Recently I did a fascinating interview with the multiple award winning and Pulitzer Prize finalist, actress and playwright, Dael Orlandersmith, who is pretty much used to making waves and challenging audiences to deal with subjects that people find difficult to talk about, and to bring them out into the open.
Her previous works, such as Stoop Stories, Yellowman and Horsedreams, have dealt with racism, urban strife, relationships and color consciousness among African –Americans, and have won her numerous acclaim in productions across the country, and several awards including the Obie Award.
Now the New York City native, in her new play, Black N’ Blue Boys/Broken Men, tackles the controversial subject of young men traumatized and adult men still dealing with the effects of child sexual abuse. After its premiere this past spring at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, it’s now on stage at the Goodman Theater in Chicago until the end of the month.
The play is remarkable since it is a one woman show, with Ms. Orlandersmith playing all the roles in a series of monologues – from a Puerto Rican boy, to a Irish working class man, to an African American social worker, to a New York Italian city worker.
SERGIO: Let’s start off with something technical. It’s hard enough playing a single character in a play. How do you play several in one? Going from say from a working class Irish guy to a young Puerto Rican kid in a few seconds. How do you get yourself into that mindset so quickly?
ORLANDERSMITH: Not easily! (laughs) But I’ve been doing this a long time but I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s easy. But then even now I’m still finding new things. I’ve been working on physicalization quite a bit and I try to figure out how does this person move? What music do they listen to? Are they a loner? How does that manifest itself physically? So a lot of those things come into play after even after I’ve written it. I’m always working on it. It’s not easy.
Are you one of those persons who’s constantly observing other people? The way they move, how they talk , their mannerisms?
Yes I’ve always been like that. Even since I was a little girl. When I was a kid I couldn’t define it then, but body language tells how people feel about themselves. So when I watch people I say: “Oh this is what going on. O.K. now I’ve got you”. Let me give you an example years ago. There was the critic who hated my work. You[‘re always going to get people who don’t like you, but the way this stuff was written you would have thought that I killed this person’s family. And then I finally got a chance to lay eyes on this person because they were doing an interview that I was working with at the time and this person could not look me in the eye. As I looked at them I said to myself: “O.K. that’s your problem, not mine.”
I could see someone who probably was given a hard time when they were a kid. The person was constantly emphasizing my looks and my size and all that kind of stuff and I looked at them and realized that this person was teased mercilessly Well that’s you that’s not me. You know when somebody tells you “Good Morning!” and you look at them can tell if they really are wishing you a good morning or not. And more than likely they’re doing a job they can’t stand and are just going through the motions and try to be respectable but they can’t because their lives are miserable. I can articulate it now, but I was always aware of that. The sub textural.
But getting to Black N Blue Boys your new work, it’s not an easy play to sit though. It’s pretty brutal, yet honest dealing with child sexual abuse. We hear about it all the time. But do you think that there’s actually more of it going on today or that we’re more open about discussing it?
We’re talking about it more because we never defined it as such. And also I wonder if we would fine it so difficult if, here we go, we were talking about girls. It’s difficult anyway, but I think from what I have read is that that we don’t tend to think of men as being abused. We think of men as abusers. The problem with adults is that they think that they were once children and they indemnify themselves like that They children who have to give birth of themselves. In the words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet your children “come through you but not from you” so there’s this narcissism that comes with childhood as well.
Sure it’s hard to talk about childhood and all that stuff, but I think the play is unsparing in terms of how adults can be hypocritical and how children can take on the significance of what adults have done to them. And if people are looking for redemption, there is no redemption in the usual sense. I’m not trying to do that. I’m telling stories. I’m speaking to people, not for people. There is a certain theater where you have to be the participant and you’re willing to tear what’s on that stage or you retract. It’s just let me throw my money down and you entertain me. It’s a certain theater where you have to think about, so there you go.
True, it always can’t be just song and laughter. How can you get things to change if you don’t confront people about it?
Yeah exactly! But then again I’m just beginning to see this now how hard it is for some people to deal with it when they see the subject matter. When it was performed at Berkeley, there you go, “Dael, have you done this before for people of color? Well what do you mean’ Well we’re a white upper class audience…” And I said Wait I’m going to stop you right now I can see where this is going. You think about a film like Precious and you think it’s just that. Or you think this involves low class white people. Who you think Jerry Sandusky is? Or Anne Sexton, one of greatest poets ever, but who molested her daughter. Or when Sylvia Plath writes the “Daddy” poem. So you can’t go there with me. And then she starts pulling away and I say well you’re pulling away when you come to me about these stereotypes and that’s going to happen. People will start pulling away.
But I’m sure you have experience when after a performance of Broken Men someone will come up to you and say you told my story?
Many times. many times. Usually at the end of each show we have talkbacks where people talk about their past experiences I know because I write about this that I have a certain amount of responsibility, but the words that I use constantly astound me. I’m an actor and a writer first and foremost and I speaking to not speaking for anyone. And don’t have the right to speak for anyone. But I do hope that it does open doors. But I’m not your therapist.
It’s our responsibility to do with it what we want…
Now it’s your responsibly or not to take this information because a lot of time people don’t want to see certain things so are you going to invoke and provoke that? If you coming in closed down and closed up there’s nothing for you to receive. If you choose to live a very compartmentalize life you’re not going to want to see this or see anything else to fits outside your comfort zone.
The role of a certain type of theater is that we have supposed to be mental and emotional travelers and to me with your faced with darkness the beauty of that darkness is that when someone puts that on a page or a canvas, in a song, on stage or on the screen it gives us permission to learn about this and to recognize it within ourselves, And individually take that and we hopefully add to the collective.