Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Okwui Okpokwasili's "Bronx Gothic" at Danspace Project

Okwui Okpokwasili in her solo, Bronx Gothic
(photo by Ian Douglas)
Okwui Okpokwasili's Bronx Gothic--an arresting work-in-progress shown during Ishmael Houston-Jones's PLATFORM 2012: Parallels--has now returned to Danspace Project as a complete, evening-length masterpiece. Commissioned by Danspace Project and Performance Space 122, it had its world premiere as part of COIL 2014 and will continue through February 1.

But before you read on about Bronx Gothic, I'd like you to read my post on Dana Michel's Yellow Towel if you have not done so already. You'll find that here. Go and come back. Promise?

You're back? Great. Now I can tell you about Part Two of my evening.

So...I made it through almost all of Michel's show at Abrons then raced out to try to catch a bus uptown. I just missed that particular bus and ended up reaching Danspace Project with maybe two minutes to spare. By the time I made it down from the restroom--no way was I going to sit through 90 minutes more without a pit stop--Okpokwasili had already launched her solo, coursing a continuous orgasmic tremor through her entire body, her liquid muscles, her long, expressive arms. As I slipped into one of the remaining seats, I realized that the dancer's director and designer, Peter Born, had enclosed the space and her entire audience in white curtains similar to the ones Michel had used for her own solo. That was a moment.

For Bronx Gothic, Okpokwasili, raised by her Nigerian immigrant parents in the Bronx, had turned to her youth for inspiration--just like Michel--and mined painful memories of friendship, treachery and despair. Her text--by turns, witty, delicate and lacerating--takes us right back there through the device of a running record of notes surreptitiously passed between an 11-year-old girl and her more worldly school pal. Yes, what kids did before texting.

Sex is the topic of concern and fascination for these two preteens. Their language is frank; the implications of some of the talk--the unstated likelihood that the pal is being abused by her mother's boyfriend--is worrisome. But along with great pain, Okpokwasili finds humor and a certain powerful glamour in female strength, even when it's just fronting, and something literally tidal, earthshaking, in longing and anger.

I had seen Okpokwasili's performance at DP's Parallels and looked forward to Bronx Gothic in finished form. I can report that, since Parallels, this artist has achieved a rare balance between physical and vocal tours de force. These performing modes run parallel throughout the piece, doubling the required prodigious control and stamina. There should be not only a Bessie but Olympic gold for what Okpokwasili has now accomplished. The fact that, in the midst of this great feat of performance, she breaks your heart, absolutely slays you with the poetry of it, makes it all the more remarkable.

Bronx Gothic continues with 8pm performances through February 1. For complete schedule details and to reserve tickets, click here.

131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue), Manhattan

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