The theatre is a place where we can speak about the unspeakable. In the hands of artists of great skill, topics that we normally shun or find unbearable can become both riveting and entertaining. Many patrons have told me that before they saw The Laramie Project or Ruined or The People’s Temple (to name only a few of the many mentioned), they were skeptical if not downright averse to seeing a play that trafficked in material that they assumed would be too dark or oppressive to enjoy. But in each case they were shocked by the degree of empathy they felt, resulting in a viewing experience that was riveting and even revelatory.
Dael Orlandersmith has embarked upon a similar journey, taking the experience of boys and men who have been abused and transmuting their stories into a compelling, theatrical narrative. Dael’s great gift is her ability to create language that is simultaneously real and poetic, raw and beautiful, tragic and funny. She approaches character as if each person is a song, a unique blend of melody and rhythm that demands to be heard and sung on its own terms. Her scripts look like jazz scores, the rhythm of each phrase denoted with slash marks, words capitalized frequently to mark emphasis, the grammar presented on the page as a visual expression of identity. The final product resembles not a traditional play script but a linguistic installation, a testament to the fact that these word-songs can only be delivered and fully received through performance.
And that they are, in rather spectacular fashion. While we’ve produced many plays over the years where women have played men and vice versa, this piece marks the first time that an actor is exclusively playing members of the opposite sex. The intention is not to simply be clever or to showcase Dael’s formidable talents as a performer. A woman telling these particular stories creates both distance and empathy. She is reaching out as both an artist and a human being, giving voice to boys and men who are dealing with trauma, lending understanding and love to what lies outside her direct experience as a woman. The theatricality of the event is wedded to the humanity of Dael’s intentions. And that, my friends, is a formula for great theatre.
From May through July we’ll be producing the work of two remarkable women: Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men by Dael Orlandersmith and Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler. Dael and Eve could not be more different, and yet each in her own way uses the power of storytelling to bring—really to demand—that we engage our hearts and minds in the lives of people from whom we rarely hear.
Both women speak with an urgency that derives from their intense passion. When I read these two plays, I think of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, with his heart-wrenching appeal that “attention must be paid.” Through their plays, these women demand that we take in, unflinchingly, these stories of boys and girls because the mutual acts of telling and listening are the tools of transformation.
If you are a subscriber, Black n Blue Boys is your last show of the season. Emotional Creature is a nonsubscription event, and I encourage everyone who hasn’t yet reserved tickets to this new play to do so by calling the box office or visiting our website.
Emotional Creature is funny, joyful and deeply moving—the perfect complement to Black n Blue Boys. I don’t think you want to miss it.
by Madeleine Oldham
When I think of Dael Orlandersmith the first word that comes to my mind is “luminous.” She radiates passion, ideas, warmth and humor, and I always come away from conversations with her feeling like the world is a better place because she’s in it. She’s fiercely honest, and pursues her boundless curiosity with abandon. Here I had a welcome chance to talk with her right before rehearsals started for Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men.
What do you think your responsibilities are as a storyteller?
If a play can invoke and provoke thought, that’s a good thing. With Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men, these are fictional stories. Of course you want there to be some deeper truth that resonates, and you want to reach people. But when people get into a bag where they’re saying all this stuff about being a positive role model, I don’t know, man. When people hold themselves up as examples, they’re crossing a boundary. You still have to write your plays, you still have to be in touch with the world and in touch with yourself, so when you start doing the spokesperson stuff, you limit yourself because you end up being a crowd-pleaser. And that does not interest me at all.
Well that’s very clear. I think that comes across not only in your work, but in your public profile, and even in preparing for this interview, I Googled you. There’s not very much online about you.
No, there is not. (Laughs) I’m keeping it like that, too.
I can tell. I think that’s kind of amazing in this day and age. So can you say a little bit about where the project came from, and how you came to want to do this one?
You know, things always come to me. Years ago I used to work as a social worker, and I was working in this house for runaway kids. It was hard, because it was actually an emergency shelter, which meant there was a high turnover. And those people had interesting stories. I would hear a lot from boys about them being molested and abused by women, not just men. It was understood that “Well, naw man, you’re not supposed to say anything.”
