Dael Orlandersmith’s poetic two-hander Yellowman was Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002, after she spent many years as a solo performer (touring with, among other performance work, the Nuyorican Poets Café). Her work powerfully describes an American underclass, people marginalized by race, class, and often, addiction. The lives she narrates are often lived at the edges of an economy to which their needs, as the very bottom of the 99%, are utterly invisible. Orlandersmith’s art serves as advocacy, if not activism, as she recounts the particular contradictions and constraints of such lives, the squandered hopes, the straitened circumstances, and the sadly predictable tragedies.
Orlandersmith’s recent performance at California’s Berkeley Rep, Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, returns her to the solo form that first called her to public attention, while her play Horsedreams, performed at New York’s Rattlestick Theatre last fall, breaks stride by telling the story of a white, middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.
In Black n Blue Boys, Orlandersmith wrote and performs all the characters’ stories, monologues presented in direct address to unseen interlocutors. Director Chay Yew sets the production on a simply raked stage with a wooden floor (under Daniel Ostling’s unobtrusive scenic design), adorned only with a wooden chair and pools of light (designed by Ben Stanton) through which Orlandersmith moves as she follows the narrative arcs. She cycles through stories told by various boys and men whose names are projected on both sides of the wall beside the thrust stage. Each of the stories riffs on similar tales of sexual and physical abuse and the drug addiction or prostitution that allows these boys and men to survive economically or spiritually the degradations and depravations of their lives.
Perhaps the most chilling story comes from a perpetrator of sexual violence, who relates almost proudly how he seduced and then raped an 11-year-old boy in his car. His self-righteous, frankly self-explanatory story, which Orlandersmith embellishes with graphic sexual details, stands out in a night that otherwise narrates victims’ experiences. The 90-minute performance offers disturbing evidence of young men exploited and objectified by a broken social and economic system in which it’s nearly impossible to survive. Although the characters’ class and race vary—all performed with clear vocal and physical distinctions by Orlandersmith—the stories begin to sound similar, as they proceed through a structure that becomes sadly, quickly familiar.
Because Orlandersmith performs each monologue, they’re also tonally similar. And because her presence as a performer is insistent and powerful—that is, she hardly disappears behind her characters, and never changes costume—her editorial style sometimes overwhelms the lives she narrates. In her role as a social chronicler of the dispossessed and as an advocate for the marginalized, Orlandersmith’s presence sometimes feels moralizing, even as she works hard to bring new voices into public discourse.
But while she dares the (mostly white, at the performance I attended) audience to look away, to shut their eyes and ears to these lives, what she wants the audience to do with what they see and hear is unclear. Her performance comes with an implicit ethical imperative embedded in an explicit critique of a ruined social system in which white people with class privilege are clearly complicit. But Orlandersmith never articulates the challenge to action that her critical, urgent gaze seems to bear. I left the performance feeling chastised and chastened but rather emotionally remote and surprisingly unmoved by what I’d seen.
That disapproving moralizing makes Orlandersmith’s Horsedreams a similar cautionary tale without a clear activist stance. The play displaces the iconic addiction story from people of color living in impoverished circumstances to an upper-middle-class white family, who employ an African American nanny. In the one-act play, Desiree (Roxanne Hope) and Loman (Michael Laurence) meet in a club at which both of them do lines of coke to garnish their drinks. Their attraction pulls them into a relationship neither of them are equipped to manage. His money and her desire keep them in the drugs that sharpen their lives. When she gets pregnant, they marry, move precipitously to Westchester, and both try to go straight. But their abstinence doesn’t last. Orlandersmith implies it can’t, that club-going, and coke-snorting, and trying so desperately to get out of your body by inhabiting it on the cutting edge of a meat-market nightclub life is a slippery slope to devastation.
Loman continues to move up the ranks of his law firm and Desiree begins to suffer a fatal boredom that makes her crave the party life she gave up too soon. They celebrate the birth of their son, Luka (Matthew Schechter), with deep ambivalence, and then fall back into the clutches of addiction. Desiree soon dies from getting high on cocaine mixed with heroin cut with quinine (an ingredient in rat poison). Loman tries to go straight, moves back to the city with Luka, and before long, is once again snorting cocaine, which leads him again to use heroin. Loman’s friend also dies of an overdose, as Orlandersmith implies that history will continue to repeat itself and that the cycle of addiction is impossible to break.
Throughout the inevitably tragic story, Orlandersmith lurks like a disapproving Cassandra. Through the play’s first third, she stands by the stage left wall, watching pensively as Desiree and Loman begin their descent into addiction. She eventually enters the story as Luka’s nanny, Mira, who lives in the Harlem neighborhood where the couple go to score, and who has lost her own father and brother to drugs. Mira is studying to be a nurse, determined to improve her own circumstances and, metaphorically, to heal others (and herself).
The simple set boasts a few chairs, a bottle of Macallan 12 and a shot glass, an ironing board, and long tubes of fluorescent lights hung diagonally over the playing floor like the harsh light of reality. The back drop of the small stage resembles a stormy grey sky, cut apart into jagged pieces of a puzzle that can’t seem to be put back together. Against this bleak setting, the four actors move through a story that’s as inevitable and predictable as a Greek tragedy.
Hope, Laurence, Schechter, and Orlandersmith perform beautifully, subtly charting each character’s dawning understanding of their hopeless situation. But we know where the play is going by the first scene, even though we don’t know much about the characters and their commitments. Desiree and Loman are too one-dimensional and uninteresting and privileged for us to really care about their downfalls. Only Luka is sympathetic, and he’s a small child gradually understanding the seedy lives being ruined in his presence. But it’s hard to feel empathy or even compassion for people who have money and jobs that they throw away for drugs. Because of their privilege and wealth, this family represents the flip-side of the characters Orlandersmith writes in Black n Blue Boys. But the story she tells about all these people is oddly the same.
Orlandersmith’s character strikes the same note of disapproval throughout Horsedreams that guides her performance in Black n Blue Boys. Mira accuses the white people for whom she works of an awful moral depravity, given what they’re doing to their child. She won’t call the authorities because she knows what will happen to Luka in the system. But Mira is too mired in her role as the one who sees but can’t change anything to be an interesting character in her own right.
Although Horsedreams is a more conventional play than Black n Blue Boys, with multiple characters, a bit of dialogue, and separate scenes, Orlandersmith writes it as a set of interlocking monologues. Some of the writing evokes her trademark poetry. But the direct address makes it difficult for the characters to build relationships with one another, even though director Gordon Edelstein does a lovely job creating stage pictures that draw out their feelings with subtlety and nuance.
Orlandersmith demonstrates that rich white folks suffer the drug abuse for which poor people of color are too often demonized. She also clarifies how racism threads through this scene. Desiree and Loman revel in their cocaine use, but both consider heroin too “ghetto,” until they try it themselves and recognize its sensual appeal. Desiree dies in part because she calls her dealer an “ape.” Her racism is so overt that he stages his revenge by giving her bad drugs. She dies with a needle stuck in her arm on the floor of her Westchester bathroom, the victim, in many ways, of her own racism.
As a performer, Orlandersmith is a galvanizing presence, and in Black n Blue Boys her performances of masculinity are sharply observed and virtuosic. Both Horsedreams and Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men tell stories that need to be heard more often at the theatre, stories that look askew at what our culture insists is the truth of poverty v. opportunity, drug addiction v. moral purity. Orlandersmith’s vision complicates how we align race and class with the devastation of drug use and sexual violence, and reminds us that these social scourges cut across identity positions and communities.
The Feminist Spectator