What: Bronx Gothic
When: 8-12 October
Where: Arts House, NMTH
Written and performed by: Okwui Okpokwasili
Directed and designed by: Peter Born
Bronx Gothic hurts. It stabs and tears and rends at our humanity until we are all left in pieces, just like the little 11 year old girl standing next to Okpokwasili who is alone on stage.
Bronx Gothic is a part of the ‘New York Narratives’ which form a part of this year’s Melbourne Festival and it is being performed at Arts House over the next four days. Go and see it.
Part of me wants to just leave this review at that because nothing I write will come close to what you will experience at the hands of Okpokwasili and Born. The title is somewhat self-evident. Okpokwasili is African American and lives in New York City.
Labelling the work ‘Bronx’ is important because in New York the five burroughs (Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Statten Island) all have very different dominant socio-economic demographics and The Bronx is the ‘poor, black’ neighbourhood.
We know this story before it even begins. We have seen it countless times in many iterations on TV and in films. There is no cultural translation needed given the dominance of American culture on our TVs and in our cinemas.
The ‘Gothic’ part of the title is a way for us to understand and read the work. Okpokwasili supposedly leant very heavily on the mores of Victorian Gothic novels in creating this work. Whilst I can see the influence of the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley, I actually think this work is perhaps too real for that.
To me it feels like it lies more strongly in the surrealist/cubist continuum. There is an immediacy and truthful cry of pain that is much more reminiscent of early 20th century industrialisation than the romantic melodrama of Wuthering Heights.
Perhaps this comes from the griot tradition on which Okpokwasili also leans on. Griot is the term used for West African historian/storytellers. As well as knowing tradition faultlessly, the griot is up to date on all current events and can extemporise with a biting wit.
You may think this is all sounding very academic and intellectual, but in some ways it will help to understand the devices in play. I could go on to talk about the references to Plato’s cave, etc., but in the end, and despite all of this intellectualising, the true effect of Bronx Gothic is visceral to the core.
The piece seems to have three overt sections. The first is pure dance and after 5 minutes I was totally engrossed and was not able to look away until the very end of the hour and half. The second is reading text, and the third is blended action, reaction, soliloquy, and interpretation.
Okpokwasili’s choreography is genius. The way she weaves all of the parts of the story into her shuddering, spasmodic body right from the start and just leaves them there in your mind to be read as the rest of the performance connects the dots is phenomenal.
Working with her and in perfect unison is Born’s set and lighting, as well as the immaculate sound design created by the two of them. The ongoing subtle shifts between internality and externality, between now and then, between woman and man, between ancient and contemporary, between tradition and pop are just awe inspiring and done with the deft touch of perfection.
The entire dance ‘section’ is about birth, growth, immersion, control, fear, and ecstasy. It is about being human in a world that is so much bigger than us all and in a mass of humanity that is overwhelming. We are led, driven, tranced into that very moment of feeling overwhelmed – we live the moment of being caught in a pair of headlights and frozen in place.
One of the reasons I talked earlier about surrealism and cubism, is that in many ways this piece is about every moment pointing to a single point of visceral experience – think ‘The Scream’. I referred to cubism because the show has narrative, but it is non-linear.
It looks at every single way a girl/woman lives around this single moment. Everything forever is about and around an experience, and yet we never quite touch the moment directly and clearly.
Well, that’s not true. In the dance we do, but we have to join the dots because Okpokwasili is not going to give us the answers, she is just painting the picture. She is the scream and we never stop hearing it.
Bronx Gothic is a woman’s story, but it is every woman’s story at the same time. There was once a girl, there were once many girls, there was once every girl, there was once a girl…