It made me also question manhood, womanhood. As a writer, an actor and a rock fan, gender stuff always comes up. I came across a blurb somewhere or a quote that said some of the best actors are people who are androgynous. If you think about it, lots of the ones who are part of the collective unconscious, like Brando and James Dean, really are. People don’t think Brando’s androgynous, but I can see where he’s very androgynous, and James Dean is definitely androgynous, right? These are the people who shake your senses, when they challenge what all that [gender role] stuff means. I’m friends with Stewart Stern who wrote Rebel Without a Cause, he’s still alive.
Oh wow. How old is he?
Stewart is 86. Oh my God, you just reminded me, he had a birthday. I gotta call him. And back in the ‘40s, he was studying Jung then, the whole thing about anima/animus—anima being the feminine within the man and animus being the masculine within the woman. In Rebel Without a Cause, when he says, “What does it mean to be a man, what kind of guys do girls like?” and then Natalie Wood says, “A guy who can be a guy but can also cry and be gentle.” The film was released in ‘55, but it was written in the late ‘40s! That’s mad, you know. Even when you watch Brando, there are these incredible moments when the planes of his face become almost feminine.
Now, having said that, I don’t necessarily believe that to be sensitive is feminine and to be aggressive is masculine in absolute. There are varying degrees, and in terms of behavior, it has always interested me how we treat boys and how we treat girls—the conditioning of both the sexes. And going beyond that, what joins us as people.
So we never really think about men being abused; we think about the penis being a weapon. And even beyond the sexual abuse, we just tend to think in terms of abuse in general, that it’s masculine. I think this is where sexual stereotypes come in, when people automatically assume that if a woman can give birth, she becomes nurturing. And there are certain women who have no business having kids. Like there are certain men who have no business having kids. How do we as women play into the machoism that a lot of people despise? Because a behavior can only survive if it’s fed into. I’m just trying to touch upon all of that, and then to go beyond that stuff and look at these guys as people.
How did you figure out that you wanted it to be all men in the play?
I guess because of what I just said. I think there is a masculine within me, and then there is a human within me. But in certain ways, I could talk to guys—I mean, when I was a kid, you know the ways certain women can gather together and talk amongst themselves? I can do that, but there are also certain things that I talk to guys about that they totally get but I found that I couldn’t talk to women about. I guess that might be the androgynous aspect of stuff too.
There’s certainly a conditioning that happens with men, as the expectation is to be more assertive and/or aggressive. Sometimes if I’m writing a male character I’ll have male actors say to me, “Oh, this is really cool.” I’ll be in the room, and the male actor and the male director will talk amongst themselves and they’ve totally forgotten that I’ve written it. And I just kinda go, “Hello?” I think, in a weird way, as open as they are, there’s a part of them that has to remind themselves that a woman has written this. And they kinda go, “Oh yeah, yeah, right, yeah yeah.”
That must be very satisfying though.
Yeah, it is. Yeah. But in a way, it’s also frustrating because I’m writing as a human too.
You have a real fearlessness about going to dark places in your work. You’re just completely, unabashedly, unafraid of going straight to the heart of whatever needs to be gotten to the heart of. Is that natural for you or did you have to cultivate that skill?
I’ve always been like that.
And you’re like that as a person as well as a writer?
Yeah. You can’t have one without the other. There is beauty within the other. There is a dark sexuality. People automatically assume that it’s going to be violent and destructive. But sometimes you’re put in touch with a certain kind of darkness that brings you to a light—when you’re faced, say, with your own egomania, or your own bias, and you may have to figuratively and literally throw that up by acknowledging that it’s there. And then you come into a light. Or, again, the dark richness.
It took me a long time to really understand Billie Holiday, for instance. I grew up around her music. It wasn’t until I heard Lester Young’s music coming from another room, and I realized, “Oh wow, it’s not Lester Young playing, that’s Billie Holiday singing.” So I began to sit down and listen, particularly to the later work. She did many versions of “My Man,” for instance, a song that came out in the ‘40s. Piaf also did it, “Mon Homme,” right? It’s what she brings to it—when she said, “he beats me too” and stuff like that.
