Orlandersmith, Dael 1959–
Dael Orlandersmith 1959–
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith belongs to a daring new generation of African-American women writing for the stage and winning establishment recognition for their work. Orlandersmith often acts in her plays as well, delivering critically acclaimed portrayals of lives torn apart by poverty, racism, or substance abuse. Commenting on the sometimes desolate emotional territory that her stories traverse, the New York-based writer reflected in an interview with Stuart Miller for American Theatre that “there is humanity within a bleak story. We find that humanity by exposing the darkness. I use language as a tool. Just the fact that the story itself is told—and hopefully well—is cause for hope.”
Orlandersmith was born in 1959 and grew up in public housing in New York’s rough East Harlem neighborhood. Her father died when she was young, and her mother sent her to a Roman Catholic parochial school, despite the hardship the expense brought on the household. In late 1960s and early 1970s, East Harlem was a dangerous place, as was the South Bronx neighborhood where her best friend lived. “Heroin was at its height then,” Orlandersmith told Miller. “I remember people would carry an extra $5, in case a junkie came up to them, so they wouldn’t lose their life.” She admitted to being somewhat of an aggressive youth herself, but was focused on learning as well, she said in an interview with the Edinburgh Scotsman. “I have always been work-oriented, even when I was a child,” Orlandersmith told journalist Jackie Mc-Glone. “At ten, I was writing a journal, reading voraciously, listening to music.”
An encouraging teacher suggested that Orlandersmith take acting classes, and for a time she was involved with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in her teens. As a young woman, she enrolled in Hunter College and settled in New York’s East Village in the 1980s. When she returned to acting classes after leaving Hunter, she began writing her own dramatic scenes for performance assignments, and her classmates often asked her who had written them. In the early 1990s she became reacquainted with the Nuyorican group as a poet-performer, toured with them in Europe and Australia, and began landing small acting jobs. She even appeared in an episode of Spin City, but it was
At a Glance…
Born Donna Dael Theresa Orlander Smith Brown in 1959, in New York, NY. Education: Attended Hunter College; took acting classes at HB Studios and Actors Studio, both New York City.
Career: Actress, 1970s-; playwright, 1990s-; New Dramatists, playwright in residence, 2002-
Awards: Obie Award (Off-Broadway Theater Award), Village Voice, for Beauty’s Daughter, 1995; Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, Roger Stevens Playwriting Award, Kennedy Center, and Susan Smith Blackburn Award, for Yellowman, 2003.
Addresses: Office —c/o Judy Boals, 208 W. 30th St., Suite 401, New York, NY 10001.
sometimes suggested to the statuesque Orlandersmith that she lose some weight, and so she eventually turned her energies to playwriting full-time. Her first finished play was for her Manhattan Class Company, and titled Liar Liar.
Orlandersmith’s playwriting skills were honed at the Sundance Theatre Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, established by actor-director Robert Redford. She finished and starred in the play Beauty’s Daughter in 1995, whose story centered on the challenges that a young woman from Harlem meets in life, beginning at a young age in the home of her alcoholic mother. The play won Orlandersmith an Obie Award, the Village Voice honor for the best works of the Off-Broadway season. Her next play, The Gimmick, was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, and staged at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1998; it also ran at the New York Theater Workshop the following year.
The Gimmick was a one-person show that starred Orlandersmith as Alexis, who recounts a life in Harlem beginning in 1968 when Alexis is eight years old and befriends Jimmy. Both dream of artistic careers and a life in Paris; Alexis longs to write and Jimmy grows up to enjoy some brief success as a painter. The “gimmick” of the title is the constant lure of drugs, sex, and easy money that bring so many around them—including their own parents—down back to the street level, despite their innate talents. Telling her story in flashback, Alexis pays tribute to the librarian she met in her youth that instilled in her the love of reading, and sadly recalls the fleeting fame Jimmy achieved as a painter until his death from drugs supplied by his father. Variety reviewer Charles Isherwood termed The Gimmick “an often deeply affecting tribute to the transforming power of language and learning—and the people who steadfastly believe in their promise in an environment where more immediate and visceral gratification continually beckon.”
Orlandersmith’s next solo show, Monster, enjoyed a successful run at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle. She played nine characters in the life of a young woman in Harlem, Theresa. The title refers to the longtime family home in Harlem, from whose window one day Theresa spies a mother beating a child on street. She runs out and attacks the mother, but realizes she is simply perpetuating the cycle of family abuse that has occurred over three generations in her “monstrous” house, which she then resolves to sell and rid herself of forever. Orlandersmith was asked to pen an article for the New York Times about her work, and in it she conceded that there were certain ideas she often returned to as a playwright. “There is a theme throughout the work that I write,” Orlandersmith wrote, “about childhood and the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and how people take on the very thing they don’t like about their parents and they become them.”
