By David A. Rosenberg
Two chairs, a table, a candle, a record player, a guitar -- and three walls filled with photographs surrounding a platform. That’s the bare setting for Dael Orlandersmith’s searching, eventually tiresome solo show, Forever. Of the photos, only one stands out, however. This is Beula Camradora Smith, the author/performer’s abusive, drunken, artistic, destructive yet inspiring mother. After the final curtain, some from the audience walk about to see the other pictures, as if examining paintings in a museum. For the rest of us, these photos remain a mystery.
A one-person show is often more than a memoir; it’s also a release, a getting rid of demons, getting the past off one’s chest. By its nature, it’s self-aggrandizing, lacking other actors to flesh out conflict.
And so it is here where, after a slow beginning, Forever springs to life at its moments of struggle: a harrowing rape scene, an encounter with her mother’s corpse, a mysterious meeting with a transformative girl. Then the feelings gush out, that death is a release, that new-found freedom allows the mourner to experience an unburdened life at last.
Orlandersmith begins and ends her soul-bearing evening with a visit to Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery, naming some of the famous persons buried in that storied place: Piaf, Rimbaud, Wilde, Chopin and, most tellingly, Jim Morrrison of the Doors.
For it is from Beula and Morrison that the author learns to appreciate both art and herself. “I knew there was something beyond this broken-down house and being here with her -- my mother.” Something, that is, beyond the desultory Harlem life Orlandersmith lived and from which she finally escapes into an East Village world of music and drama peopled by a melting pot of artists. The author, who is African-American, finds some of her deepest wells of satisfaction in whites such as Morrison and Eugene O’Neill, as well as blacks like James Baldwin and Richard Wright -- proving that art should know no boundaries.
All roads lead to the painful relationship with her mother, the stern woman who loved books, “unconsciously introduced me to art,” was a professional dancer, could recite Paul Lawrence Dunbar (“What dreams we have/And how they fly”) and longed to see Paris. But Beula’s mood swings became too much to bear: after beatings, daughter was forced to hold and comfort crying, guilt-ridden mother.
Orlandersmith’s language is lyrical, even when she’s most bereft, which is most of the time. “Poetry dangled on your lips,” she says about her mother, “but then there was me who scarred you unintentionally,” just by being born.
Neel Keller’s flowing direction draws an unadorned, unremitting performance from Orlandersmith but can’t move the piece off its pedestal. Still, on her search, Orlandersmith (author of the terrific Yellowman), by giving us so much of herself, exorcises ghosts and points the way to solace. “I wonder if we, any of us, ever get it right,” she asks, as family and art fuse to be with her forever.