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Moving from trauma to witness in the nightmares of Bronx Gothic
Carolyn Chernoff
Kristen Shahverdian

The Nigerian-American performer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili’s 2017 performance piece and documentary film Bronx Gothic employ dreams as a narrative structure and a way to tell her story throughout the piece. Okpokwasili, in character, describes a recurring dream that turns into a nightmare: ocean water turns to boiling blood that the girl must escape. This dream becomes the landscape of her story and the lens through which she describes her traumatic memories. Her character’s repetition of the phrase, ‘and I ask myself, am I awake?’, speaks to the dreamlike quality of remembering trauma, and a tool for the audience to enter into a dreamlike state with her. Bronx Gothic enlists the audience as unwitting witness into everyday violence and trauma as a form of radical praxis (Alexander and Mohanty, 2010). In her stage and screen performances, Okpokwasili uses endurance, repetition and the reciprocal gaze to make visible the impact of dreams through trance and trauma. What people tend to see as individual trauma is embedded in a transnational web of structural violence; Okpowasili’s performance work reveals the central role of art and culture in challenging the structural nature of violence. Using Bronx Gothic as a case study to extend Collins’ notion of interaction ritual chains (2004), we argue that theatre captures key elements of trance and trauma in a way that impacts social dynamics off-stage. We employ microsociology to explore the concepts of witness and affective solidarity as ways of understanding trauma and trance: a call to move beyond empathy into action. Far from fiction or separate from the embodied politics of the social world, acts of imagination and staged performance are both real in their consequences (qua the Thomas theorem, 1928) and help us better understand the profoundly social nature of dreams and nightmares.

in Dreams and atrocity