Okwui Okpokwasili Is Not Just a Brown Body Subject to Your Gaze
“Do I even exist if that existence can be erased without any kind of acknowledgement?” asks dancer/artist Okwui Okpokwasili in the new documentary Bronx Gothic, which opened Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum. The movie charts the 2016 national tour (and final performances) of Okpokwasili’s timely one-woman show of the same name, in which she plays two 11-year-old girl characters growing up in the Bronx in the ‘80s. “Drawing inspiration from Victorian-era novels and West African griot storytelling, Bronx Gothic reveals a powerful tale of sexual self-discovery, the (brown) body in transformation—and its accompanying humor, strangeness and love,” per its synopsis.
The footage of the Bronx Gothic performances in the film is so intense, beginning with 30 minutes of Okpokwasili dancing in a frenzy—positively vibrating—without music. In interviews and post-performance conferences with audience members, the documentary finds Okpokwasili putting into words what mostly was suggested by her performance. She explains the intention of the 30-minute warm-up—to ask her audience, “Can you be here?” and provoke them into receiving her messages. She discusses wanting to create “a flood of feeling for the brown body in pain” through her incredible physicality, which sometimes has her throwing herself on the floor. She acknowledges that she is creating her own narrative in a culture that has traditionally ignored and erased the experiences of people who aren’t straight white males.
“I’m not just a brown body subject to your gaze,” she says on the reflexive nature of her work. “It’s always clear that I’m watching you.”
The documentary, directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times, The First Monday in May) seamlessly marries Okpokwasili’s more subtle messaging within her performance with her own analysis and philosophizing. One of Okpokwasili’s goals is to suggest that a universal experience can be shared from the stories of two little black girls, and Rossi’s movie ensures accessibility to anyone curious enough to drop by. I spoke to Okpokwasili at Film Forum on Wednesday, Bronx Gothic’s opening night. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: What do you think about this movie?
OKWUI OKPOKWASILI: There’s a part of me that feels kind of protective of it. Andrew [Rossi] preserved something about the intimacy of it, and the people watching it. I feel grateful in a way that I got to go outside and look at the people coming—I’m looking at them in the show, but to have some time with them in this way, I feel like it’s a little gift.
It’s interesting to look at this movie in the subgenre of tour documentaries. You talk about having to write yourself into culture, just as a brown woman telling your story, but this documentary is perhaps an even less expected way in which you’re writing yourself into culture. You rarely see tour docs about a woman of color, or about performance of this kind.
That’s right. Just to make a space for that kind of moment of reaching out to try to understand. That’s the space I live in. That’s the performance and dance world. I want to generate a space that’s an energetic space—something’s happening, but you don’t always know where to put it. I want to make a space for the audience to have an imaginative journey and then meet me somewhere in it.
In the movie, you talk about how dancing for 30 minutes at the start of the show preps the audience to be there with you. It seems like a big part of your job goes beyond personal expression and into the realm of psychology.
Right. Or: “Can the body talk?” You read the body, and now can the body speak back to that reading? We spend so much time looking or not looking at each other’s bodies, trying to negotiate the distance, and I feel like, okay, what if we make a space where people just have to sit and watch? They can choose not to—I’m not going to make them.
Despite the somewhat abstract nature of this work, you’re shown in the movie participating in workshops with your spectators. Do you think it’s necessary to literalize this art?
Because it’s not a commercial work and because sometimes we’re going to universities—a large part of it happened at Alverno College in Milwaukee—often when people get funding to support this work, they have to prove in some way that it was of value to the community and that there was some kind of relationship formed. I don’t mind that but sometimes as an artist you’re like, “Wow, I made the work. I did the work. Now I’m doing the show.” You have to continue. It’s a little bit of a forced arrangement, but at the same time I do get a lot—people do give me so much. But I think it’s about this work not generating the revenue that other popular forms generate.
Isn’t it infuriating that original thought is not a commercial enterprise?
Original thought, or: I have this idea, I’m going to try to make a place where we can meet. It has nothing to do with anything else. I’m not going to sell a bunch of shit. Get a ticket, come here, and let’s be here together. And so: Why isn’t that enough? But then I’m like, hey, we don’t have funding in a lot of schools for art programs or theater programs or music programs. And so in some ways we have to figure out how we educate each other. And in the end, you have these conversations and then you hope people can go into the next room, into the unknown and maybe they don’t need that the next time.
You talk about creating “a flood of feeling for the brown body in pain” via the intense physicality of your show. Do you pay much thought the fact that many who could use really use your message the most in all likelihood would never show up to your performance? Your audience is more likely to be empathetic to this cause.
It’s true. Playing to the choir or something like that. Ultimately, I do these pieces and I’m kind of talking to myself. I’m kind of talking to other black and brown girls, really. I think for everyone who wants to listen and take a piece of this, there’s something for all of us. I’m trying to suggest also that something as specific as the experience I am rendering can also be universal. It doesn’t just have to be a white straight dude [to reach people]. But when I think of the people who could use the message more, or sort of need to learn to open up the empathic pathways more, how do I get them into a room? I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want them in the room. But it would be amazing if they came in.
On the pragmatic side, you do say in the movie that one of the piece’s inherent questions is, “Can you take on not just the cool parts of blackness, but can you take on the pain?” In that respect, a lot of well-meaning white people can do better.
Right. I also think there has to be a space for white folks to be able to look at who they are and not just through black pain. I can’t worry about that necessarily. There are these bits of pleasure in the piece and I don’t know that’s so much in the film. There is a part of the piece about being intentional about constructing your consciousness that the little girls are sharing with each other, and that training also becomes something that the audience is able to do. So there are these moments of ways to find pleasure and find a way to be intentional about shaping how you think.
