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