When to Burn the Heart: Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic

Words by Oluwaseun Olayiwola | Images by Helen Murray


            and when the sun rises we are afraid

            it might not remain

            when the sun sets we are afraid

            it might not rise in the morning

 And so begins the third stanza of Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival, the poem quoted by Okwui Okpokwasili in the program note for her evening-length dance-theatre work Bronx Gothic.Lorde’s poetry would seem a grandparent, a relative, of Okpokwasili’s work. Where the undefined ‘we’ in A Litany for Survival remains undefined due to its disembodiment, its nature as words on the page; the ‘we’ in Bronx Gothic is a collective ‘we’ identified through Okpokwasili’s body. In Litany, ‘we’ is historical, in Bronx Gothic, visual and auditory. Though both works converge around the type of ‘we’, in this case we can assume a ‘we’ composed of, but not limited to: black bodies, female bodies, voiceless bodies, bodies with stored trauma.

            So it is better to speak 


            we were never meant to survive

The conclusion of Lorde’s poem and where Bronx Gothic seemed to begin.

Upon entering the space, we were met with a shaking, gyrating body against white curtain-walls. In London’s Young Vic Theatre, where I saw this work, audience members were forced to step on the edges of the space to find their seats. From the beginning, we stepped into the space of Okpokwasili, implicating our bodies as we, performer and audience alike, endure 20 minutes of ass-shaking. Sweat formed as her shake became a deep quake. The audience shifted with the movement change too: first we were bystanders, then we were voyeurs, complicit. Should we have saved her? Should we have stopped the quake? Was the shake a sort of life force? Okpokwasili backed up from the corner and the music drops. Then, her body dropped. Then, the music. Then, her body. Who could drop louder, harder? Flowers lit the room as the shaking turned into an obsession: it felt as if the shake (15 minutes and counting now) was killing her. Our only relief was finally seeing her face as she turned around. A gasp of deserved breath followed, sweat dripped, and she gazed into the void as if we, indeed, had failed to intervene, to save her.

Then entered two girls both voiced by Okpokwasili. The differentiation between the two was only noted in her pitch differences: a seemingly younger, more naïve, character assumed the higher pitch of Okpokwasili’s voice, while the more learned, experienced character took on the natural register of Okpokwasili’s voice. The high-pitched character asks questions concerning sex, orgasm, and cumming. As the work persists, the higher-pitched voice, for me, became a living response to trauma; the place where you go to cope. “Am I awake? Am I awake?” this voice would ask after episodes of inferred sexual assault by an older male figure in the work. 

Memory and dream fused, though in blurred lines, throughout the course of this work. The shifting between speakers, present and past, recollection and reality, created an atmosphere where the only people allowed to sit comfortably, if at all, were the audience members. The meta-theme of trust unified the disparate subthemes of: black bodies in pain, gender politics at work, and coping strategies in response to chronic trauma. The trust of elders to keep you safe, the trust of self (or multiple selves), and the trust that you can harbor secrets and hold all of your trauma. However, the audience is only privy to the panic of the characters: panic of the body changing, panic of the body getting older, panic of being split mentally. But panic is not mere drama or aesthetic, in Bronx Gothic, panic is survival. To not panic would be to go peacefully into the foreboding world – in this world filled with predatory men, honor of social convention, and trauma meant to be handled alone, silenced. “Don’t look at nobody! Don’t talk to nobody! Don’t breathe!” This phrase is intended to be a shield from the world, offered to the main character by her mother, but dually, it infers the idea that one should close off the self, become a recluse, hold it all in like an unrealized shout.

Binaries can be used to express the tired polarities: good and evil, hope and despair, even, you and I. Okpokwasili, astutely, creates a duality in her work through using two different voices through one body. And then, rather than suggesting poles, the characters are supplementary, meaning, their pain is distributed. It’s worth mentioning that the two characters never receive names. This could be anyone talking, meaning, many people could have these stories. The lack of names also suggests a fluid line between the two characters that Okpokwasili voices. The difference, to the audience, is auditory, never titular; Okpokwasili never explicitly says they are different. And so, this ambiguity becomes important. A poignant event repeated throughout the work was Okpokwasili reading letters to herself, from one ego to the other, inferring a mental disconnect. In writing, thoughts are made visible rather than cerebral, and Okpokwasili was able, for a moment, to sort the brain juggling that the audience can sense.

A pivotal moment for me was when the line between egos was ruptured. Okpokwasili’s high-pitched voice claimed to know where the letters, scattered like flower petals on the floor, were coming from (her other self); a sign of some cohesion beginning to occur in the consciousness of the performer. The voice uttered in juvenile lucidity: “I know the notes by heart. To get rid of them, I’d have to burn my heart.” This line rang of sorrow her character had learned to live with. In this work, sorrow is a normalization of trauma, tolerance and the subsequent product of habituation – continued life. To end this cycle, we’d have to “burn our heart,” or die.

Yet, Okpokwasili persists. She writes, she dreams, she laughs, she posts-up in the world to let us know she is a fighter. And so the play became laced with a trace of hope. Hope, metaphorically of course – hope born in darkness, as it always seems darkness is a precursor. This were the work lives, as a predecessor to hope, offering a final contrast between A Litany for Survival and Bronx Gothic. “we were never meant to survive” is the final line in Lorde’s poem. Bronx Gothic holds this statement close and then, speaks anyway.

 Okpokwasili is a powerhouse performer and playwright. In her hands, trauma was honored, not as the finicky concept of a “hurdle” or “something” to get over, but something you live with forever, a part of you that affects your steps, your words, and your continuously quaking body. In one evening, she skated between those thematic weights with nuance and detail all the while avoiding the abstract. She asked, or rather forced, us to look at her body, look at her curves, at her splits, and her pain. She sat with her fire and Bronx Gothic asked the audience to stay put, even when they could feel the flakes.

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