For about the first half-hour of Okwui Okpokwasili’s performance piece “Bronx Gothic,” Ms. Okpokwasili does nothing but vibrate, violently. The sight of her working up a sweat in this fashion is what audience members initially see as they file into the performance space where her solo show is being staged, and she continues for quite some time after they are seated.
“When something is going on for so long, there’s a transformation,” she explains in an interview that is intercut throughout the director Andrew Rossi’s documentary, also called “Bronx Gothic,” about Ms. Okpokwasili and her work.
The stage piece (reviewed in The New York Times in 2014) uses dance, song and spoken word, combined with various forms of stagecraft. Ms. Okpokwasili’s fearless writing and intense, virtuosic performance style make the story, of two black girls discovering their sexuality while growing up in the Bronx, seem torn from her own life. (The piece is not autobiographical, however.) Ideas of female and black beauty are explored with language that is frequently profane — hardly any of it is quotable here — and always charged. The narrative unfolds via a series of letters Ms. Okpokwasili reads from, but her words are punctuated by movements that are at times balletic, at other times pure James Brown meets punk rock. She hits the stage floor hard, and more than once.
The movie shows her interacting with audience members in Q. and A. sessions during a tour of the piece, doting on her lovely daughter and having pointed discussions about race with her husband, Peter Born — who is white and also the director of the stage work. These scenes are interesting and sometimes genuinely illuminating. Mr. Born can be a bit pedantic when speaking with his wife about “black victimhood” in popular culture, citing “12 Years a Slave” as an example that seems to irritate him.
Ms. Okpokwasili doesn’t say much in response, but her face indicates a certain impatience with Mr. Born’s view. Later in the film the family visits Ms. Okpokwasili’s parents, who are Nigerian immigrants. They are somewhat hesitant to watch a video of their daughter’s piece. Once they do, though, Ms. Okpokwasili’s mother likens her daughter’s style of movement to Nigerian dance, and gives a demonstration that’s both moving and revealing.
In the end, Ms. Okpokwasili’s often academic-sounding exegeses of her work become repetitive. Given the aesthetically confrontational nature of the piece, one can understand why Mr. Rossi did not attempt an undiluted cinematic translation of the complete “Bronx Gothic.” But something about his approach (which I assume was approved by Ms. Okpokwasili, as she is one of the movie’s executive producers) feels, finally, like an evasion.
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