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Bronx Gothic

Review - Bronx Gothic at the Young Vic

This latest Young Vic production directed by Peter Born is a brave attempt at embodying the confused, thrilling, traumatic experience of sexual awakening. Written and performed by Brooklyn-based Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic tells the story of a young girl growing up in the Bronx through dance, song, and the exchange of letters between her and her best friend.

As the audience take their seats, the star of this one-woman show is already performing, facing away from us in the top corner of the performance space; an all-consuming, trembling trill of a dance. She continues like this for no less than 20 minutes, not speaking or even showing us her face. Okpokwasili's dancing is beautiful to watch, but the tension builds quickly as we wait to be able to look into her eyes and make that first connection. When she finally does turn and face us, Okpokwasili stands for a long while in silence, once again, leaving us waiting.

This show should certainly be appreciated as an experiment in pacing and rhythm, with its intense silences and tonal shifts. The silences are as significant as the dialogue, but it nevertheless requires patience to go on this journey of self-discovery at Okpokwasili's reflective pace.

The letters read aloud in Okpokwasili's rich, authoritative voice offer vivid snapshots into the lives of the two friends, and track their ossifying identities as young women. As well as switching between mediums, the narrative blends dreams and reality, which can be disorienting. But the emotion of the scene is always clear, and the various streams of consciousness gradually intertwine to form a rich sea of experience.

Okpokwasili is an incredible performer; utterly transformative. Her dancing is graceful, and she tells stories through movement in a way that transcends so much conventional choreography. She commands the space with a confidence that energises a production in which often nothing much is happening.

Music is a powerful force in the play. It oscillates between atmospheric strings and the assertive beat of hip hop, overlayed by the sounds of children playing in the streets of the Bronx. Okpokwasili surrenders herself magnificently to it; she's controlled by it, and compelled to match its rhythm and intensity.

Whilst Okpokwasili is a capable singer, the transitions into song are not seamless like the outbursts of dance that are a necessary expression of an outpouring of emotion that cannot be confined to words. The singing makes the narrative feel disjointed at times, and amongst so many moments of suspension in this production, the songs put the breaks on the narrative.

For anyone curious to explore the possibilities and limitations of language, sound and movement in storytelling, Bronx Gothic is a beautiful and unsettling exercise in this art.

Anyone simply seeking an evening of entertainment, be warned - this show is nothing if not a challenge.

Bronx Gothic is at the Young Vic until 29th June. 

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Originally published on

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