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Attaining the Singular

Okwui Okpokwasili and Bronx Gothic —


One of the pleasures of watching a dance-theater performance like Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic  is how the odd half-truth of words on stage collides and clashes with the blunt truth of the breathing, moving, mortal bodies they come out of. For the first twenty minutes of Bronx Gothic Okpokwasili’s body, shaking expressively in the far corner of the space, speaks to us with remarkable candor about childhood and sex, love and domination, and about the nature of dreaming. Okpokwasili wears a loose fitting brown tunic, so you can see the taut muscles of her back shift and twitch, the sweat gathering as she keeps at it, exorcizing demons. We react to her dancing with desire, fear, hope, joy, lust, longing, envy – Okpokwasili knows it is always all-of-the-above, and she has fun with the complex projective issues black female bodies trigger in these patriarchal, anti-black, ex-slaveholding United States.

After this long interval the words arrive and, lying less then words typically do, begin to clothe in language what Okpokwasili’s slender, muscular body has already expressed through movement. Turning to face us, Okpokwasili crosses and picks up sheets of yellow note paper lying unnoticed on the floor. She tells us she is going to read these notes, which she and her best friend exchanged in school when they were eleven years old. The notes are about sex — active in that department, Okpokwasili’s friend is ready to share. She tells Okpokwasili about dicks and pussies and orgasms that are like waves at the beach only “the waves are more on the inside of you with an orgasm,” and about blowjobs, and how semen tastes different depending on “what he ate for breakfast.” Okpokwasili reads both sides of this exchange, her voice rising toward the soprano when the girl she once was holds the floor. The exchange is earthy, immediate, shocking and funny too, cutting through our endlessly politicized and self-serving sentimentalization of childhood, to put us in touch again with its terror and magic. And what Okpokwasili is serving up is something we in the audience are starving for, a gathering of anorexics.

With her fearlessness about her childhood experience of sexuality, Okpokwasili registers as both deeply entangled in the cultural pathology of race in America, and also unusually free of the toxic affects often complicating artistic expression for black Americans. I do not know her family background, but Okpokwasili’s name suggests an African heritage might be inoculating her to some degree from the toxic cocktail of negative self-images often introjected by those growing up in denigrated subject positions. In Bronx Gothic she draws the formation of identity into the light, showing how desire and the Other conspire with language and memory to reduce the capacities we are able to actualize in our lives. Okpokwasili isn’t trying to resolve or harmonize the affective intensities threatening our sense of unity and stability – race and gender constructs very much included — but instead to amplify them. In Bronx Gothic she aims to escape the recursive force of puppet-like identities and automaticisms and take us toward a greater liberation.

The girls’ notes wander into an exchange of dreams. Okpokwasili’s mother has taught her how to control her dreams in order to “bend the world inside” with her mind. Having spent a certain amount of time engaging with Tibetan practices having to do with lucid dreaming, I am caught off guard by the sophistication of what this woman shares with her daughter about the nature of dreams, and how they relate to the storm of vivid experience out of which we construct the comforting certainties and continuities of daily life. Deploying the question “Am I awake?,” this maternal figure invites her daughter to erase the distinction between what she encounters dreaming at night and what greets her during the day because “knowing you’re dreaming when you dream, nothing can take you over.”

Bronx Gothic Teaser from Performance Space 122 on Vimeo.

With a radical economy of means Okpokwasili has, by this point in Bronx Gothic, demarcated a canvas large enough to say almost anything worth saying about identity, desire and the politics of culture in the U.S., and yet the piece could not be more personal, intimate and singular. Through the exchange of notes we come to understand how these two girls collided with each other in the affective ground out of which their quite different adult lives would later grow. The relationship is carnal as well as emotional — as it turns out, Okpokwasili was not just exchanging notes about sex with her friend, she would hide with her “in back alleys between buildings” and her friend “would use her fingers and tongue and red and blue lights would crack open in the back” of Okpokwasili’s head. Whatever we were doing or not doing together in the intensely embodied and theatrical interlude called childhood, we all know the kind of affective entanglement Okpokwasili describes. We remember it, and we experience it again whenever we glimpse the fixed gallery of self-images restricting the world-defining choices we make every moment without knowing we are doing so. For those who belong to socially negated subject positions – women and minorities, for example – this automatic and reductive aspect of identity can be especially vexing, and a source of great suffering: the denigrating oppressor has been internalized, and must be countered inside the psyche as well as out in the world.

The climax of the piece comes after we have heard all this. Facing us now, Okpokwasili revisits the intense, shaking physicalizations and gestural work of the opening, this time with words shedding a fractured light on her efforts to liberate herself from the influence of her childhood friend. It’s a street fight with broken bottles, and the words are weapons serving the other side, forming an assault that can only be countered in the physical mode of dreaming called dance. The words end in Bronx Gothic, but the truth of Okpokwasili’s movements continue to haunt us as we stand and file out of Showbox’s performance space in Highland Park, back into the waking dreams of our lives. Like a dance-theater version of stem cell research, Bronx Gothic has brought performances in front of audiences into the same frame as this form of dreaming, reminding us of an innate freedom we have pushed away, buried, dismantled, burned and cauterized…but which always returns to undermine the impoverished, common sense versions of life always threatening to “take us over.”

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