testimonies of endurance: forever and the challenges of solo performance

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[article originally published at HowlRound, June 9, 2015.]

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Dael Orlandersmith in her solo show Forever. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The exquisite skill of a single storyteller evoking a time, a story, and a history has held humankind rapt for as long as one kinsman has reported back to the home village after a journey into the forest. In theatre, we explore this framework in solo performance. From Emily Dickinson’s story in The Belle of Amherst, to Kate Hepburn in Tea at Five, to Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein, to Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop, to Truman Capote in Tru, the lives of historical and literary figures have been embodied, framed, and shared through theatre. Each of these creations required deep knowledge of each subject and a willingness to pare a fascinating life to a select number of key, evocative details. However the story is dressed up or trimmed down, we settle in with these biographical theatre events for a good yarn with our narrator as the focal point, the one who will provide the essential qualities of this genre—clarity of focus and purity of intention.

There’s nothing better than a solo performance done well. Dael Orlandersmith’s one-woman show Forever, a story of surviving and thriving through music and literature and finding her voice and keeping her wits, lands squarely, delicately, devastatingly, and equally in our hearts and minds. What’s stunning here is that Orlandersmith is both writer and performer of her own life, the observer and the observed, a participant in and a chronicler of the carefully selected. The balance is more dramaturgically observed than emotionally blasted; yet the story’s power resonates.

Structurally, the memoir-testimonial-biographical play can be assembled through answering a series of basic questions. We don’t want a litany of facts, but a narrative that has a theatrical shape—answers to some of these questions often offer that structure. Is there a pivotal life event, such as injury, or loss, or other trauma? Are there career transitions that can provide dramatic focus, as they did for Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop or 1938-era “box office poison” Katharine Hepburn pondering her future career, along with a looming hurricane, as a climatic first act closer in Tea at Five? Might there have been a long lingering final illness that led to a confession, or dramatic events like a threatened apartment eviction in the play Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein? Are there late life accolades that serve as a frame, such as the Chaplin biopic that used the honorary Academy Award? Or will the narrator simply speak to the audience as known spectators as in Mark Twain Tonight?

Our voices and memories are conjured before we hear Orlandersmith’s. A message in our playbill and on the walls invites us to add notes “in honor of someone who has passed on that helped shape your life.” After a few moments with my own thoughts, I add a note about my deceased music-and book-loving mom to similar notes that already adorn the theatre walls, flowing visually into the horizontal boards that hold family photographs that rim the right, left, and upstage walls of the performance space. The horizontal message boards in the house continue to the stage and around the edges of the walls of the stage set, sparely appointed and dressed by Takeshi Kata with one raised platform, chairs, and table. Before a word is spoken, voices, faces, and memories inform this shadow play.

Orlandersmith enters center stage, bopping to music of her childhood, passively observing the family photographs onstage in the same manner that the audience first did. We watch her observe the mementoes of her own life before we hear a word. She seems one of us; we are all together assembled as equals before she figuratively grabs the talking stick. Orlandersmith welcomes us, asks us to greet one another, to respect the performance in the familiar twenty-first century manner (bans on photos, recordings, and cell phone yammering), and most important, to enter in.

Mechanics handled deftly, we are at full attention as our author/performer/narrator begins and ends a story of remembrance inspired and framed by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. We learn Paris was a city of aspiration for her mother Beulah and Dael herself, and the cemetery a final resting place for many of Dael’s literary and cultural heroes. She observes the other visitors, muses on the tombstones of favorite historical figures, and hears voices from her own past. Observations, musings, memories, and spirits evoked, all stem from this ghostly framing choice, cushioning the devastating story she has to tell.

The story is compelling and the observations acute. A smart child reared by a single mom who is emotionally needy, alcohol dependent, and inconsistently loving. We hear of school successes and youthful adventures and finding hope and joy in a wide range of music, but we primarily learn of Dael’s rape by a stranger in her own bedroom as a young teen. We fear her mother won’t believe her, but mom manages to hurt her in a different way—she wraps herself in the pain of her daughter’s experience, and adds it to the maw of her own emotional need. Stories of Dael’s mother at the end of her life in a nursing home—the same mother who is absent or abusive to the daughter is entirely charming to the nursing aides—a familiar experience for children of charming sociopaths. And Dael survives.

Director Neel Keller, whose Center Theatre Group commissioned and developed this play, observed in 2014 that the author-performer can both reveal and conceal in equal measure. He noted that

…early in her career I feel she used her powers of observation to portray other people and partly sort of hide herself… At every play I’ve seen of Dael’s, at some point in the evening I really want to know who she is and how she became the person who knows these things and lives in a certain way. I think Forever is the first time that she’s told that story.

Perhaps she is getting closer to revealing herself, but in Forever at certain points she still disappears. In these moments, Orlandersmith remains at a distance, in part a cypher-observer who describes to us devastating and exhilarating events. Her particular balance as performer and writer is to keep her core at a kind of remove. This made me feel a bit as though she is observing and dramaturging the events of her own life for us, sometimes gutting the emotional impact for me as an audience member. My intellectual investment in the story being told, however, remains constant.

Ghosts of her memory and of literary and cultural history inhabit the cemetery where the narrated events begin and end. More than these memories are the active lessons and energies Orlandersmith has drawn from them. While we hear about the life-altering sexual assault and her self-involved alcoholic mother’s response to it, we also hear about the other performers, community members, and friends who provided her with support. “These people who beyond our parents helped us give birth to ourselves.” It is a story of yes and of hope and of a resonant kind of “forever.” We summon the ghost, we assemble the families, and we find ourselves.

I am left on the Mother’s Day I write these words, missing my own mother who passed away many decades ago and hearing Orlandersmith’s call to honest reflection and request to be gentle with those who harmed us. In Père Lachaise, in our memories, in our stories in our lives, the ghosts of our experience live—legacies lived and to be celebrated. As Orlandersmith observes, “These people are here, but no longer here, but they are here.” They are here.

Forever was developed in Los Angeles at the Center Theatre Group Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2014 and had its world premiere at the Long Wharf in January 2015. The show ran at New York Theatre Workshop, where Orlandersmith has been a member of the Usual Suspects playwright support and development group for many years, through May 31, 2015.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 9, 2015)

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