You collaborate with white men: Rossi is one, as is the director of your stage show about blackness, your husband, Peter Born. I wanted to get your opinion on this portion of Slant Magazine’s review of the movie: “It’s striking that a show about white dominion is directed by a white person.” The writer, Chuck Bowen, labels this as irony. I wonder if you agree?
The show is not about white dominion. It’s striking if you think the show is about white dominion and I don’t ever address the white people who are collaborating with me on it, but it’s not striking if that idea is not true and does not exist. There is never a mention of whiteness in the show, actually. No one says anything about whiteness. I thought it was interesting that whoever was watching it held onto the white dudes and tried to make it a piece about not addressing them, as if they were supposed to be central to the story, which to me again is a reflection of white privilege. You actually can’t even see what the thing is, you need to be inside of it somehow. I do say, not in the show but in the movie, “What it is to be a black girl in a world that privileges whiteness.” But the show is about the love and the strain and the shifting, changing body of this particular black girl. And there are no white people in her life, so she’s not talking about white folks ever.
But then it’s also interesting to think about how people think about directing. It’s true, my husband is white. He is my partner and collaborator. But when you think about the fact that I am the originator of the idea for the show, I am the writer of the show, I am the performer in the show, I am the choreographer of the show, and my husband is the director/designer, you still want to give some kind of primacy to what he does? Even though I think he is essential and critical to it, as someone who is an arguer with me. Someone who is a deep part of the exchange of ideas. But ultimately, he is there to get to the thing that I need to get to. He knows me and he knows how I like to work, what I like to do. And he knows how to help me shape a room to do that. Because when you’re the performer and the writer and the choreographer, it’s hard to just do the piece. Your mind is in so many other places. You’re writing grants, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, and it’s like someone has to be there like, “None of that, none of that. This is what you did. Now what is it?” It doesn’t have the power dynamic people are used to.
When you’re collaborating with him, do you encounter potentially limiting manifestations of his whiteness, like racism for example?
No. I don’t know if he grew up thinking he was a white person. That’s a privilege of whiteness, right? You grow up thinking you’re an American, you don’t have to think about your whiteness. I think he was more of a Lutheran—he grew up in a sheltered Lutheran community in the Midwest. Maybe why I’m with him and we work together is he’s curious and he asks questions if he doesn’t understand something. I’m not going to say, “Oh, Peter’s not a racist,” but…I don’t think he is a racist. Maybe there are times I’m annoyed with him, but I think that’s because he’s my husband and we’ve been together for so long. The biggest argument we had was I had been doing this 30-minute [intro dance], and someone said, “Well what happens if you do that and no one’s there and we all come in when it’s done and you’re bathed in sweat?” And I was like, “Okay, I may want to try that.” Peter argued me back into the thing that I originally wanted to do when I was thinking, “Maybe we could jettison it.”
Maybe there are things like, we need to do my daughter’s hair more. Like, “I feel like you give up too quickly, Peter.” She’s gotta get the hair done, she can’t walk around super nappy-headed and with lint in it. Maybe sometimes I feel like he doesn’t understand that, like how much that might make me feel like a bad parent, what it means to have a black child running around kind of too free, which is so fucked up. So maybe he doesn’t always understand that, even though now he finger combs her hair and can do it really nicely. And then I’m like, well why shouldn’t she be free to have her hair do whatever it wants to do? I’m not gonna straighten it with a hot comb and I’m not going to put a perm in it, but why am I so insistent that we comb her hair everyday or that it look a certain way? Or that she represents some kind of groomed presence out in the world?
I think how much you adhere to societal expectations and how much you assert your individuality in response is an eternal question.
I want to raise a liberated biracial girl/woman—whatever, who knows if she’ll always identify as cisgender for the rest of her life. Whatever it is, I want her to be liberated in spirit, kind, generous, and intellectually curious. How do I make that room? And Peter wants that too.
Has she seen the movie?
She is in [the theater] right now. Five years old. Sometimes it’s like, “Should she watch this?” But I don’t know, my parents took me to Kramer v. Kramer, dude. I was young. I was like, “Why is that woman’s ass out there? What are they doing?” She’s in it, and I think it would give her pleasure to see her family and sometimes you can see some of her friends in it. We watched Lemonade. I’m Not Your Negro, we watched that with her. I don’t know what she’s holding in. She’s rather watch My Little Pony. It hurts me, but it’s like, “She’s 5. It’s okay, it’s okay.”
In the movie you talk about how the privilege of bliss eluded the black girls in the Bronx you grew up with. I wonder if you’ve attained it and what it looks like.
I have so much privilege, too. At the time when I was growing up, maybe I didn’t think about it—I grew up in a small apartment with a big family. It was wild and beautiful and wonderful, but in Nigeria not everybody had running water. That was after the Biafran War, when we’d go back to the village in the late ‘70s as parts of Nigeria were still trying to rebuild. The Biafran people were the Igbo people, that’s my family. There was a lot of fucked-up shit there that even in the Bronx, when things might have been fucked up or scary or strange and I was an alien, at least I had clean water. I had consistent electricity and protection.
Bliss is my daughter and my husband. Making stuff. Bliss is all these wonderful people who come to support this—who came to the live show, and who put their bodies in the seats at Film Forum to continue to have this conversation with me. Bliss is seeing their work. Bliss is listening to them talk about a new idea. I do have a lot. I think I do have a lot of bliss.