Performing a one woman show for 90 minutes is an exhausting feat, no matter the context. But when Okwui Okpokwasili does it in Bronx Gothic, it's a Bessie-winning tour de force. A new documentary also titled BRONX GOTHIC, directed by Emmy-nominee Andrew Rossi, shows what it really took for Okpokwasili to perform such an intense work on tour for several months.
It's obvious that Bronx Gothic, which explores black girlhood through a narrative loosely based on Okpokwasili's childhood in the Bronx, is physically draining—for the first half hour of the piece, her entire body vibrates, sometimes violently. At times, she throws herself on the floor, limbs slamming against hard wood floors. In the film, when her parents are shown a video of the piece, their first question is if there's a doctor on site. But Okpokwasili doesn't do this for shock value—she's forcing audiences to confront "a brown body in pain," as she explores what it means to be brown in a world that values whiteness.
The tour was emotionally draining, too, especially because Okpokwasili was so generous with her time and so unafraid of being vulnerable in front of her audience. She hosted talkbacks after each performance on tour, and they often seemed to be as difficult as the piece itself. Some people just didn't get it: "We were really confused by it," admitted one Midwestern audience member. Another divulged that she heard someone near her say "shoot me now" during Okpokwasili's vibrating sequence.
But the majority of audiences did seem to connect with the deeply personal work, and the conversation would often shift to people sharing their own stories: "How do I reign in my emotional response to keep the focus on this person?" asked Okpokwasili, as she held back tears after hearing one woman's fears about the safety of her black teenage sons. It's rare to see an artist so willing to shift the focus off her own work and commit to exploring someone else's experiences.
Watch BRONX GOTHIC at screenings across the country this summer.