‘Bronx Gothic’ effectively renders the unseen apparent.
The experience of bodies – bodies in motion, bodies striking positions, bodies in agony – defines dance as an art form, and its most essential innovators force audiences to silently participate in dialogue with the human form and what it undergoes. Few artists, regardless of media, are capable of stimulating the types of dialogues about bodies that Okwui Okpokwasili’s performances do on a daily basis. This is notably evident in Okpokwasili’s masterwork Bronx Gothic, which explores a continuing interaction between two young girls, one of which is more conscious of sexuality and growth, while the other appears to be more innocent and in need of direction at first.
Director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) sets out to not just convert Okpokwasili’s work to cinema, but also to contextualise and expand on the discourse about black bodies in particular that the piece sparks. The film’s success is a credit to Rossi’s ability to let his subjects to tell their experiences in their own ways, as well as the quality of Okpokwasili’s work and her unwavering commitment to investigating the themes it raises both on and off-stage.
Many of these inquiries come from Okpokwasili, who is not only the director of Bronx Gothic but also its primary pupil. Throughout Rossi’s documentary, Okpokwasili discusses the meaning of Bronx Gothic with herself and others. “Perhaps Bronx Gothic makes the unseen visible,” Okpokwasili muses, drawing on her overarching ambition to be a part of “a long legacy of women who are constructing places for themselves.”
Bronx Gothic is a piece that is both combustible and violently physical, with Okpokwasili employing her body not only as an instrument of elegance but also as one of savage endurance, with every ounce of sweat, spit, and tears not only inescapable but vital for the narrative. Bronx Gothic begins with a half-hour intro in which Okpokwasili vibrates in the corner of the stage as the audience enters, forcing the audience to focus.
During a Q&A, Okpokwasili informs one audience member that the physically demanding and epic-length beginning is a palate cleanser: a means to get a crowd to forget about where they came from — work, family, school – and focus solely on what’s in front of them. But it also ties to Okpokwasili’s desire to have a specific bodily dialogue about “brown bodies in anguish” and the constant focus on them.
Bronx Gothic is not a literal reproduction of Okpokwasili’s performance, nor is it a documentary about Okpokwasili; rather, it is a framing and extension of the discussion surrounding a community’s sorrow. Many of the finest sequences aren’t about Okpokwasili’s performance, but rather her encounters with audiences, particularly students, after they’ve seen it.
Okpokwasili sits in a classroom at Alverno College, listening to other women talk about the violence and victimisation their own bodies have experienced and the helplessness they feel in one of Bronx Gothic’s most emotionally agonising scenes. A different student was shown sobbing in a prior episode after hearing Okpokwasili express some of her intentions with Bronx Gothic and her dismay at how women are prevented from talking about their bodies and the feelings that accompany their growth and change.
Bronx Gothic the documentary, of course, wouldn’t be the accomplishment it is if it didn’t also bring Okpokwasili’s actual show to life. As thrilling as Bronx Gothic must be in person, Rossi’s camera gets closer to Okpokwasili than an audience member could ever hope, focusing on the physical struggle she goes through to make the show so powerful, from her body’s constant vibrations to the visceral thuds as she throws herself around to the sweat and tears dripping down her face.
Rossi takes some artistic liberties with the material, occasionally slowing frames down or splicing together scenes to make Okpokwasili’s movements all the more uncanny, but for the most part he aims for a raw, unfiltered view of the piece, evoking a uniquely cinematic intimacy but allowing Okpokwasili’s body to do all the thematic heavy lifting.
Near the middle of the film, Okpokwasili speaks about the closeness she covets in performances, the way she makes her body ask the audience, “Is my blackness getting on you?”, and it’s clear with this documentary she goes even further, bringing audiences uncomfortably close not just in a physical but an emotional sense as well. She later pointedly asks, “Can you take on not just the cool parts of blackness, but the pain?”
Bronx Gothic is a disturbing and profound reminder of Okpokwasili’s anguish and the way she communicates it with every fibre of her soul. Rossi has aided Okpokwasili in guiding even more listeners through that experience by filming it so brilliantly, prompting them to listen and join the dialogue themselves.