There are way too few women of color in the public eye, and they are nearly absent on the New York Stage. Dael Orlandersmith is doing everything she can to remedy this situation. Forever, her latest production, sadly does not measure up to Orlandersmith’s mighty intention.
Orlandersmith begins her tale by taking us to the Cemetery Père Lachaise in Paris where the dead are luminary. Everyone from Collette to Jim Morrison. We walk with her as she visits these people, who she considers her real family. I was reminded of Richard Bach’s comment Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof. She has joined the throngs of the living who visit the graves of the dead. She is a seeker looking to pay honor to the people who helped her give birth to herself.
Then there was that other person who helped. Her mother Beula. A sad, mean, lost alcoholic who smelled of scotch and cigarettes. Orlandersmith was a caesarian birth and her mother never let her forget it or the scar that was left behind. She also made certain her daughter could read and write. In her soft moments she read poetry to her daughter, hugged her, loved her and admitted dreams of living in Paris herself. In her mild moments she smothered her daughter. In her dark moments she was a monster.
It was one of her mother’s friends who raped Orlandersmith. The rape shattered her world as well as her thoughts about God. And it brought a detective into her life who, after listening to Beula’s self-referential wailing, took her down a peg or two by pointing out that it was her daughter who was raped, not Beula. This was another shattering.
She started to leave her Harlem home and walk the streets of the Village. She met up with other kids – the outside kids. It was the 1970’s and she refers to these years as the Discovery Years. Patti Smith entered her consciousness and let he know that a woman could be true to herself and succeed wildly. College came and the distance between mother and daughter became a chasm. Finally in 1989 her mother died. In the hospital people told Orlandersmith how much they loved Beula and how lucky it must have been to have her as a mother. Right…..
After the funeral, Orlandersmith discovered secrets and rediscovered facts she had forgotten. Officially, her mother was dead. But she still rented space in Orlandersmith ‘s mind. In the middle of the Parisian cemetery she hears her mother’s voice – and she knows it will never really go away.
Early in this piece, Orlandersmith recalls the Saturday she first heard the Doors Light My Fire. She was sweeping the floor, preparing for her mother’s Saturday night drinking party, and the organ solo stopped her in her tracks. It was the call of something “out there” and Orlandersmith was stunned. The door at the top of the stairs was cracked open.
She had been “leaving home” ever since that moment. Although she never moved out, she was still leaving. With this show she tells us that in this cemetery that she visits more than once, she finally sees her mother in a way that is clean, and pure and totally present. Orlandersmith wants us to care about this. Her delivery is commanding and her work as other characters is exquisite. It is her text that fails.
There are no new stories, so the fact that this is another tale of a mother daughter relationship that was horrible is not the problem. What is the problem is that the text is a tale, not an experience. Orlandersmith is where she is in life, and although she wants us to experience the path she cleared for herself, she does it from a ring-side seat. She does not walk the walk. Thus the show becomes a narrative, not a journey. What she intended as riveting ends up being interesting and little more.
Forever -Created and performed by Dael Orlandersmith; directed by Neel Keller
Sets by Takeshi Kata; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Mary Louise Geiger; sound by Adam Phalen; dramaturgy by Joy Meads; stage manager, Sunneva Stapleton. Presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director. At New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-279-4200, nytw.org. Through May 31. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.