A community in the aftermath of unrest. The painful legacy of abuse, as experienced by black boys and men. The intimately insidious effects of colorism. The remembrance of a life lived and love lost, inspired by a chance encounter with a famously tragic jazz singer. Playwright and actor Dael Orlandersmith’s particular skill is to tell the story beneath the story; of looking past the surface to excavate the nuanced layers beneath.
And yet, while much of her work revolves around black lives and narratives, to simply call Orlandersmith, an Obie Award winner and 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, a “black playwright”—or even a “playwright of color”—would be reductive. Hers is an intense curiosity about the intricacies of human life as a whole, and the often domino-like effect our lives and beliefs can have upon one another.
In conversation, these connections come naturally to Orlandersmith, one topic seamlessly flowing into another as part of a broader commentary on art and society. She tells no story without context, keenly aware of the importance of recognizing cause-and-effect, and her place as storyteller.
I first encountered Orlandersmith in May of this year, while her play Until the Flood, a multicharacter meditation on the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., was in production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (where Orlandersmith is Artistic Associate and Resident Artist). Though only midway through a 12-day run at the time we spoke, she was already understandably exhausted, having portrayed all of the play’s characters through eight emotionally charged monologues.
Originally commissioned by the St. Louis Repertory Theater, Until the Flood was the result of three days spent in Ferguson in 2016, where Orlandersmith interviewed 40 to 60 people to understand how each had internalized the events of 2014. What she found was a community long beleaguered by overpolicing and violence; so much so that to some, the shooting of Michael Brown felt like an inevitability.
“You know, prior to that, like in 2013, they were pulling black men—about 70 or 80 black men pulled over randomly, because the city of St. Louis/Ferguson is divided into different cities [with different mayors] to keep the racial divide going,” she recalled. “So, when I went down and sat down and spoke with people about this, Michael Brown was the main thing. But by the time I got there, they were tired of it, because they were tired of being associated with that solely. ... It had become routine. They’d gotten so used to black guys being pulled over, [it] was like, “Oh another one.”
It’s this type of socio-historical context that makes Orlandersmith’s work so compelling—along with her performances, which transcend race, nationality, age, gender and sexuality. Inevitably, her shape-shifting portrayals and socially relevant themes draw frequent comparisons to fellow playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles). But while the two are complimentary forces within the theater, the highly detailed and faithful “portraits” Deavere Smith renders from her interviews might be considered companions to Orlandersmith’s composite characters, culled from a collective of narratives like those heard in Ferguson.
“In fact, this is the first time I’ve done something like this,” she said. “I think what [Deavere Smith] does is spectacular. She’s wonderful at what she does. But we are very different. ...
“I’m attracted to stories, in general. When people say, ‘Do you like solo work or multi-character?’ I write work, because I’m a theater worker. I’ll write what strikes me.”
Different, too, is the way that Orlandersmith, a Harlem-born, self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” who now resides on New York City’s Lower East Side, perceives her place in the world as an artist—specifically, as an artist of color, which she maintains garners its own type of bias.
“[T]he colorism that I encounter is the fact that people expect people of color to simply write about identity and that’s it,” she said. “I don’t wake up and think that I’m black; I know that I am. ... So that kind of limitation within itself plays into the very bias that people are trying to get out of. ... It’s a given that I’m black and female. But also again, people have to watch—everyone has to watch—the way they play into certain stereotypes. ... This whole thing, we are a diaspora.”
Orlandersmith’s characters represent their own diaspora. Over the course of her decadeslong career, they include not only the citizens of Ferguson, but a man and woman grappling with the internal racism of colorism, a family wracked with addiction, a young woman coming of age in New York City, two East Harlem artists chasing the elusive dream of fame, and a series of black boys and men wounded by varying types of abuse. All are concerned with the concept of legacy—specifically, the legacy of race. But what truly binds them to each other—and to the audience—is their deeply flawed, but relatable humanity.
“There is a theme throughout the work that I write, about childhood and the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and how people take on the very thing they don’t like about their parents and they become them,” Orlandersmith wrote in a 2002 article for the New York Times, after becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play, Yellowman. “What I try to do with my work is to differentiate between reasons and excuses. At what point do we take responsibility for our actions and go beyond where we come from?”
Speaking about her characters in the present day, Orlandersmith told me that it is their humanity that matters most.
“I’m glad they’re empathetic and I’m glad they’re fully formed—I have to do that. I have to love every single one of the people that I write about. Otherwise they’ll be caricatures.”
Her latest work, currently in production at the Goodman, is Lady in Denmark, inspired by a striking but oft-overlooked anecdote shared by jazz singer Billie Holiday in her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. But while a black woman’s story informs the inspiration and narrative of the play, its singular character is a Danish woman, recalling her life through Holiday’s music, after meeting the singer as a child in Denmark (based on Holiday’s own account). While the work may seem to mark a departure from Orlandersmith’s previous works, as she points out, it’s simply another story she feels worth telling.
“Somebody said, ‘Well, why would you want to write this thing about Lady in Denmark?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Why can’t I write a white lady? Why can’t I go to Denmark? Why is it so farfetched for you?’ And this is both to black and white people, I have had to say this to.
“I feel that other people try to give me their limitations ... As a kid, it used to really bother me. You know, as a young woman, it’s like, ‘Aww, man, I’m trying to prove something.’ Don’t prove anything to anybody. You are who you are. You write it and either somebody will get it or not.”
“I don’t speak for people, I speak to them,” she continues. “And I’m just hoping that my individualism adds to a collective and helps open doors ... When you ask me about femaleness and blackness, that goes straight to humanness and humaneness. But also, there’s a line that I wish that I wrote: You know the poet Anne Sexton? She was asked, ‘Why do you write the way you write?’ And her response was, ‘I have the right to invade my own privacy.’ ... My own interpretation of that is certainly to write about what I want to write about..”
As she nears a new decade in her life, Orlandersmith is currently writing about aging. “What does it means to age?” she asks. After seeing her powerhouse performances, it doesn’t appear a cause for worry just yet. But it’s a fair enough question for a woman who has made her life and career in an industry known for rewarding youth.
Then again, if there’s anything Dael Orlandersmith’s work makes clear, it’s that even untold stories find their audience.
“A lot of people know my work, a lot of people don’t. I guess I’m a late bloomer,” she says. “I kinda go, ‘Oh man, OK, you know, it’s happening.’ But yeah, I’ve around a long time. ... It used to frustrate me when I was younger. But this is actually kind of cool.”
Dael Orlandersmith’s Lady in Denmark is currently in production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago through November 18. You can purchase tickets here.