Orlandersmith’s next work, Yellowman, was the first to have been written with more than one character. It was also commissioned by the McCarter Theatre, and staged in Princeton in early 2002. After critically acclaimed runs in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Seattle, the Manhattan Theater Club beat out two other off-Broadway venues that had been vying to stage its New York premiere. It earned Orlandersmith a Pulitzer Prize nomination for drama in 2002, but lost out to Topdog/Underdog, a play by Suzan-Lori Parks, another emerging new voice in American drama. Both Parks and Orlandersmith are often mentioned in discussions about a new generation of African American women writing for the stage, along with Kia Corthron (Breath, Boom) and Oni Faida Lampley (The Dark Kalamazoo).
Yellowman cloaked the issue of black-on-black racism inside a love story set in the coastal South Carolina area that is home to a distinctive culture known as Gullah. Orlandersmith explained the story’s genesis in the New York Times article: as a child, she sometimes went to rural South Carolina area to spend the summer weeks with relatives there, and Orlandersmith recalled a light-skinned black family who, “for generations … had interbred to keep the light-skinned color line going. And they would condemn people who were darker. So you had people who hated this family and whom this family hated.” Many critics commented on the Romeo and Juliet allusions in the play, which centers on the friendship and passion that develop between light-skinned Eugene and Alma, who is darker. Their romance incites a pitched battle of words and finally violence.
Orlandersmith took the Alma role in Yellowman opposite Howard W. Overshown as Eugene, and critics commended both her stage presence and her playwrit-ing skills. Back Stage reviewer Gretchen C. Van Ben-thuysen called the play “an erupting volcano of barely repressed sexuality. Orlandersmith is a charismatic actress whose poetical language flows hot and fast like lava.” Writing for the New York Times, Ben Brantley commended her talents as well. “The harsh, sadly hopeful love story that unfolds within this context is both simple and complex,” Brantley noted. “Orlander-smith’s descriptions of childhood friendships and frictions that develop into romance would seem commonplace, were it not for her ear for a cadenced language steeped in both sweet melody and earthy physicality.”
Orlandersmith began writing her next work, tentatively titled Raw Boys, while Yellowman was still enjoying its successful run. Its story centered around two warring Irish men—one Catholic, one Protestant. Orlandersmith said it was a theme she was drawn to after spending time in Scotland and Ireland, where her plays have been well received. She was also working on a novel, and is impatient to move forward from journalists’ questions about the nature of her work. “Everyone assumes what you write is autobiographical, and what’s happened to the one-person genre is that it’s turned into a confessional,” she told Seattle Times writer Misha Berson. In another American Theatre interview, this one conducted by Chris Coleman, Orlandersmith asserted that “everybody’s work is autobiographical to a certain degree. But it’s not the fact that it’s based on somebody’s life that interests me. What interests me is if it comes alive on the page and on the stage. Anybody can get up and tell you their life story—but they have therapists’ offices for that.” On a related matter, Orlandersmith believes that to bury emotions and past hurts is detrimental to the self, and this is why that some term bleakness seeps into her work. “Human nature doesn’t work that way,” she told Miller. “People don’t understand that darkness is just as normal as light. There is creativity that comes from there. And I love that. I deal with darkness through writing.”
Orlandersmith’s plays have been published in book by Vintage. Beauty’s Daughter, Monster, The Gimmick: Three Plays, appeared in 2000, and in 2002 Yellow-man and My Red Hand, My Black Hand —the latter a work for three characters—appeared in print. An ardent fan of music in all forms, Orlandersmith continues to live in New York City and is a well-known figure in the downtown arts scene with her six-foot frame and multi-colored, sometimes platinum-blond dreadlocks. She admits that her plays are not to everyone’s liking, and have been met with a somewhat cool reception by the African-American cultural establishment. “No, I am not about to win any NAACP awards,” she joked with Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Joe Adcock. “I’m proud to get into trouble with (that) kind of people.”
Beauty’s Daughter, Monster, The Gimmick: Three Plays, Vintage, 2000.
Yellowman and My Red Hand, My Black Hand: Two Plays, Vintage. 2002.
Spin City, ABC, 1999.
Beauty’s Daughter, American Place Theater, 1995.
Monster, New York Theater Workshop, 1996.
The Gimmick, McCater Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1998; also produced at Long Warf Theater, 1998 and New York Theater Workshop, 1999.
Yellowman, McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 2002; also produced at Seattle’ ACT and MTC in 2002.
American Theatre, September 1999, p. 32; July-August 2002, p. 26.
Back Stage, March 8, 2002, p. 23; July 26, 2002, p. 6.
Cincinnati Enquirer, October 30, 2002, p. F5.
Entertainment Weekly, June 28, 2002, p. 100.
Library Journal, November 1, 2000, p. 80; November 1, 2002, p. 89.
New York Times, October 20, 2002, p. 5; October 23, 2002, p. E5.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 19, 2001, p. 14.
Seattle Times, July 30, 1999, p. E5; July 7, 2002, p. K3.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), July 24, 2000, p. 6.
Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), November 7, 1999, p. 6.
Variety, November 23, 1998, p. 57; May 10, 1999, p. 147; January 28, 2002, p. 43.
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