Musings on Bronx Gothic

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I have so many feelings about Bronx Gothic. It’s been two days since I saw Okwui Okpokwasili’s scathing, heart-breaking performance on growing up female and there are so many thoughts swirling through my head I can barely process all of them.

I’m thinking about my best friend from elementary and middle school, and how she got drunk and cursed me out when we were in the 10th grade. (We didn’t speak for nearly 15 years after that and even when we did finally hash out exactly what happened, things were never the same.) I’m thinking of every girl who bullied me in school and in turn, every girl I bullied. I’m thinking of the times that I was petty with no provocation. I’m thinking of how I wanted the attention of boys in middle school and high school, and how disheartening it felt not to get it. I’m thinking of what it has meant to grow up in this body of mine, and how the way it’s perceived — by others and by myself — has affected my entire life.

Bronx Gothic felt like catharsis for brown girls who have become women in a world that simultaneously fetishizes them and hates their existence. It’s a narrative that I’ve seen play itself out time and time again…in less beautiful and more tragic ways. Okpokwasili’s epistolary conversation between two girls regarding love, sexuality and identity was broken up by frenetic dance moves. The surrealistic use of music — eerie and droning — lent itself perfectly to the mood Okpokwasili tried to evoke as she threw herself into the choreography. At one point, the steady hum of the music faded out and into a loop of kids talking and ribbing each other over a thick drum beat, setting the stage for the conversation that occurred between the two girls via handwritten notes.

When discussing her intentions for the piece, Okpokwasili wrote of how she wanted to “bring the body into play, to not erase the body in the narrative, the body’s role in how we hurt and heal each other.” And she did just that. At times, she looked like a woman possessed, one who’s fighting with herself for control of her body. Navigating as a girl/woman in a society that wants to control every aspect of our lives, aren’t we all fighting for control? Haven’t we always been fighting for control?

Unlike Dana Michel during her Yellow Towel performance a few weeks ago, who purposely avoided eye contact with the audience, it seemed like Okpokwasili was attempting to hold eye contact with everyone in the audience for as long as possible, directly connecting to the elements of West African griot storytelling she uses during her performances. “The griot holds the story in the mind and in the body, a living link from the past to the present,” she wrote to me. “They have a dynamic and charged gaze that is simultaneously looking back and peering into the eyes of their audience now.” I don’t how anyone else felt, but it was uncomfortable, the lingering looks, which fit with the subject matter, which was also uncomfortable. It was savage, much in the way we are allowed to (and sometimes encouraged to) treat each other, especially when we’re children.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because the reveal at the end of Bronx Gothic felt similar to one of those grand twists at the end of movies set during the Victorian period, the kind where you don’t see the twist coming but when you look back, you probably should have. But hindsight is 20/20, right? Sometimes a performance like this one helps remind us that hindsight was once happening in real time and we should do what we can to examine our actions more carefully in the present.

Image by Whitney L. Barkley (@TheWriteGirl_)

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