Last Thursday night at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts, Bronx Gothic conjured centuries of allusions to the genre of literature its title references: a setting among metropolitan ruins, romantic notions of adolescence (however perverse and subverted), hints of sinister events, elements of the grotesque, and the shifting voices of a complex and disturbing medley of Faulknerian characters. Okwui Okpokwasili, the solo performer as well as co-creator of the show (with director and designer Peter Born), spent the first ten minutes of the show with her back to the audience, gyrating in a kind of ecstatic dance in the far corner. Her shadow bounced up and down the white curtains that were draped in a rectangle on the stage to create a more intimate space with the small audience. The floor was littered with toppled lamps, flowers and greenery strewn among the off-kilter domestic scene.
As voices argued louder over one another on what sounded like a busy street corner and an industrial beat permeated the soundscape, Okpokwasili worked in more conversational, and furious, gestures, as her shoulders and knees twitched more intensely. Even though her face was rarely caught, and then only in profile, there was no question as to the animation of it. What seemed like a neighborhood full of characters coursed through her body, exerting all of their competing needs and wants on one another. Demands emanated out to the audience from her articulate back, bare in a halter dress, and lanky limbs. The gradual ramp up in the intensity of the pulsating movements was effective in setting a mood and larger context for the rest of the show.
Eventually she turned around, breaking the trance of the audience, and made her way to a microphone that was lit downstage. After the hard edges of the first section, Okpokwasili’s voice sounded surprisingly soft. From here, she alternated between spoken word dialogues between two young girls, monologues about lucid dreaming, sequences of strenuous floor work, and snippets of a cappella song. Pieces of paper, which we learned were childhood letters between grade school frenemies, decorated the base of the mic stand. Affecting the voice of a pre-pubescent girl, she began reading from a note where the protagonist wondered innocently about the female orgasm. The harsh reply, full of adult realities, came out in a deeper, dismissive voice, full of insults and slights from the sassy friend who has already gone through puberty. As this epistolary plot developed, the audience was let into the world of these children who are 11 going on 41, with chores that include buying cigarettes for a mother’s boyfriend (who is also the babysitter–just one of many clues things are headed somewhere terrible) and concerns that the only way to be less ugly, less black, is to have the color slapped right off of you. Just when the tone of the show was heading toward the overwrought or wandering too far into the cerebral, the bombastic, ever dark humor of these letters set the performance back on its cliff-hanging course. Hilarious rants–among them, one about how the protagonist is such a selfish bitch who can’t ever be trusted because she refuses to share her double dutch jump rope–provided a levity and universality that helped me connect with and care about the unfair futures awaiting these characters.
Unfortunately, I never really figured out what happened to them. Clearly, the goal of this show was to leave the audience questioning the violence and thinking about the idea of transformation so central to this coming-of-age tale, rather than assert a final, moral authority. But after switching back and forth between her characters so chaotically on her way to the show’s crisis, where the main protagonist, now an adult, seemed to be headed for a confrontation with her old friend, I was hoping for more specificity in the final catharsis. I walked out into the night wondering if the two 11-year-old girls were supposed to be perceived as separate characters, with one getting her period as the other suffered through the birth of a child, or if they were meant to merge into the grown up woman performer, who conflates the two bloody events as one. Maybe for the talented and multi-faceted Okpokwasili, the answer is both.