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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 16, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

An Actor Who Writes and a Writer Who Acts

She calls herself "a big woman — but in


and one of her stage characters is admiringly dubbed "a


Yet the proportions of powerhouse Dael Orlandersmith’s career as


playwright, and poet are far from ordinary. "Big" isn’t about

weights and measures — it’s all about presence and projection.

Born and raised in Harlem and South Bronx, Orlandersmith began her

love affair with words at age eight when she started keeping a


A poet by the time she reached her teens, she got her first play


in New York in 1994 and has seen steady and growing success ever


The world premiere of Orlandersmith’s latest work, the two-actor drama

"Yellowman," is currently at McCarter Theater. The play opened

January 13, and performances continue on the intimate Second Stage

through Sunday, January 27. Blanka Zizka, artistic director of


Wilma Theater, directs the production, which features Orlandersmith

and Howard Overshown in multiple roles.

McCarter Theater has become a familiar landscape to Orlandersmith.

The fruitful relationship began in 1997 when she and artistic director

Emily Mann were both in residence at the Sundance Theater Lab. The

Utah performing arts oasis is part of Robert Redford’s Sundance


devoted to the development of independent films and new theater.


whom Mann had seen as an actor years previously, was at Sundance


on "The Gimmick," a work-in-progress at the time. Mann, who

was there as a playwright’s mentor, was sufficiently impressed that

she commissioned "The Gimmick" and gave it its world premiere

production at McCarter in 1998.

In a recent interview sandwiched between technical


Orlandersmith makes a typically big impression. Arriving cheerful,

even radiant, in the midst of a punishing 11-hour rehearsal day, the

actor is dressed casually in pants and a colorful woven wrap (her

costume for "Yellowman"). She’s 5-foot-10, in her early 40s;

her elegant facial features are set off by an ornamental hairstyle,

a multitude of long, copper-colored braids.

The playwright is the first to admit that certain brutal realities

of the acting profession helped forge her dedication to writing


plays. "I’m an actor who writes and a writer who acts," says

Orlandersmith, who is primarily known for tour-de-force solo


In her plays, those "nice-looking colored girls" and "cute

little white girls" are anathema to the big, bright female


who stand at the eye of the storm.

"I don’t fit America’s eye candy," Orlandersmith declares.

"As a large, black female the only roles that were available to

me were either as welfare mother, prostitute, religious fanatic, or

as the big sexless girlfriend to the skinny woman — the one who

gets the man."

Orlandersmith’s new McCarter commission, initiated on the playwright’s

second Sundance residency, has already attracted significant


The world premiere production is supported by an AT&T: OnStage grant

for new plays, one of only five awarded in the nation. The play is

a co-production with Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and Connecticut’s

Long Warf Theater, where it will travel following its McCarter


A fourth production is scheduled in Seattle later this year.

"Yellowman" is a multi-character memory play about Alma, an

African-American woman who dreams of life beyond the confines of


South Carolina. Intertwined with her story of escape is the childhood

friendship between Alma and the light-skinned Eugene, played by Howard

Overshown. Because of the real or imagined advantages of his skin

color, Eugene is thwarted by his poor family and by the father who

hates him. Working with director Zizka and McCarter dramaturg Janice

Paran, the play marks the first in which Orlandersmith has broken

out of the solo form into a work in dual monologues for two actors.

"I’m a playwright of one-person plays, but everybody assumes that

every one-person piece is autobiographical," she says defensively.

"I made the mistake years ago of talking about a piece as `very

autobiographical’ — and lo and behold everybody thought it was

the life story." While she has toured extensively with

her solo works, it’s a joy to her that, since the publication of her

scripts, other actors are also performing her plays.

"What has happened with the one-person genre, it’s turned into

this large confessional where a lot of unemployed actors show you

that they can write," she says. "As an actor, I totally


about being frustrated about being unemployed, but that doesn’t


mean you can write, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a piece

of theater."

"When I see a piece like Eugene O’Neill’s `Long Day’s Journey

Into Night’ or `Moon for the Misbegotten,’ it goes beyond being about

this man’s family. This man is using language and telling an


story; it doesn’t matter whether it happened to him or it happened

to me. What he’s done is open up a world. He’s told a truth, and it’s

a dark truth, and it’s the dark side of beauty, but it’s just as


to me."

