Okwui Okpokwasili’s solo show, inspired by her memories of growing up in New York’s Bronx, starts with a prolonged period of shaking. The performer and writer vibrates with a deadly, overwhelming energy that causes her flesh to ripple in repeated waves from her ankles to her neck.
This ritualistic, rapid discharge of energy is physically impressive, yet what’s more immediately shocking is the perspiration coating Okpokwasili when she eventually turns to face us. Bronx Gothic is a masterpiece of physicality and endurance in which a single body becomes a vessel channelling memories, histories, suppressions, desires and sorrows.
It’s also a beguilingly clever piece of storytelling. Okpokwasili intercuts passages of dance with readings from a collection of notes passed between two semi-fictionalised schoolgirls. It would be easy to get distracted by the sexually explicit parts, when in fact, Okpokwasili, like the best of gothic storytellers, is subtly leading the audience towards a devastating conclusion that arrives seemingly while everyone is looking the other way.
Directed and designed by Peter Born, the cloaked-off stage area, which is dotted with multiple table lamps and miniature plants, doesn’t really warrant the advertised description of “visual art installation” but the piece is a mesmerising expression of black girlhood and female sexuality –existing in a fluid, liminal space between waking and dreaming. It’s rare to see a performer sincerely offer so much of themselves to an audience. The result is breathtaking.