Okwui Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic (Grasshopper Film)

During the tour of her gut-wrenching, one-woman performance piece, Bronx Gothic, Okwui Okpokwasili’s ultimate goal was to bring a white audience into the body of a brown girl. By producing this film with director Andrew Rossi, she continues her efforts to summon an empathic connection of understanding.

Scenes from her performance are interspersed with frank explanations of her intentions for some of her surprising creative choices. She explains that the word “gothic” in the title refers to the dark and hidden places into which you don’t want to go. The first 30 minutes of the play consist of Okpokwasili performing a nonstop vibrating dance on a dark stage facing away from the audience, with a spotlight casting a shadowy image of her tortuous movements onto a white backdrop. She describes how this makes the audience focus on her, even to become her at the moment that she stops her gyrations to begin her soliloquy.

Through word and unexpected bits of humor and bursts of song, punctuated by punishing displays of movement, Okpokwasili tells the story of two young girls entering puberty, sharing letters that secretly explore their growing sexuality. One girl experiences sexual abuse at home, which instigates a growing rift between the two. Toward the end of the play, it becomes impossible to tell which girl is which, as if there was ever only one girl, torn apart by the violence she has endured and desperately trying to put together the pieces of her life.

In talking about the motivations behind the piece, Okpokwasili openly despairs over “how much work it takes to love yourself as a brown girl” in “this culture where women’s bodies are contested,” and where white people have grown hardened to the sight of brown bodies in pain. She believes young girls are left vulnerable by not being given the freedom to discuss what’s happening to their bodies, and so they are left unable to speak up about abuse.

Okpokwasili’s intensity is the real focus of the documentary/performance piece. Even in the relaxed setting of a casual post-performance discussion with the audience, she visibly absorbs the pain of others that her performance has evoked. The brief snippets of her personal life, as captured in the film, appear in sharp contrast to her onstage persona. She is married to Peter Born, a white man, who directed the play for the stage and with whom she has a daughter. (She says she enjoys their verbal sparring over issues on which they disagree.) Her middle-class parents immigrated to the States from Nigeria, and while they haven’t wanted to see the play because of its pervasive profanity, they watch her opening dance in the film, and her mother seems pleased by its similarity to Nigerian dance.

The more likely audience for this film will be those who’ve seen Okpokwasili perform and are hoping to find out more about her. She claims some minor autobiographical influence in writing the play, but mostly it appears to be in response to her empathetic outrage over the historical oppression of black girls. Those hoping for a more personal understanding of the writer may be disappointed. However, for those whose curiosity was aroused, but missed seeing the play, this film is Okpokwasili’s follow-up opportunity to impart the conflicting mixture of pleasure and pain involved in being a brown girl.

Directed by Andrew Rossi
Released by Grasshopper Film
USA. 91 min. Not rated