A Review of ‘Forever’ in New Haven
By Anita Gates
Not all the music lovers recalling the first time they heard the Doors song “Light My Fire” bother to mention Ray Manzarek’s organ solo. Dael Orlandersmith does in the opening moments of “Forever,” her brave and heartfelt new solo show at the Long Wharf Theater. She describes the sound as “something otherworldly,” which is a particularly apt comment because she is standing beside Jim Morrison’s grave at the time.
“I got myself to Paris,” Ms. Orlandersmith announces proudly more than once, even as voices in her head tell her she does not belong there, in this one-act reminiscence, directed with a lovingly firm hand by Neel Keller. She is visiting Père Lachaise, the astounding 19th-century Parisian cemetery where lie the graves of Chopin, Colette, Proust, Balzac and Oscar Wilde. And those are just the few Ms. Orlandersmith mentions. She claims them as her family, her artistic family, perhaps because her biological family was never of much use.
“Forever” dares to acknowledge that mothers have been known to use their children, crassly and without visible remorse, to feed their own psychological shortcomings. The play does not feel a thing like “Mommie Dearest,” but it shares a theme and the same adult sense of childhood bewilderment revisited and sharpened. Ms. Orlandersmith’s alcoholic mother, Beulah, a daughter of South Carolina, insults her daughter (“You’re fat. You’re hateful. You’re disgusting.”) but is so dependent on her that she threatens suicide when the girl grows up and announces her plans to move out. When Dael, as a child, is raped by an intruder, Beulah focuses on her own maternal pain. “He should have killed us both,” she wails.
Ms. Orlandersmith has a gift for raw immediacy. At a recent performance, while she described the sexual assault (in graphic and emotional detail), the theater fell almost as silent as a tomb. Then she broke the tension gradually, with pinpoint timing, recalling an Irish police officer who was kind to her afterward and how she imagined herself growing up to marry him and beginning a beautiful new life in Ireland.
Ms. Orlandersmith’s earlier play “Yellowman,” about skin-color prejudice among African-Americans, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama. As a performer, she has embodied drug dealers, nuns and cleaning women of various ethnicities. She has written for the stage about friendship, alienation, dysfunction and the difficulty of escape. But first and foremost, Ms. Orlandersmith is a poet, and her language sings, even when it insists on calling itself prose. Descriptions of linoleum, kitchen vermin, cigarette burns and “something beyond this broken house” (the one she grew up in) assume their own beauty. “Forever” also pays tribute to one of Ms. Orlandersmith’s poet idols, Richard Wright.
The most striking aspect of Takeshi Kata’s set is the display of dozens of photographs on walls just beyond the stage. The audience’s first guess may be that these are pictures of some of the famous people buried at Père Lachaise, but Ms. Orlandersmith reveals late in the play that these are family photos; a surprising number of audience members stop on their way out of the theater to take a closer look. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting adjusts subtly but decisively to fit the subject matter, whether that is a single mother’s weekly, Scotch-soaked Saturday night party or a daughter’s clear-eyed visit to the morgue.
Ms. Orlandersmith is an imposing presence, with waist-length braids and wary eyes that appear to have seen it all. She began wearing black long ago, not because she is in mourning for her life like a Chekhov antiheroine but, she says, to stand out. And she does.
“Forever,” by Dael Orlandersmith, is at the Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Feb. 1. Information: 203-787-4282 or longwharf.org.