Friday, January 9, 2015

Theater Review: Forever -- Long Wharf

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Craig Schwartz.
Making it from a House of Darkness to a City of Light
By Lauren Yarger
In her fourth piece produced by Long Wharf Theatre, playwright Dael Orlandersmith creates an intense character trying to survive and reinvent herself in the world premiere of Forever, directed by Neel Keller.

Orlandersmith herself performs the one-woman play, which was inspired after a visit to Pere Lechaise Cemetery in Paris, home of the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Chopin, among others. After viewing a documentary about the cemetery and a conversation with Keller, she adapted part of it into this play, incorporating some of her own thoughts and ended up with a memoir-like piece about the journey of a woman growing up in Harlem.

Life in a pest-infected house, cleaned up weekly for her alcoholic mother’s booze parties is difficult, to say the least. The young girl is forced to meet all of her mother’s needs, playing the roles of father, husband, lover -- and most importantly for her mother -- the role of the ugly, no-talent daughter upon whom her mother enjoys lavishing verbal and physical abuse. The memories haunt her, even after her mother’s death, as the woman rejoices at having gotten herself to Paris.

“In my head I hear laughter, background laughter and a background voice ‘What are you doing there, there in Paris? You don’t belong there. And within the laughter and in beyond the laughter, I can see eyes. I can see the background eyes and above the background eyes there are thick penciled in brows and eyes . . . The eyes that look at me are blinking very slowly, they are red, blurry eyes, red blurry, inebriated eyes and I suddenly smell scotch. The smell of scotch is strong and I realize it’s her.”

She escapes into music and education and enjoys one brief afternoon of friendship with a similarly abused girl next door, but her world consists mostly of hopelessness and domination by a mother who has hated her since the moment she arrived via Cesarean section – the scar from which the mother repeatedly shows her daughter as proof of her ugly creation.

When her daughter recounts a brutal rape -- possibly at the hands of one of the many men invited to the weekly booze parties where the mother forces her daughter to dance for entertainment – her mother cries and reacts as though she is the one who has been harmed. She offers little comfort to her daughter who fantasizes about running away with a police officer who shows her some kindness.

It’s tough (and mature) subject matter,  and hard to sit through (thankfully, the play clocks in at 80 minutes with no intermission), but Olandersmith’s lyrical prose and riveting performance compel us to listen how this woman realizes that she will be haunted by her mother “forever” but works her way out of hate.

“That young girl who had that baby – my sister, and how that baby was taken away – I wonder what that day was like for you. Did you fight to hold on to her? I wonder, did you think by having me you’d forget it and finally get it right? I wonder if we, any of us, ever get it right.”

Orlandersmith previously wrote and appeared in The Gimmick, Yellowman and The Blue Album at Long Wharf.

“I often write about people having to invent themselves,” she said. “People who have to reinvent themselves. People who have to parent themselves and be their own person. The outsider people. I want to convey a truth. I hope I’ve given people permission to be uncomfortable and comfortable. I hope I’ve told them an interesting story and I hope I’ve told it well.”

Forever runs through Feb. 1 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven (Stage II). Performance times vary. Tickets $74.50. 203-787-4282.

An excerpt form the play:

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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