Now ask yourself: Are you awake?
--Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic
Christians have a gospel story about Jesus, aware of his fate, praying in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. All around him, his disciples--whom he had asked to merely keep watch with him--sleep deeply, leaving him alone with his agony.
I thought of this scene as I watched Okwui Okpokwasili in the documentary Bronx Gothic (2017, 91 min.), a film with superb direction by Andrew Rossi and killer editing by Andrew Coffman of Bryan Sarkinen and Rossi's daring cinematography. Launching its world premiere theatrical engagement on July 12 at Film Forum, the film provides deep insight into the motivation and process that guided Okpokwasili's magnificent solo performance piece of the same name. It delves into her experiences, thoughts and feelings as she takes the show on its final tour and holds discussions with members of her audience.
As the film opens, Okpokwasili is in mid-performance, dressed in the color of congealed blood, tears pooling and dripping from her luminous eyes as the persona she inhabits recalls life-changing incidents from a Bronx childhood. I was reminded of the frequent, insistent sobbing in Kyle Abraham's ensemble dance, Dearest Home, and also how, like disciples at Gethsemane, not every viewer will necessarily have the will to stay awake--available, vulnerable, connected, "woke"--when Black artists ask for empathetic witness.
Both Dearest Home and Bronx Gothic--denying any demand for performance to stay within narrow, acceptable confines--make messy vulnerability and intense pain visible, in particular Black pain. Both works reach into as well as beyond their makers' personal history of being Black in America to suggest characters and narrative that should move anyone of heart and conscience.
Okpokwasili was raised within a large, middle-class Nigerian-immigrant family in the comfortable Parkchester section of the Bronx in the 1980s. (Her charming parents, whom we meet late in the film, make an indelible impression.) Describing her solo as "semi-autobiographical" allows it to partake of her extraordinary imagination and her empathy for the pre-teen girls she observed in her youth. She remembers them, remembers their pleasures and their struggles, channels them and serves them with intensely committed soul and physicality. The film's audience is spared little of how violently this haunted performance has wrenched its performer's psyche and body.
Having seen two iterations of Bronx Gothic live (Danspace Project, 2012 and 2014), I can tell you that the film, generously sampling the live performance, only slightly misses the electrifying force of Okpokwasili live. There's nothing quite like being in a close, tent-like enclosure with her as she quakes head to toe, shares sexual secrets, scrapes her bare feet and smacks her bones against a punishing floor.
"Black flesh has deep meaning in this culture," Okpokwasili remarks at one point as she discusses her intentions for Bronx Gothic. All the vivid imagery--the dark and the light, the glistening sweat, the luxurious undulations and seizure-like trembling--serves to underscore this uncomfortable, complicated truth.
As she thinks about how her performance confronts and nearly overwhelms her audience, the artist is also both overwhelmed and intrigued. Recalling her experiences in the role, she asks an imaginary watcher, "Is my Blackness getting on you? Am I getting on you? Can you take on the pain?"
Not for nothing is the genre-spanning Okpokwasili one of our most respected artists, a Bessie-winner to boot. I hope Rossi's portrait of her will be seen widely. I rank Bronx Gothic up there with Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro as another urgent, earthshaking documentary that must be seen and must be discussed.
Showings at 12:30, 2:30, 4:40, 7:00 and 9:10
Wednesday, July 12 through Tuesday, July 25
Q&As with Okpokwasili and Rossi at the 7pm shows
Wednesday, July 12, Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15
For information and tickets, click here.
209 West Houston Street (west of Sixth Avenue), Manhattan
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