You know, whether people care to admit it or not, they listen to that. You’re not going to put on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” You’re going to light your cigarette, pour your drink and maybe sit in the dark with your cigarette and your drink and you’re going to listen to that, because that’s somebody being honest with you. That’s what the darkness is about. All of us are supposed to be mental and emotional travelers, we’re all supposed to acquaint ourselves with ourselves, and that includes the dark. You can really learn from the dark. It’s a rite of passage, yeah?
I think that’s beautiful, and really well said. Do people ever say it to you? Do people ever tell you your work is too dark?
Yes. All the time.
And do you say the same thing that you just said to me to them?
I do say that. I’m in a scary part of my life right now. By that what I mean is this: to be very blunt, I’m best known for Yellowman, and prior to that certain people know the solo work, and my name is so pretentious-sounding people think they know me when they don’t.
And that’s bullshit, right? But the work is getting darker. The work that I’m doing now, which has not “hit,” at least not in my lifetime, is the work that I’ve always wanted to do. I mean, I’m proud of all of it, but this is the stuff that really gets me going.
What is your favorite thing an audience member has ever said to you?
“You gave me permission to feel.”
That’s awesome. Wow.
You know who it came from?
An 11-year-old kid.
It’s really beautiful. That’s the best memory, yeah. That’s really nice.
Do people make assumptions that your work is autobiographical?
All the time. But see, people don’t realize, even if somebody’s writing something insipid, that’s autobiographical too. That’s what happened with the one person genre, where it’s become this major confessional. Most people have an interesting life, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a piece of theatre, because theatre’s about a beginning, a middle, an end, a story, a conflict, a resolution—it’s about language and imagination. So, when people get up there and want to tell their life stories, you feel bad because there are a lot of unemployed actors, but I can’t help thinking, “What the hell are you telling me this for?” You know what I mean? (Laughs) There’s gotta be a reason besides just the facts. And what pisses me off about a lot of autobiographical one-person stuff is that people make themselves the victim. It’s just like, if you’ve lived on the planet for a certain amount of years, you’ve also hurt people. I want to hear about that. I want to hear about the beauty queen, but what happens when the beauty queen gets her face slashed. She has to reconcile herself and come from a whole different place. That’s interesting to me.
Why do you think so many people run away from the darkness these days?
They always have.
Yes, a lot of people always have. Because one of the hardest things in the world, I think, is to take responsibility for your own actions. The hardest thing in the world is to really be in a room with yourself and not have an “if,” “and,” “but,” or “because.” You did it, where are you going to go now? That’s where you find your strength, right?
How did you and director Chay Yew get together for this?
I’ve known Chay’s work for a while…I asked him, I think. I literally can’t remember, you know, because it’s been wacky.
There’s this benefit thing called Theatrejam that I kinda helped do at the Rattlestick Theatre in New York. I put that into motion. I wrote these things and I asked Chay to direct it, but I also happened to like Chay’s work anyway, and we came across each other. That’s how it happened. I was talking to him about androgyny and gender and Red [Chay Yew’s script set during China’s Cultural Revolution] is a great play, and dramaturgically he’s smart.
Do you have a preference for performing or writing, or do you enjoy them both the same?
I prefer to write. The older that I get, I love being by myself, and I love writing, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to even get me to perform stuff. (Laughs)
Did you used to prefer performing?
I used to like both kind of equally. Because both of these things are immensely hard. But now it’s more so. I really prefer writing. Also I wish I knew how to paint, because I try to write like a painter. I also try to write like a musician—a rock-and-roll musician. I like those kinds of jobs. In my next life, to a certain degree, I’d love to be a rock-and-roll musician.
Well, that’s interesting because when you talk, you compare so many things to music. It’s amazing. It’s often how you explain things—you talk in music terms. So, you’ve also done film, and you’ve done poetry stuff—
I’ve done a little film, not a lot.
But you’ve done enough, I mean, to say that you’ve done it, right?
Well, I was in a Hal Hartley movie.
I was in a movie with that boy Vincent Gallo. And I did a Michael J. Fox show—what was the name of that one?
You were on Spin City?
Only those three things.
Well, OK , but those are three real things. That’s certainly more than I’ve done.
This sounds pretentious, but I do believe in theatre. ‘Cause I would have more money, for instance, if I knew how to write for film. Maybe I will learn for television, I don’t know, but I swear to God, it doesn’t interest me.
Well, that’s my next question: why theatre?
