Bessie Award–winning artist Okwui Okpokwasili has captured the pain of Black girlhood. The riveting documentary, Bronx Gothic is an intimate look at Okpokwasili’s highly praised one-woman show. The writer and performer teamed up with Emmy-nominated director and producer Andrew Rossi to take a deeper look into the work that the New York Times called, “a mesmerizing and sometimes harrowing solo piece.”
Bronx Gothic examines Okpokwasili’s childhood in The Bronx during the 1980’s and the relationship she had to her body and her friends as she transitioned from adolescence to her teenage years. Ahead of the film’s world premiere, EBONY.com spoke with Okpokwasili about the piece, why she trusted Rossi with the project and what compelled her to write Bronx Gothic in the first place.
EBONY.com: What compelled you to write Bronx Gothic? It’s such an intimate, emotionally and physically taxing piece.
Okwui Okpokwasil: I started writing it, but it gained new impetus because then I found I was pregnant. I identify as a Black woman, an African-American woman. I’ve always wanted to make spaces where… it is inevitable that our bodies are gonna be read a certain way, or that my body will be read a certain way in performance, but I want to make a space where I can sometimes undermine those readings, create questions around those readings. I’m really interested in what my brown body… what a black body does in a performance space. I was about to go through, this transformation. Bringing a girl into the world, I started to think about politics of the body around Black girlhood. I started to think about innocence and asking questions about our innocence, my innocence. Are Black girls innocent? Do they have this picture of innocence or projection of innocence? Does the culture at large project some idea of innocence? I started to think about some of the things that some of the girls that I was hanging out with and that I grew up with experienced. [There were] unanswered questions about some things like, “Well why did certain people have a kind of deep, deep knowledge about some things that I didn’t understand?” Does that knowledge in any way suggest that they’re not innocent? Can you be innocent but have that knowledge? I was starting to think, “Well I do want my daughter to have kind of an awareness of what gives her pleasure. I want her not to be afraid of knowing and understanding what her body can do, and how she can feel, and what she can share of her body with people.” I don’t want her to be afraid of that. But, I want her to be wary and careful. What seems to be empowering, or what I could think of as empowering, might also signify or might also be a hint to some kind of transgression; like some kind of violence and abuse. I just thought of growing up in The Bronx and walking around. In the city every day, you’re dealing with a lot of different people. Or you’re moving through space where a lot of people are looking at your body, commenting on your body as it changes. I thought, so many of us are so vulnerable, you know?
Another aspect I was really intrigued about in the film, was the fact that you to talk back to the audience. Why was that so important to open up that dialogue between yourself and those who came and saw the show?
I think that there’s a large reason for that. Obviously, I was making a piece that wasn’t necessarily for full commercial production. Often when these incredible venues are inviting us to come and do the show, part of it is they do hope to help you fill the audience, and I guess to make the audience know that this is a place to sort of extend the conversation. It’s not something they may normally have expected, and it’s not something they normally would see, and so they might really appreciate having a conversation with me. It does feel like sometimes you do the piece and you’re exhausted, and that should be enough. I don’t necessarily even find it onerous. I’m happy to engage in those conversations with folks. Even though I do wish that people didn’t necessarily have to do that.
How did you two decide to transform this piece of art onto film? Why did you decide that you trusted Andrew Rossi with such a large task?
We have known each other for a long time. I wasn’t sure that I was entirely convinced when he first approached me. I felt like he usually deals with much bigger issues that are kind of weighing in on our culture today. I wasn’t sure how he would capture what I considered this kind of really, really specific and small internal reverberation. He really felt like he was compelled. I was like, “In the light of everything that has been going on and a kind of growing awareness, or a growing conversation in the culture at large, and not just among us Black folk, about how our bodies are disciplined and violated by some of them police. “[Andrew] saw the larger dynamic at work and also the very particular, singularness of it. It’s not just a film of Bronx Gothic. Though he does a really incredible job of rendering a big part of the piece. Some elements of the piece, aren’t there. [There’s] a little bit of my experience in trying to make and show the work and talk about the work and what I think about with my family and where I’ve come from. For me, obviously, the piece going back to The Bronx, and the organization, Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. When they asked me if I would do it in The Bronx, and they asked me years ago to do it, because Bronx Gothic [initially] happened in 2014, I thought this would be amazing because the space that they were in is basically in the church [where] I was confirmed. Even that journey to bring it back to The Bronx was like, “Okay, there’s maybe something to capture here.”
In the film, you said that you performed to stay alive. I wonder if you would elaborate on what you mean by that.
It’s like I feel a light inside. I have no idea. I just can’t see anything else for myself. Ever since I was a kid, I was writing plays, and maybe they were more like TV show retries because that’s what I was watching. I was also looking into the space of not seeing reflections of the world, the really dynamic crazy world; I was living in the Bronx. We’re talking, you know, parents who are expats from Nigeria, just are coming off of the Biafran War, and the ramifications of that are still happening. Being in The Bronx in this moment of transition as folks are moving out and kind of going into the next phase, it felt like a really vibrant space. When I would turn on the TV, there was a feeling of invisibility. I wanted to make a mark in that. Then, as I got older, and I still had a writing practice and performing, I was starting to look for something else, something unknown. A friend had taken me to the Blue Note, and then I remember seeing Death and the King’s Horseman at Lincoln Center, I think I may have been in college. So, there’s also something about how I felt as an audience member and feeling a deep surge of energy around what it meant to be a part of an imagined world, to share space in this imagined world. The way I was looking at what it meant to be in a space with people, in a performance space, started to shift and make my desire to make things more intense.
Bronx Gothic premieres July 12th at Film Forum in New York City. A national roll-out through Grasshopper Film will follow.