Our Pasts Are With Us Forever in a Poignant New Play at Long Wharf
By Amy J. Barry
Forever, premiering at Long Wharf Theatre is more like an 80-minute poem acted out on stage than a play. The rhythm, the cadence, the repetitive phrases are mesmerizing and oh so pleasing to the ear. Time melts away and although there is no plot per se, we wait with baited breath for what comes next.
The 80-minute, one-act, one-woman production stars Dael Orlandersmith—its playwright -- and is her fourth piece produced at Long Wharf. Orlandersmith also appeared in her previous productions: The Gimmick, Yellowman, and The Blue Album. Forever is skillfully directed by Neel Keller, who commissioned Orlandersmith to create this new play, and urged her to write her own story about what got her into art.
What particularly resonates with the audience is that the play is autobiographical—a concisely constructed memoir about Orlandersmith’s volatile relationship with her mother, Beula -- her quest to make sense of “mommy monster,” as she called the woman who became drunk on scotch and beat her as a small child, before breaking down and becoming the child herself, demanding to be held.
In simple yet eloquent language Orlandersmith describes the frightening, contradictory messages she received and how she attempted to make sense of it all.
Forever starts out in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in the 1980s -- a place Orlandersmith often frequented when she visited the city, wandering around the graves, having conversations with the famous dead artists, writers, and musicians that are buried there: Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Collette, Proust, Modigliani, and most importantly, Jim Morrison, whose poetic lyrics led her to read all kinds of literature, and gave her solace in the dismal Harlem tenement where she grew up. She describes how she was ridiculed by her black neighbors for listening to that white sh-t,” and how she didn’t fit in anywhere but would escape into a world made up of artistic souls, yearning for them to be her family instead of the family into which she was born.
“All of us have come/all of us who are seeking/have come to be with these people here in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, who beyond our parents helped us give birth to ourselves,” she says.
Later into the play, Orlandersmith goes into a more direct storytelling mode. Still haunted by her mother’s ghost, she describes Beula’s life from birth to death. A well-read, attractive woman with a 19-inch waist, who, at one time, danced professionally, Beula turned into an overweight, alcoholic tyrant after giving birth.
One of the most moving moments is when Orlandersmith reminisces about her childhood friendship with Tommy, who her mother eventually bans her from seeing. But until then, the two young girls find hope and beauty climbing rocks in the nearby park.
“That day/the rocks we stood on were no longer rocks/they became mountains and on that mountain where we stood/the Taino projects were not projects -- they were majestic towers/and when we faced west/the tenements were not tenements -- they were palaces…and in that moment despite the fact that people shot dope in that park and people got killed/got raped in that park—in that moment/nothing would happen to us/nothing bad could happen to us.”
One of the most brutally honest moments is Orlandersmith’s description of being raped as a young girl down to every last detail. And yet, despite the chilling horror of what she describes, she finds solace in an Irish police officer named Terrence O’Malley, the first person ever to stand up to Beula and defend Orlandersmith. And at that vulnerable moment, she decides she will become Mrs. Terrence O’Malley and move to Ireland where they’ll live by the ocean.
For all the play’s seriousness, there are such touches of humor and irony throughout.
Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting provides the mood changes from day to night and enhances Takeshi Kata’s simply designed set with a small table holding a candle and a record player, on which Orlandersmith plays snippets of nostalgic songs from her teenage years in the ‘70s. Adding another dimension, photos are posted all around the perimeter of the stage, which, upon close examination (the audience is allowed to come up on stage at the end), are pictures of Orlandersmith’s family, the people we have just gotten to know.
The production seems to wrap up a little too neatly and quickly toward the end, when Orlandersmith is back in the graveyard—in a good place in her adult life, feeling beautiful in her own skin, having stood up to her mother but still harboring anger and disappointment and the feelings that like the play’s title will be with her “Forever.”
Interestingly, Olandersmith barely mentions her own career -- maybe because we already know the ending -- that she becomes a successful playwright, a powerful voice in American theater. The journey there is what captures our attention and keeps it rapt throughout this heart-rending production.
Performances of Forever continue through Feb. 1 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets and schedule call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online visit www.longwharf.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.