Writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili brings an incredible intensity to her one-woman show at the Young Vic chronicling a vivid but disturbed childhood through fractured memories.
The performance, which is directed by Peter Born, opens to Okpokwasili alone on stage dancing, vibrating and shaking. This lasts around 15 minutes, just Okpokwasili standing in the corner constantly moving. The audience focuses on her physical form for so long as the dancing morphs to violent trembling that we start to feel her vulnerability. I felt scared for what was about to become of this fragile nameless brown female form. Perhaps this is the point, as the show explores identity and what it is to grow up as a black girl.
Through letters between childhood frenemies, she tells the story of the world of these two girls, evoking realistic scenarios of friendship, bullying and identity as they navigate their way through life in the Bronx. It is easy for the audience to get lost in the richness and colour of these worlds, sometimes hilarious and sometimes brutal. However the vivid stories are interrupted by song, movement and direct address to the audience in a spoken word style. Is this a play, stand up, something else entirely? The constant shifting form creates emotional distance from the characters in the letters, from the persona on stage and makes an already complicated play more complex. It stops us connecting.
The staging is sparse; a few plants are placed at different points around the stage with a single lamp among each group of plants. There is only ever one lamp on at a time creating a single source of light, which changes positions throughout the performance casting the rest of stage mainly in shadow. The use of light and darkness helps the performance live up to its name, the idea of gothic horrors lurking in the darkness.
However despite this creative use of limited staging, the inventive use of letters to tell the story, and the triple threat of Okpokwasili (she can dance, act and sing well), the performance fails to evoke the mood of the gothic and ends up being a bit jumbled.
Bronx Gothic is a clearly a very personal work, and you get the feeling that stripped back, it could have been sheer genius. The show is inventive and bold but, ultimately, leaves the audience behind.