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A CurtainUp Review
by David A. Rosenberg

Dael Oelandersmith's Solo Show Lands at New York Theater Workshop

Forever is one of those personal self-analysis pieces that's yet another sub-genre of the ever more diverse and popular solo play. With a set consisting of a couple of chairs, a wall covered with photos and just one performer, it's easy and economical to mount. Naturally it helps if the narrator is a gifted wordsmith who knows how to project a mixture of sadness rage and forgiveness into her meditation. Given that Forever's writer-performer is an actress, poet and playwright whose past performance pieces include the 20002 Pulitzer Prize runner-up Yellowman ( Curtainup reviews in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles), it's likely to land at many prestigious theaters like Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut and, currently, New York Theatre Workshop.

Below is David Rosenberg's review, based on the premiere performance he saw in New Haven last summer, with the same director and technical team aboard for the Off-Broadway run. If there's one thing it proves, it's that unhappy childhoods are the stuff of potent staged memoirs. And in case this one inspires you to add your own thoughts about the dead in your life, you can do so on a gray board that extends into theater. — e.s.

"No, the dead can't do nothin' to you. It's the living you gotta watch out for." Forever
Dael Orlandersmith (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Two chairs, a table, a candle, a record player, a guitar— and three walls filled with photographs surrounding a platform. That's the bare setting for Dael Orlandersmith's searching, eventually tiresome solo show, Forever. Of the photos, only one stands out, however. This is Beula Camradora Smith, the author/performer's abusive, drunken, artistic, destructive yet inspiring mother.

After the final curtain, some from the audience walk about to see the other pictures, as if examining paintings in a museum. For the rest these photos remain a mystery.

A one-person show is often more than a memoir; it's also a release, a getting rid of demons, getting the past off one's chest. By its nature, it's self-aggrandizing, lacking other actors to flesh out conflict.

And so it is here where, after a slow beginning, Forever springs to life at its moments of struggle: a harrowing rape scene, an encounter with her mother's corpse, a mysterious meeting with a transformative girl. Then the feelings gush out, that death is a release, that new-found freedom allows the mourner to experience an unburdened life at last.

Orlandersmith begins and ends her soul-baring evening with a visit to Paris' Pàre Lachaise cemetery, naming some of the famous persons buried in that storied place: Piaf, Rimbaud, Wilde, Chopin and, most tellingly, Jim Morrrison of the Doors.

It is from Beula and Morrison that the author learns to appreciate both art and herself. "I knew there was something beyond this broken-down house and being here with her — my mother." Something, that is, beyond the desultory Harlem life Orlandersmith lived and from which she finally escapes into an East Village world of music and drama peopled by a melting pot of artists. The author, who is African-American, finds some of her deepest wells of satisfaction in whites such as Morrison and Eugene O'Neill, as well as blacks like James Baldwin and Richard Wright — proving that art should know no boundaries.

All roads lead to the painful relationship with her mother, the stern woman who loved books, "unconsciously introduced me to art, was a professional dancer, could recite Paul Lawrence Dunbar ("What dreams we have / And how they fly) and longed to see Paris. But Beula's mood swings became too much to bear: after beatings, daughter was forced to hold and comfort crying, guilt-ridden mother.

Orlandersmith's language is lyrical, even when she's most bereft, which is most of the time. "Poetry dangled on your lips, but then there was me who scarred you unintentionally, just by being born" she says about her mother.

Neel Keller's flowing direction draws an unadorned, unremitting performance from Orlandersmith but can't move the piece off its pedestal. Still, on her search, Orlandersmith, the author of the terrific Yellowman ( Link to Curtainup's several reviews ), by giving us so much of herself, exorcises ghosts and points the way to solace. "I wonder if we, any of us, ever get it right," she asks, as family and art fuse to be with her forever.

Written and Performed Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Neel Keller
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: May Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Adam Phalen
Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission)
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 4/22/15; opening 5/04/15; closing 5/31/15
Review by David A. Rosenberg
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