A Tree Grows in Harlem
In Dael Orlandersmith’s semi-autobiographical, “Forever”, beyond is where salvation lies. Beyond scotch soaked, cigarette smoked, drunken Saturday nights in Harlem, into the music of Jim Morrison or the words of Eugene O’Neill. Beyond the DNA of family, into the true family of artists and poets. Beyond the limits of death, into finding life amidst kindred spirits whispering along the avenues of Père Lachaise. If Orlandersmith’s one-woman show tells something of a well-worn tale, it's a tale told with searing honesty, one where the power of the teller transforms the tale in the telling, delivering a powerful performance that's often devastating in its directness.
In “Forever,” Orlandersmith’s archetypal tale of the troubled relationship between an abusive mother and her damaged daughter travels over similar thematic ground as works such as Mommie Dearest and Precious. A misfit to herself and others, Orlandersmith finds herself in the gutter dreaming of the stars, seeking freedom from her drunken mother who has an unspoken past, and who encourages her daughter to dance for men in their apartment every Saturday night. If she cannot inhabit the apartment they live in, or the big unbeautiful, tree climbing body her mother so frequently laughs at, she can safely inhabit her head with its music and poetry. Yet even her artistic aspirations become a source of misery for the young Orlandersmith, whose attraction to white artists further increases her sense of alienation. If the stars often seem taunting and mocking, and a million miles away, the young Orlandersmith holds them fiercely in sight, even when horror comes calling. Determined to be free, Orlandersmith channels hope, pain, rage, hate, bitterness and heartbreak into breaking out rather than breaking down. All around her, voices of ancestors and kindred spirts call to her, reminding her she’s ugly, different, beautiful. Who she listens to, and who she rejects, might not be a simple choice. For when ghosts and poets have unfinished business, understanding and acceptance, forgiveness and letting go, might prove to be the only way forward.
With its tale of the aspiring artist being often overshadowed by its tale of a young girl being victimised by an unstable mother, Orlandersmith’s hard hitting script often focuses on the gutter rather than the stars. If the oppressive darkness and weight this generates causes pace to lag on occasion, Orlandersmith’s “Forever” still manages to tell a taut tale, one that, once it lures you in, becomes irresistible. For beyond the dark lies “Forever’s” sense of hope, of pained vulnerability, of a resilience that becomes both strength and pride, beautifully conveyed by Orlandersmith’s conversational delivery. When conversation becomes confession, and heart-breaking disclosures are revealed, Orlandersmith truly shines. Here Orlandersmith can be searingly and stunningly powerful, making you feel like a close, personal friend, one whom she's chosen to share her deepest, darkest, most personal and painful of selves with.
With Orlandersmith frequently crafting shared moments with the audience, the decision of director, Neel Keller, to place the audience on two sides of the performance space proves to be a curious one. With Orlandersmith working both sides of the room simultaneously, you spend a considerable amount of time staring at the back of her head, which impacts negatively on her relationship with the audience. A decision made more questionable by the fact that when Orlandersmith faces you directly and lets loose, she hits with the potency of a hurricane. But, too often, the shared intimacy Orlandersmith strives for gives way to a feeling of eavesdropping on a conversation you desperately want to be a part of but feel deliberately excluded from. As Orlandersmith looks or moves away yet again, you’re left listening in on a conversation being shared with someone else, something you overhear rather than hear. Which is a pity, for Orlandersmith is at her searingly honest best when she gets up close and personal.
Alongside many male writers, such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, Harlem has also been home to some remarkable female voices, including Helene Johnson, Ann Petry, and Dorothy West. To that impressive list add Dael Orlandersmith, who shows, with "Forever", that trees can grow in Harlem too, offering a constant source of light and hope in the face of overwhelming odds. If, in “Forever”, Orlandersmith often inhabits her own head, she will very quickly come to inhabit yours, as a voice full of hope, love and resilience. Whether you believe Orlandersmith hears ancestral voices, or simply voices in her head, is something of a mute point. For, either way, "Forever" reminds us that everything you ever need for the spirit to triumph, you already carry within you.
“Forever” written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until July 15th
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre