Bronx Gothic

It’s hard to explain this performance piece. Easier to describe the artist who does it.


Okwui Okpokwasili is as tall as a WNBA player. As beautiful as a super model. She has the persona of a poet, an intellectual, a storyteller and a town crier. She is determined to bring the social consciousness of blackness and the female experience to an audience who doesn’t quite know what to expect.


The key elements in Okpokwasili’s astonishing Bronx Gothic theater piece, which is the subject of this documentary along with her life, are enigma, surprise, emotion, revelations and absorption. She does it well. As the audience walks into a performance studio, they see a tall woman in a wine-color slip gyrating and convulsing in a corner. Seconds turn into minutes. Minutes into a half hour. They don’t know what to think, but they become absorbed in her silent world. Once she gets them to forget the world outside, the audio portion of her performance (readings, monologues, observances) kicks in and the audience is glued to her one-woman show. She forces the connection.


On the surface, this film may seem like it has limited appeal. That would be totally wrong, it’s very entertaining. Those who see it will discover a woman whose art is as profound, compelling and enlightening as Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Fewer words, no supporting cast, but as thoughtful and powerful a statement on racism, feminism and sexuality.


Some of the material focuses on contemporary social issues. But largely what’s on view reflects Okpokwasili’s memories of growing up in the Bronx in the ‘80s and all the emotions and points of discovery a young black intelligent girl could have about herself as life swirls around her during impressionable years. You are pulled into her orb: “Can I make all of you be born again as a black girl?”


Filmmaker Andrew Rossi captures the show, audience reactions, consciousness-raising groups and anecdotes from the artist herself. His camera gets to the heart and soul of the central subject, following her around with her husband Peter Born, who is a collaborator and the staged play’s director. Also on view is their interracial daughter and Okpokwasili’s Nigerian immigrant parents, who have the courage to see her stark performance and hear some of the graphic descriptions of her sexual awakening, at age 11, as told through letters she reads aloud on stage.


Okwui Okpokwasili is as strong as an intellectual, artist and dancer/choreographer can be. She seems hypersensitive to her surroundings and other people’s experiences. Like a sponge, she soaks up feelings few will understand and releases them in bits and pieces in her art. She’s a warrior destined to fight a battle against the insensitive clods who run the world.


Bronx Gothic presents a rare and precious state of grace that’s been created by the phenomenally gifted performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili.


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