Bronx Gothic

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Bronx Gothic
"You cannot be certain if it is the performer, Rossi or yourself who has strayed from the path to discover a new world within the clutches of history."

History is always written on the body, we carry centuries around with us. "Bodies hold memory of a place," Okwui Okpokwasili says in Bronx Gothic and "I need to author myself into existence." Andrew Rossi follows his friend, the writer and performance artist during the final tour of her one-woman show. Okwui's family (her parents, husband and daughter) and frequent dance collaborator Ralph Lemon comment, and we see audiences react in awe to what they experience on stage.

After 30 minutes they are quaked into the here and now. They look present and in talkbacks are captured on camera. It becomes very clear how deeply and in how many different ways they are affected. When Okwui Okpokwasili gazes back, I was reminded of Godfrey Reggio's Visitors, in which he probed me to reflect on the death of eye contact in our age of technology. Looking inward is as important as looking out at another.

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What starts out as a portrait of a journey into the minds of two 11-year-old girls exchanging notes in the 1980s' Bronx, New York, soon merges into something much larger and more granular. Lampshades grow out of patches of grass, plastic bags are floating in the air on stage. Okwui interferes with the audience, returns the scrutiny. One girl (both her) speaks with a baby voice.

She wonders and looks to her more experienced friend for guidance. Traumatic encounters and half-knowing speculations collide with bodies that grow up and out and out of control. Puberty as smooth sailing is an ad agency myth.

Okpokwasili, who has also worked with Julie Taymor (A Midsummer Night's Dream), is intent on challenging unreflected notions of "the brown body". With humour, grace, sweat and the sharpest perceptions, Bronx Gothic gets us trembling and thinking with its protagonist. Somewhere, someone is losing control of the narrative and finding it again.

This is fascinating because you cannot be certain if it is the performer, Rossi or yourself who has strayed from the path to discover a new world within the clutches of history. The Gothic here is a rupture, as related to ETA Hoffmann's tales of Doppelgänger spirits as it is to the Nigerian trickster deity Edshu or the re-writings of ancient rigmaroles by Angela Carter.

Can it be that your friend's nightmare from childhood has become your own as a grown woman? Why does "you ugly" not welcome a verb? Why is nobody telling children that it takes effort to have a good relationship with yourself?

Rossi, in his documentary The First Monday in May (2016 Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Opening Night Gala selection), chronicled the production of the China: Through The Looking Glass exhibition at The Met's Costume Institute, an investigation of how the West invented an image of the East through clothes and on the silver screen. Bronx Gothic provides a tumble into the mirror of representations as well.

When Rossi tries to convince Okwui's parents, who were both born in Nigeria, to watch parts of their daughter's performance on a computer, they are hesitant but agree to see some non-explicit excerpts. Soon, all shyness disappears and we get to see the mother perform an exuberant Nigerian folk dance filled with joy and surprise.

Okpokwasili comments early on "how much work it takes to love yourself as a brown girl," and that "you got to do the work." She offers the plea to see how vulnerable little girls are left in this world and the fact that "black flesh has a deep meaning in this country - the farther away from whiteness, the more invisible." Especially the body in pain, she states, is inescapably linked in the history of the United States.

Body and soul sometimes need a good shaking. Here is an exquisite invitation to confront personal and political demons that haunt and hold hostage.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2017
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Documentary, exploring the work of Okwui Okpokwasili.

Director: Andrew Rossi

Starring: Okwui Okpokwasili

Year: 2017

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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