Giving Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Dael Orlandersmith
Playwright, performer and poet Dael Orlandersmith is not afraid to tackle the darker side of human nature. With influences as far ranging as Arthur Rimbaud, Eugene O’Neill and Lou Reed, Orlandersmith’s raw, often violent but always beautiful writing shines a light on the painful realities of being alive. From her early solo pieces to her play Yellowman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, to this most recent work, Orlandersmith courageously tackles issues of poverty, internalized racism, addiction and the cycle of violence. Her plays are filled with flawed but heroic characters struggling to set themselves free from the circumstances of their birth. Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, a Goodman co-commission with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, grew out of Orlandersmith’s own experiences working in an emergency shelter for at-risk youth in New York. Rendered in her distinct poetic voice, this latest work features Orlandersmith performing a series of male characters all coming to terms with their histories of abuse. In a recent conversation with Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s literary manager and resident dramaturg, Orlandersmith talks about how this piece evolved and what drew her to these men’s stories.
Madeleine Oldham: Can you say a little bit about where the project came from, and how you came to want to do this one?
Dael Orlandersmith: 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 question manhood, womanhood. As a writer, an actor and a rock fan, gender stuff always comes up for me. I came across 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. 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. Back in the 1940s he was studying Jung, 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, James Dean’s character 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 1955, but it was written in the late ’40s! That’s mad, you know.
It has always interested me how we treat boys and how we treat girls—the conditioning of both the sexes. 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 macho culture that a lot of people despise? Because a behavior can only survive if it’s fed into.
MO: You have a real fearlessness about going to dark places in your work. Is that natural for you or did you have to cultivate that skill?
DO: I’ve always been like that.
MO: And you’re like that as a person as well as an artist?
DO: 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. 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?
MO: What is your favorite thing an audience member has ever said to you?
DO: “You gave me permission to feel.” That came from an 11-year-old kid. That’s the best memory, yeah. That’s really nice.
MO: Do people make assumptions that your work is autobiographical?
DO: All the time. But see, people don’t realize, even if somebody’s writing something insipid, that’s autobiographical too. Most people have an interesting life, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a piece of theater, because theater’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?” There’s got to 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. But if you’ve lived on the planet for a certain amount of years, you’ve also hurt people. I want to hear about that. That’s interesting to me. 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?