I love the immediacy. Theatre is immediate the way rock-and-roll is immediate. Television is not. People sometimes ask, “You think a record is immediate?” I do. The first time I heard the original “Light My Fire,” I was, let me see, that record came out in 1967, so I was 7 and a half. And I stopped what I was doing. You know John Densmore has become a friend of mine. He’s a Southern California boy. The Doors helped change my life. You know, sometimes the problem with people who get older is they know too much. They associate maturity with being closed down—they know everything and there’s no more curiosity, right? Some people ask, “Well, don’t you find the alternative to be adolescent?” I say “No, I don’t find them adolescent.”
I also say look at the chain reaction: because listening to The Doors led me to Rimbaud, Baudelaire. So it’s not just simply listening to them. And of course, Aldous Huxley. I read The Doors of Perception after listening to them. If it wasn’t for The Doors would there be a Nirvana? Would there be an Eddie Vedder? Would there be a Patti Smith? This is what I mean by having a chain reaction.
I haven’t been in a couple of years, but I when go to Paris, I go to the Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery, and Jim Morrison’s grave. Go in there and you see how the role of art, whether this person is dead or not, continues and how it alters lives.
I would guess that people say to you, “Oh, Dael, you have such a youthful spirit” or whatever—it’s not about youthful spirit, it’s about still being interested in the world around you.
That’s right. There’s great music now. People talk about “Oh, when we were kids…” It’s like, it wasn’t that great. People wanna talk about “back in the day” as they get older. Look, I’m not America’s version of eye candy. Never was. I’m not saying it in a nasty way, it’s just the way it is. I come across actresses who are a little bit younger, say from their late 30s/early 40s on, and they’re knocking people like Scarlett Johansson, and I’m looking at them and going, “Well, you did the same thing 20 years ago. So what the fuck’s up your ass? Twenty years ago, you snatched somebody else’s husband or tried to use your sex appeal to get such and such.”
These are the same women on the one hand, who we’re talking about—they’re going through a rite of passage, going through darkness, right? If you want things to change, sometimes you have to make yourself the example, and it may mean you losing what’s there now in order for that to happen. There’s an emphasis on looks in this business, and people think they have to get face lifts in order to keep working. Do they think people can’t tell that they did that? Come on, be serious. If you want it to change, then make the change. You know Jacqueline Bisset? The English/French actress? She has a career that’s interesting. She goes, “Look, this is no longer the ‘50s. I’m born in 1944. I’ll take interesting supporting roles in films—if it’s a good role I’ll take it and I’ll get my ego out the way.” She does a lot of indie stuff in Europe. One other person I love is Jeanne Moreau. European women have less of a problem aging. Not that they don’t get work done, but they’ll tell you if they do.
Why do you think we do have this problem?
We’re a younger country, aesthetically. That has a lot to do with it. As diversified as it is, there’s still the expectation, because we’re young, for people to speak for as opposed to speak with. We’re not comfortable with going to certain places because we’re simply not used to it. We don’t have the practice. In Europe they’re not afraid—especially between France and Germany—to do dark work in film. But again, that’s the whole thing—we don’t have that kind of longevity of tradition the way they do.
What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to do?
I want to work abroad more. The goal at some point is to live between here and Europe.
Do you know where?
I think between France and Italy. I think more so France. I really want to explore Europe more—I feel connected when I’m there. I know people over there, and I like the fact that I can sit in a café and talk about work. And they have cell phones too, but they don’t use them like we do. The downside though is, here we go, that there’s never really been a tradition of black women in theatre, or black people in theatre there. In terms of France, you have male ex-pats, I mean obviously the jazz scene in Europe in general. And also black male writers, like Richard Wright and James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, lived there for awhile. But you never hear about any black women, and in terms of theatre, there aren’t any writers. If I was a singer and/or a dancer living there, that’s one thing, but as a black actor/writer…They’re trying to change that a little bit.
You said you would split time—you would never leave New York, would you?
Leave New York forever?
I don’t know. I don’t think I will, because I love this city, but also it can be dog eat dog and it’s rough. It’s my home, but I’m not feeling New York right now. Would I leave New York permanently? I don’t think so, but if there was something that arose, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, either. You never know. Maybe I’ll come live in Berkeley.