4 Questions with ‘Bronx Gothic’ Creator and Star Okwui Okpokwasili

By Sameer Rao Jul 11, 2017

Multidisciplinary artist Okwui Okpokwasili, who you might notice dancing in JAY-Z’s TNEG-directed short "4:44," earned widespread acclaim and her second Bessie Award for "Bronx Gothic," a one-woman show that tackles the violent socialization of Black and Brown girls. A new documentary of the same name will further her influence. 

In the "Bronx Gothic" documentary, director Andrew Rossi ("The First Monday in May") weaves together clips of the work which is about two Black girls navigating puberty amid sexual and societal violence. Okpokwasili uses jagged movements, an abrasive score, fractured conversations and the recitation of letters to "put the audience in the bodies of Black girls." The film builds on these themes with talkbacks with Black women in the audience, Okpokwasili’s reflections on growing up in The Bronx and candid discussions about race with her White husband, Peter Born, who directed the play. 

We spoke to Okpokwasili ahead of the film’s premiere tomorrow (July 12) at New York City’s Film Forum, discussing her intent for the documentary, the Black Lives Matter movement, performing in predominantly-White theater spaces, "4:44" and far more. Here’s a condensed version of that conversation. 

Before we jump into "Bronx Gothic," describe your involvement with "4:44" and TNEG.

I’ve known [TNEG member and filmmaker] Arthur Jafa ("Daughters of the Dust") for quite a while, and JAY-Z was talking to him about "losing the ego," or becoming something that’s not JAY-Z. He asked Arthur to do something, and Arthur asked me to come and be a part of it. We were thinking about Black love and its complexity, and I was so psyched to be a part of it. I actually actually never even met or talked with JAY-Z, except in this vicarious way. It was such a privilege to work with [dancer and co-star] Storyboard P.

TNEG was taking, in a form of collage, these curated moments that come from Black life, and making a world of it. Storyboard P and my characters were emerging out of that narrative and going back into it. I like that we’re part of this larger ecology, but there’s a very specific rhythmic language that TNEG is working with in its entirety. I’m not necessarily thinking about it as a performer, but I’m a part of it. 

You explain in the documentary that you intend for "Bronx Gothic" to create a sort of understanding about Black and Brown girls’ lives with the audience. Given the live component’s importance, why did you decide to make this into a documentary?

Andrew [Rossi] actually initiated this process. I sometimes thought to myself about a "Bronx Gothic" narrative fiction film, nothing like the theatrical performance, but Andrew approached me about making a documentary and following us on tour. "Bronx Gothic" is meant to be an intimate experience, with a spectacle to the intimacy, and I’m interested in the live space’s potential to transmit things over a kind of energetic force field—how do we get entangled with each other in a space, and how can I make a space for our bodies to be engaged in some invisible mutual transmission? So how can you shape that in a film? That was my question for Andrew. I think he’s a really incredible filmmaker, so I was willing to jump into this question with him and how he’d frame a conversation around it. I want to make a space where there’s a complicated and vulnerable experience around being in a Brown or Black girl’s body, so why not put this in a film where it can live? 

"Bronx Gothic" speaks from and to the perspective of Black girls learning about sex, friendship and family in a society that polices everything they do. Your husband Peter Born, who is White, directed the show. At least one performance featured in the movie at Philadelphia’s FringeArts was predominantly White. Does performing something so intimate about Black womanhood before the White gaze present affect you at all?

One could ask if I’m OK with being framed or figured by this White male gaze, whether in the film or the actual performance, but I’d say that’s not true. I’m constantly talking back to that gaze, shaping the argument, defining the terms of the conversation. When I make a work, I look for liberation from any presumed behavior that results from this dominant gaze. Part of my hope for the work is to have a conversation with myself or other Black and Brown women, to shape an act of "being" that isn’t concerned with talking to a White man. 

Right now, what the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to frame is saying that there’s a particular way that the state deals with the Black body. The Black body signifies something to the state that imperils its life. The propaganda of fear around Black bodies has been internalized to justify that disciplining—how obvious can you get besides Philando Castile, or cops chasing 15-year-olds away from a party and shooting into a car? If we can’t get to some shared understanding of what the Black body signifies in this culture, and many others, how can we have a conversation? 

You mention in the film that you hope for the show to create this kind of shared understanding with the audience. With so many ways to interpret the work, has anybody straight up not gotten it? 

I’m sure that there were, but the only time I ever felt a feeling of "I don’t know what’s happening with these people" is when I performed it in Zagreb, Croatia. There was a problem with translation, which we found out when we got there, where whoever was translating didn’t do the second half of the piece. All of a sudden, we had 24 hours to do a translation from vernacular English to Croatian, and I don’t know what the fuck people are reading. Clearly there are some issues with burgeoning White nationalism in Eastern Bloc countries that I was trying not to hold onto too much, because I had to do the piece with its vulnerability intact. They were laughing at things that nobody had ever laughed at, like they laughed every time I said the N-word—were they laughing out of nervousness? Because they agree? I have no idea. 

"Bronx Gothic" premieres at New York City’s Film Forum tomorrow, July 12, and will open nationwide soon via Grasshopper Film.