Film Review: Bronx Gothic

Performer Okwui Okpokwasili wants us to feel her pain in the worst way.
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The excruciating first half hour of Okwui Okpokwasili’s celebrated one-woman show Bronx Gothic, which shares a name with Andrew Rossi's documentary on its creator, finds the artist close to the audience as they file into the theater, her body and face gleaming with sweat as she gyrates, gesticulates and dances out a range of intense emotions‑ebullience, pain, rage, sorrow, fatigue‑all meant to represent what it means to be a black woman in this country. A multi-disciplined former dance associate of Ralph Lemon and Julie Taymor, Okpokwasili’s actual narrative deals with two 12-year-old girls, the young performer and a long-lost childhood friend, as they grow into maturity and discover the mysteries of sex, boys and myriad other phenomena.

By their very nature, one-woman shows tend to be at least a little self-indulgent. But Okpokwasili takes the cake and leaves no crumbs. A commanding presence with an impressively sculpted face that can veer from beautiful to grotesque, you watch the frenetic movement at the onset of her piece, followed by searing and graphic verbal monologues dealing with rough sex, women’s genitalia and, finally, the artist herself, endlessly and pretentiously expounding on the meaning of her work. If anything, this pseudo-intellectual nattering is even harder to take than all those body spasms, which actually make you fear for the artist’s well-being as she dashes body and head into hardwood floor in a kind of ecstasy.

We discover that it all stems from the devastating effects of slavery, which Okpokwasili presents as a direct antecedent to movements like Black Lives Matter. Okpokwasili is one of those Americans who claim to think about slavery every day. But if you are going to translate this obsession into something purporting to be a work of art, a more constrained approach might have been preferred, if only to remove any taint of exploitation, the sort which so marred Steve McQueen’s overly graphic and violent 12 Years a Slave.

Like McQueen, Okpokwasili wants to rub our noses in the most extreme and/or brutal aspects of black experience. For this viewer, it all degenerates into a kind of repellant victim art. One is reminded of what an extremely thin line there is between in-your-face confrontational art and “intellectual” masturbation. There are just too many moments in Rossi’s worshipful documentary about this oh-so determined visionary where I found myself squirming, if not completely disgusted, by the over-the-top histrionics and lofty pretentiousness which seem organic to Okpokwasili’s very being.

Happily, about halfway through, we are introduced to Okpokwasili’s delightfully down-to-Earth African parents. Suddenly all of the oxygen returns to the room (and your theater) as this sweet, oh-so-normal couple sits down, obviously steeling themselves to watch their daughter’s latest, provocatively unsettling outrage. “I think it’s fantastic what you are doing,” her adorable hen of a mother says. “But dancing should be about feeling the music and joy.” I actually laughed out loud during this charming sequence of incongruity between child with parent. When Mama got up to show how one ought to properly dance to the African music which runs through this film, it was a joyous relief from incessant aesthetic posturing.  

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