Elements of autobiography have long fueled Orlandersmith’s


One of her earlier plays, "Beauty’s Daughter," winner of a

1995 Obie, is created as a sequence of monologues that are interwoven

with poems and music and spoken by characters young and old, male

and female, blind and broke, each of whom bears a relationship to

Diane, the central character. In "The Gimmick," performed

at McCarter in 1998, she told the story of Alexis, the Harlem daughter

of an alcoholic mother who is also a budding writer, and her childhood

soulmate Jimmy, a young painter unable to overcome obstacles of race

and poverty that stand between him and his dreams.

"Monster" (1996) tells the story of Theresa, a smart young

Harlem girl who feels more at home in the clubs, cafes, and galleries

of the East Village — where the playwright now lives — than

she does at home. Like many of Orlandersmith’s protagonists, Theresa

has to fight on every front to realize her ambition to become a


And like "Yellowman" this story, addresses internalized racism

and how it can be passed down from generation to generation.

All three Orlandersmith plays were published in a single volume last

year by Vintage Books, a volume she dedicates to a brother, Osceola

Fletcher, and to the memory of her mother, Beula Brown, "who makes

me wrestle my demons." When asked if she is a mother herself,

Orlandersmith answers quickly with "No" followed immediately

by "actually yes."

"I give birth every day when I do my work," she says, with

relish. "My work is my kid. I’m a mom."

Born in East Harlem in 1960, Orlandersmith began reading voraciously

at age eight. She wrote her first poetry, and became interested in

acting. Following in the footsteps of such intoxicating storytellers

as James Baldwin, Piri Thomas, Bessie Smith, Jacob Lawrence, and

Zora Neale Thurston, she was introduced at an early age to Baldwin’s

"Another Country" which made a lasting and indelible


Both she and her fictional personae have been known to quote Baldwin’s

pronouncement that "People who don’t invent themselves, who are

so bitter, so blinded, who cease to question, have made peace with


By 15, she was traveling downtown to theaters and reading her work

at the still-vaunted Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. She studied theater and

film at Hunter College before dropping out and spending some time

studying at the Actors Studio. "You learn from all of these


she says, "but I learned how unduly influenced I was by others

and by certain teachers who themselves were not making money in


Music and poetry are integral to Orlandersmith’s texts

and theater. Sometimes a character will speak his or her own poem.

In "Beauty’s Daughter," characters are associated with music

motifs that are played during their monologues. Orlandersmith’s


for music embraces the rock and roll of Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf,

the Doors, Arthur Lee and Love; the blues of Elmore James, Robert

Johnson, Etta James; and American jazz. Her protagonists get a lot

of grief for their love of rock which, regardless of the artist,


kids of the ’60s considered untouchable "white" music.

"Now I’m trying to write like painters — because I’m a


painter and rock ‘n’ roll musician," she says. Faced with an


incredulity, she adds " — I’m serious. Right now I’m trying

to write like [Gustav] Klimt. Vivaldi is one of my favorite composers

as well, and I’m trying to write like him."

Orlandersmith has spent her life moving between racial groups and

she does so with ease. Writing about the races, however, is rocky

territory. Her plays, set in African-American families and


often focus on race and the dark experiences of childhood. This is

not the first time she has addressed intra-family racial


"I’m not saying that I haven’t gotten flack from people on all

sides, that there haven’t been times when it has bothered me, but

I don’t let that interfere with what I’ve got to do."

"Sure, I’m human. I worry about the response to this play. The

reaction to it is going to be mixed — and I know I’m going to

get some hate mail. But I’m also going to have people say `I’m glad

you wrote this.’

"But I’m writing a story, not the story. I cannot

write for all women, for all black people. And then when people say

`Well this doesn’t represent me’ — again they’re playing to the

very biases that has been done unto them. Every story has the right

to exist."

"I’ve heard people say `because I’m a woman or because I’m


or because I’m black I know what victimization is and I’ve never been

biased and I have the right to be angry,’" says Orlandersmith,

taking on a few of the myriad possible cultural positions. "Yes,

you have the right to be angry, but you do not have the right to,

as James Baldwin says, `Make peace with defeat.’ I think what he said

is brilliant, it’s incredible.

"Race is always a very, very difficult issue. Certainly the


of racism is diabolical, to say the least," she says. "But

what is also diabolical is when people take on the very bias that

has been done unto them and perpetuate it. What I want to do with

this piece is not to let anybody off the hook."

— Nicole Plett

Yellowman, McCarter Theater Second Stage Onstage,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $20. Performances continue to



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