“…and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”
– An excerpt from Audrey Lorde’s Litany for Survival, given as a writer’s note for Bronx Gothic
On a set of tumbled lamps, plastic grasses and kitsch figurines something remarkable and intangible occurs. This thing is the production of Bronx Gothic, although to call it a production is somehow limiting and inaccurate. It is a spell, a prayer, a lament and a battle cry. It is a sweating identity crisis. It is a nightmare and a dream and a re-reading of teenage notes. It is a dance and a song, a ritual.
As the audience enters the space, a woman dances with her back to us in the corner, a twitching containment of gyrations and flicks. A soundscape swells as the lights dim and we hear distorted voices calling across crashing electronic melodies. The dancing changes, becoming bolder and more vigorous, partly in response to the soundscape but more it seems in response to the performer’s internal world, her visions, dreams, memories. Dips in the sound allow us to hear her breath, before we are plunged back into the raving noise.
Having withheld her face from us for so long it is confronting when Okwui Okpokwasili, writer and performer of Bronx Gothic, finally turns and looks into the audience. Her eyes dart and charge amongst the benches of the Young Vic studio, her drumming feet keeping her body in perpetual, juddering motion. This breaks after what seems an age into an entirely different mode, with Okpokwasili picking up notes from the floor and reading them to us. There is humour, and some exquisite characterisation – notes passed between two teenage girls, discussing orgasms, boys and bodies. A single standing lamp in the middle of the stage illuminates Okpokwasili’s hands and paper, her face dimly lit, allowing the voices to float disconnected from the physical, evoking memories. The logic of the notes is broken by movement and song¸ and a slow unravelling suggests a confusion of reality and identity, the struggle to self-actualise, to “gather your skin […] pull it together”.
Okpokwasili is an extraordinary performer, moving from physical sequences to easy, conversational monologues with a grounded dynamism that is magnetic to watch. She is powerful, moving from ease to horror to fury to tears, weaving a dream-narrative, casting a spell. This is not a production that gives the audience an easy answer: it does not lend itself to easy philosophy or analysis. It is something much more, in that it challenges the audience to bear witness to Okpokwasili’s process, to the processing of pain and of nightmares. This feels like a new kind of theatre, in which the performer draws as much from the audience as we draw from her, both necessary components in the alchemy of the work.