The American poet/playwright Dael Orlandersmith, whose plays have charmed and challenged audiences at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater for the past 20 years or so, now brings a thoughtful, poetic meditation on family to the theater’s more intimate Stage II, where she shares some of her own personal struggles finding a family supportive of one’s nascent artistic aspirations while dealing with a given family unable and unwilling to acknowledge and encourage a child possessed with such gifts.
The 85-minute, one act work is called “Forever,” and reflects Orlandersmith’s realization that the impact of family—whether biological or fabricated—lasts throughout one’s lifetime and perhaps longer and therefore must be continually revisited and re-examined. It’s a process that Orlandersmith explains that she has carried out with her “family of choice,” the artists and visionaries who populate Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the Balzac’s, the Modigliani’s, the Colette’s, the Proust’s, the Chopin’s and the Oscar Wilde’s, a community of sorts who have inspired the playwright and afforded her the courage to put her ideas and thoughts into dramatic form.
These luminaries, to whose graves she has frequently returned throughout her career, stand in sharp contrast to the life she shared with her mother in New York’s Harlem, a place she describes in genuinely shocking terms as “this vermin filled house with dead colored linoleum, booze stains and cigarette holes,” presided over by her southern-born mother, Beulah Camradora Smith, frequently drunk, occasionally so vividly cruel that it earns her in her daughter’s mind the nickname of “Mother Monster.”
Throughout this captivating monologue, Orlandersmith reviews and re-reviews that various permutations and combinations of her relationship with her parent, who was widowed when her daughter was just four. Orlandersmith, in language that soars in its preciseness and authenticity, catches glimpses of her mother as a young girl looking toward a hopeful future while also recalling the times the daughter, after being beaten and ridiculed by her mother is forced to physically comfort the older woman who cries out for her own mother.
The portrait that Orlandersmith paints is that of a woman offering “a ninety proof scotch filled, chain smoked kind of love,” yet capable of producing “moments when she was soft/yielding—gentle.” It is ironically Beulah who ultimately inspires Orlandersmith to pursue her art, first by introducing her to music which gets Orlandersmith interested in exploring a variety of singers and musicians from the mid-60’s, and then by demonstrating the calm and peace that suffuses over the woman as she becomes engrossed in a book or in a classic film on the television.
The evening is directed by Neel Keller, who first worked with Orlandersmith nearly 30 years ago on a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the Berkshires and who commissioned this piece for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Artistic Director. “Forever” proves to be a most fruitful collaboration, with obvious care taken to assure the appropriateness of pauses and the ease of transition between memories.
At the center of the evening is a harrowing description of a rape of the 15-year old Orlandersmith and its detailed aftermath, including a poignant scene involving an Irish-American detective who becomes quite touchingly the first person ever to take Orlandersmith’s side against her mother. It’s a turning point that provides Orlandersmith’s character with essential knowledge, but is yet not able to provide her with the impetus to leave her home and venture out on her own.
The work follows Orlandersmith through her educational years, as she also discovers the excitement and possibility of Greenwich Village in the days of Max’s Kansas City and other poetry and music venues. At the same time, she remains tied to her mother, who gets increasingly ill even though she has known of the dangers, as a diabetic, of the damage she continues to inflict upon her body. Even after her mother’s death, as Orlandersmith searches through the woman’s private belongings and pesters relatives for information they are no longer obligated to hide, she is only able to discover tantalizingly limited snippets of information about the determinedly private woman.
Takeshi Kata has designed a stunning set that removes the stage from the theater’s space and replaces it with a free-standing wooden platform accessed by three long wooden steps at the audience’s feet, containing a table and some chairs along with a lamp, which suggests both a writer’s workspace as well as a stark apartment. Surrounding this platform, on the back and side walls of the theater, are plentiful photographs of people and figures from Orlandersmith’s life, family members from her biological family as well as those from her extended artistic family at Pere Lachaise. Following the performance, audience members actively step forward to take a closer look at the display, mingling amidst the ghosts that Orlandersmith has just described.
Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting plays a pivotal role in seguing between various components of Orlandersmith’s monologue and providing necessary atmosphere for the various tales, as does Adam Phalen’s unobtrusive yet suggestive sound design that incorporates some of the music that enthralled the young burgeoning writer and which opens the doors of her memory still today. And speaking of doors, one of Pere Lachaise’s most famous and sought-after “residents,” the late Jim Morrison, plays a significant role in Orlandersmith’s development, as the rhythms and beats of Morrison and each of the Doors fill her with reminders of passion and life.
The only jarring moment in an otherwise emotionally moving and stirring evening occurs as Orlandersmith describes her first visit to Paris, a city she has long dreamed of visiting, “a city of light—I’m here,” she says. It is jarring because earlier on the day of the official press performance came word of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Henbo in Paris and the realization that not only had life been snuffed out in Paris, but that the entire city was on edge, in panic, grief and mourning, hard to imagine as a city of light or as a coming home.
But Orlandersmith’s brilliance with her language and her comfort as a performer (she not only frequently reads and tours with her poetry but has frequently appeared in the initial productions of her plays, including at Long Wharf) supplant these thoughts and draw one deeply into the minute details of this engrossing work. After all, we each understand the role of family and the memories and thoughts that have formed us and continue to color our lives no matter how old we are. Orlandersmith has been willing to share some of the deepest, darkest and most revealing of those moments in a most intriguing and rewarding manner.
“Forever” plays through February 1 at the Long Wharf Theater. For information and tickets, contact the Long Wharf box office at 203.787.4282 or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.