Okwui Okpokwasili isn’t waiting around for someone to tell her story. The multi-talented artist has pushed herself into the spotlight on her own terms. She’s the star of the new documentary Bronx Gothic, which follows her one-woman theater piece as it tours the U.S. Okwui channels her personal stories to confront trauma and give testimony for folks who are at risk of being invisible in mainstream media.
The artist and mother, who just got a new wave of attention thanks to her appearance in Jay-Z’s music video for “4:44,” is always pushing herself to think critically. In her chat with CASSIUS, we discuss coping with violence in light of the most recent police killings, and how she was able to channel the many stories of her Bronx community. We also discuss the exciting potential of game changers like Ava DuVernay, and what it means to imagine a world outside of violence.
Bronx Gothic is obviously an intimate piece. Was it hard to trust the director, or was there an immediate chemistry?
Absolutely, I’ve known him for over 20 years. We went to college together. And I feel like he’s a really smart and thoughtful guy. He understands what my concerns are. I’ve been having conversations with him for a very long time about making a piece of work that speaks to a critical perspective — how I feel about what it is to have a body in performance. If I’m performing, there are certain things that are a part of my performance, even if I don’t acknowledge it or draw attention to it. So, I want to honor what my body is doing in a space. I’ve had conversations with him about this and also with him as a white man. How is he looking? Or what is his awareness about how he looks?
Was there any struggle or weight of responsibility reenacting the lives of people in the Bronx and mixing in your own personal experiences?
No. I felt the weight and responsibility to find a proper container for the kind of conversation I wanted to have was the work, but especially because it’s so personal to me, even though it’s not autobiographical. I’m really pulling from certain folks in my life and people that I knew in my life. But I wasn’t naming them, I was taking it onto me. I felt like my job was to figure out, okay, here is this text that I’m making, I want to have a conversation with these women and these girls. In this conversation, what are their bodies doing? I’m thinking about adolescence and the process of becoming. How can I make a platform for me to re-experience that process of becoming?
You use the words “brown girl” and “Black girl” interchangeably throughout the documentary. Is there a distinction between Black and brown for you?
That’s a really good question because sometimes I think, well nobody’s actually Black right? All of us are brown or various shades of brown. I feel like Blackness is a kind of racial construction as something that has a legacy and is imbued with a kind of power and pain or has a particular position within the United States and globally. So, even though I use them both interchangeably, I do kind of think of them differently, the difference of brown skin and Blackness. There’s also Southeast Indian people, Latinx people. I guess, brown is trying to encompass an entire spectrum of the shades of people of color or people from the south, I don’t know. Maybe I need to think more critically about it, but that’s kind of how I think about it. But it’s true, it’s like I can’t decided. I kind of want to be both.
One of the most emotional parts of the doc was when you talked about Black people’s constant proximity to violence. How have you come to understand violence?
There’s physical violence. There is that sense of the violence done vicariously — the violence that you feel is done onto you when you’re exposed to these viral videos of people who are capturing violence. You start to feel that violence is done to you. Tamir Rice shot in five seconds. When you see of course, Philando Castile bleeding out in that car. For me in that car was the actual physical, deathly violence. What is the transmission of violence that happens to the little four-year-old girl sitting there, probably experiencing a fear for her life and her family’s life? And there is Diamond Reynolds, his girlfriend, the violence that’s done to her by her having to suppress her anguish and the trauma in order to remain in control of the situation. The violence of trying to manage your fear and your rage in the face of clear transgression. The violence that someone is beating on you and you’re trying not to show any pain.
And where I grew up in the Bronx, I grew up in a pretty nice place, Parkchester. But there was a proximity to violence. Everyone fights. You’re in the school yard. You can’t let someone mess with you. You got to fight with them so that they know even if you’re going to lose, they know they can’t just mess with you in a way that looks like they’re going to get over. You had to be willing to put your body on the line to preserve your own space. You have to subject yourself to violence so that there’s certain boundaries. There are also acts of sexual violence that I’ve witnessed. Violence that I would hear about, the things I would see happen to girls, like being dry-humped in the school yard.
How do you cope with violence in your life and do you have any suggestions for the Black community?
The imagination. Really enjoying and indulging in the presence of the people you love, like enjoying your family or your home, or going to parties and dancing and singing. Making and imagining things with your friends, the imagining of some other potentials, of other worlds. And then the joy I get when I’m reading Toni Morrison or looking at all of the young women who are making incredible work.
There’s a moment in the doc when you talk about the audience members gazing at you, yet you felt empowered because you were also gazing back at them. When it comes to Black women in the media over the past 20 years, do you feel the white or male gaze has changed, and do you think Black women have more power over their image?
I’m a little old, so sometimes I’m not totally up to speed with everything that’s happening. But obviously there are all of these Black popular artists who are producing their own work. They’re the creators, they’re the progenitors of their images, they’re the creative director, like Solange. In popular culture there’s the sense that women are shaping narratives, like Ava DuVernay. All of these people who are saying we need to take the means of production into our own hands to shape the image. So that has shifted and that’s amazing. However, sometimes I feel like, how can we make images that also go against traditional ideas? In popular culture, sometimes money is associated with value. Just because someone is selling a lot of albums or someone is making a lot of money, that suggests value. And maybe I’m just missing stuff. I know India.Arie, Jill Scott, all these women are still making stuff and I’m dating myself again because I feel like they’re almost old school. But can we undermine this idea that the thing that gives you value is money? Although it’s important for people to be able to control their means of production, but how do we break from certain ideas about value?
Five or 10 years from now, what hopes do you have for the theater piece and the documentary?
There’s a part of me that tries not to project too much. I want to allow things to happen, see where it goes, be surprised. But I would love to publish Bronx Gothic. I would love to publish the text. I’d like to maybe see another woman try to do the piece. I would like to experience it from the audience. For the film, I just hope that it lives on and gives people that watch it the sense that a brown girl can tell her story, a Black girl can tell her story — and it’s with total specificity and rigor, but it also can address a universal human condition. Like, how to deal with becoming. How do you become yourself? How do you meet yourself? I hope it lives like that.
You can check out Bronx Gothic at the Film Forum in New York City. Check your local listings for any future screenings.