Posts Tagged ‘Okwui Okpokwasili’

The Bronx Gothic Reading List

Posted March 9th, 2016

This weekend the wildly accomplished Brooklyn-based writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili brings her acclaimed show, Bronx Gothic, to FringeArts for what will undoubtedly be a powerful, unflinching performance. Developed through a series of residencies, the show finds Okpokwasili employing storytelling techniques that recall West African griot oral traditions as well as Victorian Gothic novels to render a portrait of two black girls on the brink of adolescence in 1980s outer-borough New York City. Through a series of notes passed between them in class, Okpokwasili probes the young friendship in all of its love, cruelty, innocence, and curiosity, as sex becomes a growing concern for both. “In popular imagination urban dwelling, gum chewing, subway hopping, loud and independent young brown girls were not the symbol of innocence that I grew up with,” Okpokwasili told FringeArts back in November. “I wanted to make an argument for a brown girl innocence, charged and precocious and dreamy.”


Okwui Okpokwasili, Photo by Peter Born

According to the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography’s website, during her time there as a Choreographic Fellow Okpokwasili explored thematic notions such as “assumptions and expectations that come with an ‘African’ or ‘African American’ subject/body, the possibilities of interchange between the performer and audience, how the performance space could be designed to reflect intimacy that is inviting but slightly unsettling, and the ways in which she might build a one woman performance piece that interrogates the possibilities and the limitations of this particular framework,” as they related to Bronx Gothic. With the assistance of director and designer Peter Born, it’s remarkable how effective she was at engaging these ideas in the show. In the aforementioned interview Okpokwasili noted, “The whole piece is about a kind of public/private space—the movement between someone presenting something to an audience and then in the midst of presenting, getting lost in the disorderliness of their memory.” Though each aspect of the show’s presentation—from its dreamlike set and lighting design, to its unsettling and effective use of movement—is integral to its power, perhaps the most vital of the thematic concerns Okpokwasili set out to explore is the interrogation of assumptions that come with an African or African American subject.

Throughout history there has been, and sadly continues to be, an alarming ignorance in mainstream consciousness of black female voices speaking to their own experiences—through performance art, through literature, through academic writing—and Okpokwasili is well aware of this shameful oversight. She provided a list of influential writings that informed Bronx Gothic, many of which speak directly to this issue or work to alleviate it. Below you’ll find the list, a mix of literature, academia, and journalism:

  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice” from Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya V. Hartman
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah for The New York Times Magazine
  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness & the Literary Imaginations by Toni Morrison
  • “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” from Black, White, and in Color by Hortense Spillers

I won’t be able to say with much certainty how each work influenced the show until this weekend, but until then I’d like to briefly examine the last three, each of which speaks to the need for works of art like Bronx Gothic.

“The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison”

Easily one of the world’s greatest living writers, Morrison has spent her entire career championing black voices in literature, first as an editor at Random House and later as the masterful writer we recognize her as today. In her recent profile for The New York Times Magazine, journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah articulates the vital role Morrison and the writers she helped provide a space for in publishing serve, as well as the dire need for such a space to continue to grow. In a particularly affecting passage that seems to ring truer and truer with each passing day, she writes, “For decades Morrison has reflected back to us what it’s meant to be on the other side of this country’s approved history. When young white men again sing songs about lynching black men without being able [to] recall who taught them those songs, and the hateful origins of the N-word are erased by a convenient amnesia to allow its constant use by outsiders, who will tell the stories we don’t tell ourselves?”

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginations

Morrison’s work, however, does not simply stand in opposition to outright bigotry, but rather the persistent, pervasive whitewashing that has been forever intertwined with the literary establishment, whether intentional or under the guise of sensitivity to the topic of race. In her book Playing in the Dark, Morrison argues, “A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist,” adding, “All of us, readers and writers, are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes.”

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Winter at FringeArts lights up the waterfront

Posted January 13th, 2016

Communications Intern Hugh Wilikofsky shares his comprehensive guide to the FringeArts Winter season.


