I looked up “Gothic” in a couple of dictionaries and found among the variable definitions this: “of or
relating to a style of writing that describes strange or frightening events that take place in mysterious places.” Perfect. Bronx Gothic is aptly named. It is a one-woman show performed by its writer, Okwui Okpokwasili. The writing is a memoir of strange and frightening events that took place in the Bronx and within the complex lives of two girls on the verge of becoming teen-agers. The show is electrified with raw truth and extreme pushing against the traditional theatrical arts. I am a big fan of true stories. Not the glossy widely marketable ones suitable for all demographics, but the gritty stories that are deeply personal confessions so ugly that they become beautiful. Okpokwasili tells this kind of autobiographical story fearlessly.
The show begins before the audience sits down. The environment is evocative of an East Village apartment living room in the ‘90’s decorated by someone just out of college and then magnified to a fantastical size without losing intimacy. There are cushions on the floor around the performance area. The light is soft like the music, which is hypnotic in its rhythm. And in one corner of the space is Okpokwasili with her back to us and every muscle in her body is seemingly on fire. She is nearly six feet tall and her back is bare and gorgeous, alive and powerful with movement. Her dance feels ancient and tribal, ritualistic and nearly out of control. The music intensifies as the energy changes from prologue to something meatier, while the dancing becomes more and more wild. After a very long time, Okpokwasili faces her audience and dances toward us. The anticipation is almost painful by the time the music stops and the chaotic atmosphere halts, becomes still and Okpokwasili’s sweet bedroom voice speaks into the microphone saying . . . .
You know what? I just can’t spoil this for you. I won’t tell you exactly what she says at that glorious moment.
My truth is that Okpokwasili broke my heart this night. Her humanity and experience – imperfect, frightening, funny, bittersweet – fills the room. I found myself breathing with her as she broke open her rhythmic story of two young girls finding themselves in each other, betraying each other, loving and hating each other. The main thrust of her narrative is drawn from the notes she and another 11 year old girl wrote to each other in their school days during the 1980’s. Any woman who became a teenager in the ‘80’s will find familiar ground with Okpokwasili’s history, but that does not mean those who shared her time line on this planet will be comfortable. The secrets that are shared here remind us of how the wonder of childhood is often taken from us so cruelly and suddenly that we forget we are still innocent. We come face to face with our own guilty secrets, our shame and all the unavoidable experience that shapes our identity and challenges us to build a strong character while feeling alone and powerless. And here, in this tender spot, Okpokwasili dares us to laugh.
Okpokwasili is more than a triple threat. She is an extraordinarily skilled dancer with incomprehensible stamina. She has a singing and speaking voice that is inviting and evocative. She is an actress of sublime vulnerability and riveting beauty. Bronx Gothic is her creation – this is her story, her poetry, her written songs, her music composition, her powerful dance – it’s brilliant, and hauntingly relatable in its unique format. Okpokwasili partners very well with her director, Peter Born, to manifest a design that goes way beyond performance art. Born also created the set and lighting as well as co-writing Bronx Gothic’s music with Okpokwasili. This partnership gives us an evening that lifts us up, nearly drops and lifts us up again and, of course in the end, we forgive them for breaking our hearts because we learn to cradle and forgive ourselves.
I highly recommend getting yourself to this show. You’ll be glad you did.
Watch the video teaser HERE
BRONX GOTHIC – By Okwui Okpokwasili; directed by Peter Born; original songs by Okwui Okpokwasili; music by Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born; set by Peter Born; lighting by Peter Born; special thanks to Veronica Okeke. A Danspace Project & Performance Space 122 Presentation as part of PS122’s 2014 COIL Festival. At the Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, 131 E. 10th Street, Manhattan. (866) 811-4111. E: [email protected]. www.danspaceproject.org. January 14, 16-19, 28, 30 – February 1 at 8pm. $20 ($15 members). 75 minutes with no intermission