From my vantage point (top row and in the corner) there was enough time in the opening scene (which contained no dialogue whatsoever) to count fourteen lampshades dotted around the stage. I even had time to count them again, ostensibly to double-check that I hadn’t missed any, or if I did, it could only be because I couldn’t see them, not having a complete view of the performance area. But really Bronx Gothic opened with a scene in which nothing happened, and yet in another way, quite a lot was going on – it’s difficult to label precisely what it was, I suppose a form of interpretive dance, with rapid movements, sustained for an impressive length of time by Okwul Okpokwasili.
In this opening scene, Okpokwasili faces upstage, the sort of thing that actors do occasionally in order to briefly stifle laughter because something amusing has happened on stage (or indeed in the wings) but they must remain in character. Except here, the facing upstage thing goes on for so long that one feels compelled to try to work out what is happening, and/or what it means. I might have gotten this completely wrong, but I’ll put it out there anyway. It came across to me as though there was a struggle being portrayed, of the character wanting to move out of the restrictions and boundaries the character finds herself in, presumably through no fault of her own. It would only be a matter of time before something – anything – happens.
Then there were several more moments in which the character manages to turn to face the audience, but continues with the rapid movements, not saying anything. During this time, someone in my peripheral vision had clearly got their mobile telephone back out to check for messages or whatever it was they were doing, and very unusually, I had zero inclination to tell them to stop – they were really missing nothing. And in my own mind, to pass the time, I ended up with a fairly good idea of what I intend to buy at Sainsbury’s for the weekly grocery shop.
It seemed to me that Okpokwasili took on several different characters during the show: one of the reasons why none of them are listed in the programme is revealed in what I presume is an open letter to someone who has clearly done something contemptuous. In short, she denies the intended recipient (and thus, by extension, the audience) the “satisfaction” of signing off the letter with her own name. The script is poetic at times but is also very repetitive. I still don’t know why I should look at my hands, feet or some other body part and ask myself, “Am I awake?” or what good that will do to myself or anyone else. If this isn’t explained the first time around, simply repeating “Am I awake?” doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to follow the eleventh time around.
But to answer the question, yes, I was awake, but I was also rather bored. There were, to be fair, some amusing moments – a fairly early scene recounting a ‘birds and bees’ conversation provided a schoolgirl character with a decent amount of information in a brief period, in a relatable and refreshingly honest manner. A lot of the show’s spoken word content was centred around sex – not just the mechanics and emotions of intercourse but encompassing the degradation and objectification of women both at a micro level through individuals’ stories and more widely in society at large.
The lighting was interesting – I felt like I was watching a radio play at times in the first half as the stage was lit so dimly, and then at some point, it suddenly got too bright. But once a happy medium was found, a good rapport with the audience was eventually established. Peter Born, Okpokwasili’s husband, directs the show – I trust the irony is not lost on them that this production, partly about white privilege, is itself directed by a white straight male. Bronx Gothic is certainly an unusual show, best appreciated by people looking for something far removed from the mainstream.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Part theatre, part dance and part visual art installation, Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic delves into her memories of growing up in the Bronx, before emerging into a breathtaking exploration of girlhood.
Created in collaboration with Peter Born, in this UK premiere, Bronx Gothic draws on inspiration from West African griot storytelling to ask what it means to be brown in a world that values whiteness.
A Young Vic and Sweat Variant co-production
Writer, Performer and Sound Designer: Okwui Okpokwasili
Director, Visual and Sound Designer: Peter Born
1-29 June 2019