Andrew Rossi has spent his career weaving in and out of America’s most venerated institutions. He’s documented the cornerstones of public life around the country, giving special insight into the time bomb that’s the soaring cost of higher education in 2014’s Ivory Tower. His work also has a special affection for the frenetic energy sustaining (and challenging) New York City and its cultural life, be it the Metropolitan Museum of Art or The New York Times, whose inner workings he’s captured with an insider’s intimacy.
Rossi’s latest testament to the city’s culture, Bronx Gothic, follows the final tour of performer Okwui Okpokwasili’s eponymously named one-woman show, bringing the documentary’s audience into a reflection not just on the artist and her process, but the nature of spectatorship itself. Okpokwasili rapturously received semi-autobiographical production, first performed in 2014, is a visceral exploration of the youth, sexuality, and the sense of black womanhood of a second-generation immigrant in America.
On a rainy July morning, I joined Rossi at Film Forum’s offices to discuss how he brought Okpokwasili’s vision of radical empathy to the screen.
How did Okwui Okpokwasili’s work first come to your attention?
Well, I read about “Bronx Gothic” being performed at the St. Marks Theater in 2014 and immediately it grabbed my attention because I knew Okwui. She’s actually one of my dear friends.
Did you grow up together?
We actually went to college together. We’re friends and I directed her in a piece of theater, so I immediately wanted to see this piece, which profoundly affected me. I felt that this was a work that really should be captured on film, along with her process and how she wrote it. When I found out in 2016 that she was gonna do her final tour of the piece, I thought, “Well, this is the moment.” There was finally an urgency to make it. It was then or never.
I’m now curious about your theater background since you mentioned working with Okwui on a theater performance in college.
Nothing extensive, but I did direct the first act of Waiting for Godot.
That’s an accomplishment!
[laughs] It was. It’s a piece that I love, and I love Samuel Beckett. Okwui played Vladimir in the piece and, you know, it was interesting because it was staged around scaffolds. We had the audience on scaffolds in a rectangle. And then, she and her fellow actor were sort of in this pit and we had a tree.
“Bronx Gothic” strikes me as having a sort of spare Beckett-like quality to it, so it’s illuminating to hear that you, like her, came from that background.
Well, Okwui was really a force in college. She did a lot of theater. She was somebody who was incredibly compassionate and sort of empathetic with many different types of people. And, you know, you’d walk down the street with her or across the green it would be impossible to get from point A to point B [laughs] because everybody would want to come and engage with her.
She comes off as a very intense magnetic personality in the film. Obviously “Bronx Gothic” is performance, and you added to the performance all this background information, or these off-screen or outside-the-performance discussions with Okwui. How do you see the relation between these sorts of personal moments and the depiction of the performance itself?
The film is structured as a dual narrative, so we have a chronological unfolding of the performance piece “Bronx Gothic,” and then, at certain key moments, we have interventions into that, which depict Okwui engaging with audiences primarily but also in conversation to the camera or to the viewer of the film in a way that hopefully brings out her personal journey, which is in tension with the journey of the two girls that she’s bringing to life in the performance piece. And the idea is that, at a certain moment her character as the creator of “Bronx Gothic” sort of takes over the narrative of the film. So in the beginning we see her collapsing in her dressing room after her final performance saying that she’s losing control of the narrative. But then, by about two thirds of the way through the film, in the moment where she’s showing the performance to her mother, this sort of intergenerational channel is opened into the piece and she sort of assumes control in the verité story of the film just as the character she plays in the performance also is fracturing and realizing she’s haunted by the two girls.
I found the scene with the parents to be so moving and intense. Can you talk about that intensity—catching her swinging from a very emotionally low moment to an emotionally high one?
Thank you, that was really a pivotal scene. Okwui had never shown her performance work to her parents and she was afraid of their reaction. So we drove out to their home in New Jersey and we had a three-hour conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Okpokwasili, and then, as you see in the film, I suggested to them if they would like to see some parts of “The Quake” [the opening act of the performance “Bronx Gothic”] and at that moment Okwui came into the room to sort of be there in case they got upset. That’s a moment where we kinda reveal my presence, which I wanted to do to sort of implicate me as the director of the film, as a white man, but also to set the stage for Okwui to then sort of become the person asking the questions or engaging directly with the subject. We kind of break the fourth wall there.
You see the boom mic, and so I think she started off really nervous. There’s a giddy energy while her parents are watching “The Quake” that’s absorbing. Okwui’s traveling all around the country, and during all these talkbacks people keep challenging why she’s made the film. For example, in the beginning the sort of subject is durational performance. You know, someone says that they wanted to, like, shoot themselves because they were watching “The Quake” for so long [laughs] and then when she’s in Milwaukee there’s a student at the school who talks about the Black Lives Matter movement and Okwui has to respond to her particular pain, her husband challenges whether depictions of African Americans in film dwell on the negative too much, and then her mother says that she doesn’t think that “Bronx Gothic” would work back in their home in Nigeria. So, every step of the way Okwui has to defend and justify her practice, her mission, her artistic vision.