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Okwui Okpokwasili
Photograph: Peter BornOkwui Okpokwasili

Coil Festival: An interview with writer-performer Okwui Okpokwasili

In Bronx Gothic, writer-performer Okwui Okpokwasili explores the dark side of urban childhood.

Writer-performer Okwui Okpokwasili has become a fixture of New York’s performing-arts scene, having worked with artists like Julie Taymor and choreographer Ralph Lemon. Now, she’s delving into her childhood in Bronx Gothic, a solo piece that explores burgeoning sexuality of kids growing up too fast in the Koch-era BX.

What was the basis for Bronx Gothic?
I grew up in the Bronx in the ’80s, late ’70s, [and there were] these notes that my friend and I used to pass between us in grade school. Some of them were really florid and dirty. We could spend a day moving one note to each other from class to class, and you would save them and read them over and over. If teachers could’ve seen some of the things that we were writing, I think they would be horrified. To imagine some of these things were happening under their noses—people talking about what they had done with their boyfriends or what they were thinking of doing. How did we have the information that we had? I wanted to try to reconstruct: Who were we as young girls? Was there ever a moment of innocence? And maybe it also had to do with the fact that I was pregnant [at the time I was writing the piece] and I knew I was having a girl.

So is it partially autobiographical?
The piece starts off with one particular note from my childhood. And it’s very sexually explicit—talking about blow jobs and anal sex. My mother eventually found the note, and it was really, really bad! This is not stuff that people think of children knowing about. How are we supposed to deal with children that have that kind of awareness at 11 years old? It was really interesting to me.

Where does the gothic come in?
It comes from a sense of a darkness that lay beneath these girls and this knowledge. There was a largeness to the Bronx—there were corners and alleys and dark places that you weren’t supposed to go to. There was a kind of horror, for me. I remember when I was 12, I had an 11-year-old friend who had a 15-year-old boyfriend. We would have these really intense talks about whether she would have sex with him or not—and I had never had sex, you know? People who had this information were getting called sluts, and then you would discover that someone had maybe been raped by somebody. So the gothic comes from the darkness around this sexual knowledge at that young age.

There’s also an element of West African griot storytelling in the show.
Griots are holders of cultural histories, and they pass these things down in the community and keep them alive. I’m telling what is a partially true history about a group that most of us don’t necessarily get to hear from. But it’s also an anti-griot thing, because it’s a story that you would want to keep hidden, or keep withheld. Griots tell stories of exalted people; they’re not telling stories of little kids who are doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. We were invisible to a lot of adults. We were to be kept quiet. And in the larger media of that time, our stories weren’t being told.

It looks like it’s a really physical performance as well.
Yeah, it’s about trying to find what I call a reverberating body, a body in transition. I have been setting up some extreme durational things for myself, so that I find another state, so that I come through from one place into another. Sometimes when people push themselves to certain extremes physically, they find that there’s a softening of the skin, or a kind of sloughing off. You’ve just pushed yourself into another mode.

You’re currently ending a run in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is it hard to balance that with rehearsal for Bronx Gothic?
I think there’s something compulsive about the way performers make schedules. We see open pieces of our calendar and we think, Oh, we can do that. Or maybe it’s just fear of not working—every opportunity seems like a good opportunity, or something. An empty space in the calendar feels like some kind of void. But I want to start to embrace those empty spaces now, because I have a family, and I’d like to see them.

Do you see an exchange of ideas among all the local and international artists who converge on downtown during festival season?
I think that there are attempts for that to happen. I wonder if across the festivals it happens. There’s space made within festivals—Coil is going to have a literal conversation at the end of it. But it’s inevitable as people crisscross their way around town going to different events that there will be some kind of enlivening conversation around what people are making and why.

Bronx Gothic is at Danspace Project ( Jan 14, 16–19, 28, 30–Feb 1; $20, festival pass $75–$122.
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