I posted this in response to Okwui Okpokwasili’s “Bronx Gothic” performance.
What I saw
The video opens with a shot of Okwui Okpokwasili from behind. She is outfitted in a simple red dress that shows her back, and is moving rapidly back and forth in place. The shot changes from straight behind her to some distance away— still from the back, but with the set and some of the audience in view as well. White, cloth walls bracket the set, lit by old-fashioned lamps strewn about. Grass pushes up in various places from the floor. Numerous people can be heard talking and seen passing in front of the camera. In the background, a ringing sound plays. She seems disconnected from her own body, almost compelled to keep moving. There’s an apparent lack of control there.
After about 30 minutes Okpokwasili approaches a standing microphone towards the front of the stage, at which point she finally stops moving. She then proceeds to read out an exchange between her innocent younger self and her more mature best friend (physically and sexually, at least) whom she eventually had a falling out with. The notes – and the singing and poetic segments between readings of them – tell a visceral, heart wrenching and gut clenching story.
What I felt
A loop of confusion, recognition, concern, awe, discomfort, and fascination. My awe and fascination with Okpokwasili’s performance came to outweigh my discomfort as it progressed. Most of what I saw was largely unfamiliar to me, especially the first part, but there were certainly thoughts and behaviors she expressed that I recognized. Issues with self-image, navigating interactions with peers, and growing up as a whole are experiences that just about anyone can empathize with. Throughout a large part of the latter half of the performance I kept thinking: middle school.
She moves because she has to
and in the silence twisted memories claw their way out of her throat.
Two girls turned women scream and dream and ask themselves:
“Am I awake?”