Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic: The Path to Sexual Awakening

okwuiokpokwasili_bronxgothic-pic7
Photo Credit Ian Douglas

by Gregory King for the Dance Journal

A convulsing Okwui Okpokwasili claimed one corner of the curtained space insider the theater of the waterfront headquarters of FringeArt. Wearing a purple dress with her back exposed, the New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) award winner, appeared to be in a trance-like state in which the Gods were using her body as a vibrating vessel of stories to be told.

It was like watching the beginning of Nora Chipaumire’s Dark Swan.

White panels of fabric framed the intimate performance space while lamps and silk flowers traced the periphery of the stage. I wondered about the set choice but later realized the lamps were a part of the light design by Peter Born. This was the first time I had seen such a design and found it highly effective as it successfully aided in setting the moods that would be created as Okpokwasili relived memories.

The fact that patrons were still being escorted in, suggested the trembling Okpokwasili was a prelude to the main work; that Bronx Gothic had not begun.

But it had, and her quivering body turned out to be the proof.

The work relied heavily on Okpokwasili’s trembling because it chaperoned us through delicate moments of humor, penitent denouncement of guilt, and concession to acceptance. Like her trembling, the flow of the show came in waves; framed as poetry, song, or dance. It was the shiver that started the show and that you felt throughout as you were watching it.

My dreamlike state was interrupted when the droning sound of the audio evolved into an urban rhapsody of hip hop and funk. With the thumping rhythms of the new sound, Okpokwasili faced front but the ecstatic reverie of her quaking body never ceased.

Okpokwasili skittered her juddering body towards a microphone, which was attached to a standing light fixture. “I wanna share something with you, a note passed between two girls at the tender age of 11, one of which was me,” she said, reading from folded pieces of papers she picked up from the floor.

Her bawdy revelations contained pubertal details of bathroom titty touching, cumming, and cigarettes. Some of it was uncomfortable to hear, but each story bled with some amount of humor, familiarity and unpolished grit, allowing the audience to move from laughter to charged emotional reactions from what was being witnessed; whether it was her story of a Frisbee being used to achieve orgasm or breaking a bottle with which to cut a bitch.

Her movements did not travel across the space, but the space she was in held her movements like a nest holds an egg. Daunting and memorable were the images she created and her intense delivery only hammered home the emotional grip.

While sitting on the floor and balancing on her sacrum, she opened her ribcage, spreading her arms as if taking the time to inhale her last breath, then she collapsed.

A sumptuous blend of music, dance, theatre, and visual arts, Bronx Gothic was not your mom and pop experimental performance art piece with tame language, it was unrestrained, thought provoking, and chillingly raw.

In a moment of physical rambunctiousness, Okpokwasili dropped to the floor in a plank position, sinking one joint at a time; an elbow, a knee, the other elbow, the other knee, before she violently crumpled to the floor . This was the effect of Bronx Gothic; story by story, we were brought closer to a release. Sometimes it was a release of tears, as in when she spoke of the bleeding girl on the living room floor, other times she evoked laughter, with her explanation of the term “slap the black off you.”

Bronx Gothic was not about sex but more about sexual awakening and the not so tidy road you take to get there……often times asking yourself, “am I awake?”

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

View All Posts