As we gear up for our first show of 2016, we at FringeArts simply cannot contain our excitement over our entire upcoming winter season. Literally. It is tearing us all apart. We’ve been screaming about it at the top of our lungs for some time now and the neighbors hate us. This excitement needs an outlet. So, I am going to do my professional duty and alleviate at least a little bit of that need by clueing you all in to the future goings-on here by the waterfront.


Photograph: Moon So Young

First up, showing January 21-23 is Toshiki Okada’s latest play God Bless Baseball. A collaboration between Japanese and South Korean actors, the play follows two girls as they attempt to comprehend their countries’ favorite pastime with the help of a man who understands the game but despises it, and another who thinks he’s Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki. However, despite the men’s best efforts, the girls continually frustrate their explanations, slowly teasing out just how deeply rooted the game is in the everyday life of Japanese and South Korean people.

Though most contemporary Japanese theater rarely makes it outside of the country (as far as I know, though I’d be happy to be wrong on that one), since 2009 Okada’s work has received regular productions here in the US. His oeuvre is said to represent Japan’s “lost generation,” the group most affected by the Japanese recession of the 1990s and this is perhaps part of why he has found an audience here, in the wake of our own Great Recession. Characterized by the idiosyncratic vernacular of Japanese twentysomethings, his vérité writing style is in some ways akin to that of renowned American playwright Annie Baker, but his use of disjointed and abstract choreography based on exaggerations of everyday gestures imbues his works with a quirk all his own. On top of the Philadelphia premiere of God Bless Baseball, FringeArts will also be hosting a reading of Okada’s The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise directed by Pig Iron Theater Company artistic director Dan Rothenberg on January 18.

Escuela, La Dirección y dramaturgia está a cargo de Miguel Calderón, se presentará en la sala N° 2 del teatro de la Universidad Católica a las 22 horas, en el marco del Festival Internacional Santiago a Mil. En Santiago; 20/01/2013 FOTÓGRAFO: * VALENTINO SALDIVAR*

Photograph:  Valentino Saldivar

Next up, showing January 28-30 is Chilean playwright/director Guillermo Calderón’s latest play Escuela. Set in Chile in the late 1980s, amid the tumultuous transition between the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the dubiously regarded democracy that followed, a group of left-wing university students receive secret paramilitary training in the living room of a fellow dissident. Hiding their identities with hoods to ensure none of them can betray their revolutionary comrades, these intellectuals awkwardly learn skills essential to guerilla warfare, such as proper crawling and rifle cleaning methods, in the hopes of overturning a corrupt regime, all while grappling with the chilling realities of staging a violent insurgency.Calderón has made a name for himself with plays grounded in times of violent turmoil and political upheaval, using dangerous and unstable settings as a jumping off point for larger universal themes, and Escuela sits well within this established style while taking it somewhere new. Instead of the surrounding violence haunting the onstage proceedings, as it did in Calderón’s first play Neva, it is brought to the forefront in Escuela as we watch its characters preparing to engage with it. In an interview with FringeArts, regarding the political implications of his new work Calderón asserted, “Politics is a combination of emotions and rationality, and that is what Escuela tries to convey and push to its limit.”

Kicking off February is a multimedia performance from composer Daniel Wohl, who previously graced the FringeArts stage last year with a multi media performance of his album Corps Exquis. This time around the Paris-born composer will be presenting his latest full-length album, Holographic, accompanied by an excellent line up of musicians and video art projections from LA-based artist Daniel Schwarz.

Wohl has garnered acclaim for works in which the acoustic and electronic blend into each other: a resonating snare drum becomes a low unnerving drone, percussion and electronic noise crash into a joyous cacophony, and synthetic pulsations elevate the steady bowing of strings to a higher plane. The result is immersive, slyly disorienting music that seeks to close the gap between the chamber groups of concert halls and academia , and electronic experimentalists pushing sonic boundaries in basements and warehouses. This is a one night only event, so mark your calendar for February 5.

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