stage. To get there, audience members descend through the empty house and through a white, semitransparent curtain to find seats on two sides of the small, enclosed space. Lamps and house plants are gathered around the edges of the space like little archipelagoes. Diagonally across from where Okpokwasili remains fixed in place and yet moving furiously, a microphone stands alone, surrounded by folded pieces of lined paper that look like they've been ripped from a notebook.

Okwui lays on the ground in a magenta halter dress. Notebook paper and plants litter the flower. Lamps are haphazardly tipped over.
Photo: Ian Douglas

Gradually, playground noises begin to come through the speakers. They are soon punctuated by a jarring, intermittent beat. As the music continues, Okpokwasili's dancing heightens in intensity. Her arms become more involved, swinging out and up at surprising angles. Sometimes she gesticulates and mouths words, as though she's in an argument, and at other moments retreats back into herself. All the while she is facing a back corner, turned away from the audience.

When the music stops and she whips around to face us, it is startling. All of a sudden she turns her piercing gaze on her spectators, boldly making eye contact as she makes her way toward the microphone. When she reaches it, there is another abrupt change in tone: casually and conversationally she says, "I want to share something with you."

Okpokwasili then begins to weave her story, reading from notes passed between two 11-year-old black girls growing up in the Bronx. They talk about sex, dreams, and friendship, but also sexual abuse and nightmares, and trade nasty insults in the way only adolescents can. They grapple with internalized racism and sexism, and deep, deep hurt. Okpokwasili's voice is just as expressive as her body -- she stretches its range to suggest innocence, experience, love, and viciousness.

Okwui holds a piece of plastic around her hairline like a scarf. Her skin glistens with sweat.
Photo: Ian Douglas

The quick emotional shifts continue throughout Bronx Gothic, but in a way that never feels disconnected. Often, opposing feelings are present simultaneously -- Okpokwasili shows us that playfulness and dread, joy and rage can coexist in us as we grow up and continue into adulthood.

Bronx Gothic is truly absorbing, by turns funny and devastating. Much of this can be credited to Okpokwasili's authority as a performer. She is utterly captivating. Her presence expands to fill the space at every moment, and she draws us along with her to the highest peaks and deepest, darkest valleys. Hers is a rare and beautiful talent, and Bronx Gothic explodes with it.


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