Review: Bronx Gothic, Young Vic

Written and performed by Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic delves into her memories of growing up in the Bronx. Set in the confusing age between childhood and adolescence, it examines young girls exploring their bodies and discovering how the outside world reacts to their blossoming sexuality.

Entering the performance space is like stepping through a curtain into a different world, a mysterious Alice in Wonderland environment. Bedside lamps are standing or lying higgledy-piggledy amidst clumps of grass and flowers. Only some are on, creating an early evening glow.

As our eyes start becoming accustomed to the dim light and the chatter of the audience subsides, things start falling into place and a dancing figure with her back to us comes into focus.

For the first 20 minutes, Okpokwasili doesn’t say a word. She is standing in a corner of the stage twerking and wiggling to the looping, unrelenting music, her feet stamping the ground, arms rising towards the sky. Her face is hidden to us, but her bare back betrays the emotional and physical weight her body is bearing.

Every muscle is pulsing, you can see the skin fold and stretch, sweat starting to glisten and drip as it darkens her dress. Okpokwasili seems driven by the noise, holding on as it moves through her.

The looping organ music slowly fades out, overpowered by an unrelenting grating noise, mixing with the laughter and shouts of children playing. Ultimately all sounds give way to a bone-shaking bass causing Okpokwasili movements to get larger as she starts jumping and gyrating her hips, mixing something childlike with potent sexuality.

Okpokwasili is still moving once the music drops out, her heavy breathing punching through the dreamlike surroundings.

When she finally turns to us, her face is striking, angular and drenched in sweat, the play of light and shadow making her features harder. Still shaking she peers around the room, seemingly eyeing the audience with curiosity, challenging them, sometimes seeming fearful. She seems caught within her own body. Every controlled change in her facial expressions manages to provoke a different response from the audience.

When she begins to speak the change in tone is unnerving; her voice is steady and composed. She wants to share a note with us. It is not a demand; the words have a motherly feel to them.

Throughout the play, Okpokwasili reads us a correspondence between two 11-year-old girls as they discuss boyfriends, sex, orgasms, blowjobs. One of them is sexually active, her voice sounding closer to that of an adult starkly contrasting with the other girl who sounds high-pitched and childlike. Their discussion of sexuality is both humourful and shocking, as we don’t expect children that young to talk with such innocent vulgarity.

Part dance, part theatre and part visual installation, Bronx Gothic is fragmented and swirls with an energy that keeps us on edge. Director and Designer Peter Born has created a space which lies between our world and the world of dreams. Even though the story is broken by stark contrasts and doesn’t offer up any answers, Okpokwasili commands our attention, ultimately deciding herself whether we are awake or in a dream.

Bronx Gothic is playing the Young Vic until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.