We’re always searching for authenticity in the theater even though it’s a terrible place to look. Historically based in fiction and centered in artifice, drama still extends a promise — often an illusion — that the stage is a place for declaring public truths and private secrets. Against this long tradition, even today’s documentary and autobiographical-nonfiction performances can look suspicious: Why do narratives get organized as they do? Who decided, and why isn’t their logic always transparent?
Consider playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith an exception. She’s nothing if not authentic. Forever, her new solo show at New York Theatre Workshop, tells her own hardscrabble coming-of-age story in this poet’s own words. Her charismatic presence brings it home without raising any questions about sincerity or honesty.
The 4th Street Theatre’s stage sits almost bare, an expanse of open space and exposed-brick walls. Photographs of Orlandersmith’s extended family, mounted on strips on three sides, are too small to see from the seats, but we’re invited to climb onstage after the monologue to view the exhibit.
On a table at center stage, where the middle-aged performer lights a candle and occasionally sits, a turntable and LP collection fill in essential pieces of Orlandersmith’s story. She needs us to listen to the Doors’ “Light My Fire” on scratchy vinyl to understand how she first heard it as a troubled adolescent in Harlem and how Ray Manzarek’s organ suggested an alternative universe outside her alcoholic family of origin. “Jim Morrison, Richard Wright, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Piaf, Proust — are my family,” she tells us, looking back at an adolescent’s expanding consciousness.
Forever recounts how Orlandersmith turned from a childhood scarred by domestic and sexual violence to acts of communion with the artistic kin she discovered in East Village clubs like CBGB. She bookends this meditation — told in fragmented lines with crescendos — with a memory of her visit as an adult to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Years after her mother’s death, the artist walks among the graves of her cultural heroes — a diverse lot — in search of connections and lineage. But those headstones in France trigger painful memories of her unchosen family, too, and Orlandersmith begins to sort through them in a raw, unflinching monologue.
One of Orlandersmith’s many gifts is her capacity to make simple observations feel fresh and to describe enormous emotions without affect or sentimentality. Reflecting on her mother’s smoldering rage, she asks, “Were you jealous of Lena Horne? Is that what the scotch was for?” When she recalls how an Irish cop became the first person to stick up for her against her mother, she describes his eyes rather than his demeanor.
Forever affirms that the past lives with us, as memories of earlier lives and through great music and literature. Articulating her artistic affinities — whether for Eugene O’Neill or the Young Rascals — the performer underlines the power of expression to transcend circumstances, to serve as balm and beacon. With the past week’s violence in Baltimore ghosting behind the show’s inner-city segments, this was a powerful testimonial to hear. Orlandersmith, a sagacious raconteuse, finds her place on stage with purpose and poise. She offers a story of grace, accepting her unthinkable past and letting go. Coming from the poet’s own mouth, the words feel right, and real. She’s the subject and the speaker, a witness living the past while she walks away from it. The American theater doesn’t get any more authentic than that.