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Black Women Playwrights: Interviews

Dael Orlandersmith

Playwright Dael Orlandersmith

Dael Orlandersmith

A poet, actor and playwright, Orlandersmith is best known for Yellowman, which was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. She received an Obie Award for Beauty's Daughter. Her other works include Monster and The Gimmick. She was born in East Harlem.

Q: Do you remember when you discovered plays, performance and theater?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Well, I always kept a journal. And I grew up in Catholic school, right? The nuns took us to see The Great White Hope, and I went, "This is amazing." I don't think they knew what they were taking us to see. We, these Catholic kids, go see this play. And there was also in New York "Paul Newman Week." There would be "Marlon Brando Week." There would be this week and that week. I remember seeing The Fugitive Kind. I was taken with the writing. And that is the thing that lead me to people like Tennessee Williams. The Fugitive Kind is Orpheus Descending. And, of course, there was Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun. So these were the early influences. I read voraciously- you know, the Bobbsy Twins-when I was a kid. But also I as a child kept a journal. When I was 11 or 12, I began to look at television for the actors and, really, to look for writers after that.

Q: So you were 11 or 12?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: It's about the time I was 11 or 12. I began to read a lot of poetry. Because I remember when I was 11 or 12, I discovered Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean-those guys. And in terms of writers I would say Toni Morrison. I read The Bluest Eye, and there was Piri Thomas. He was an Afro-Puerto Rican who wrote a book, Down These Mean Streets that talked about the experience of coming from the barrio. I am black American, but my culture is both black American and Puerto-Rican American. I grew up in central Harlem with one block south the barrio. I went to school with a lot of Latin kids and then partially in Harlem and South Bronx, where I was raised. So there was that. And there was Claude Brown, Man Child in the Promised Land.

I think the reason why I was put in Catholic school anyway was because of the education. The public school system, which is still pretty bad, was really way toxic back then. So I was put in the Catholic school system. Anyway, those are the writers I began to discover. Because I always loved books.

We would sneak and read certain things. Hormones would rage at 12 or 13. The Godfather came out in '73. You know the scene against the wall? James Caan and the woman? We were talking about that. Seeing Brando and Pacino-we were blown away that Pacino came from 110th Street. There is an Uptown Little Italy there. Patsie's Restaurant used to be on 117th and Pleasant, and then it moved to the west 40s. So there was somebody who came from the same background that we did. That was the beginning of things.

Q: Did you consciously set out to be a writer?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: I was more... I am an actor and a writer, but I was more of an actor then. But I always loved language. Like I said, I kept a diary. And, I would write little sketches. But I really did not think of myself as a writer until, say, 14-15 years ago. Primarily I was an actor who wrote sketches and stuff like that. The writing really began about 14 or 15 years ago.

Q: Poetry?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Poetry as well as character sketches. It was not until very recently-like a couple of days ago-when I was watching PBS, a documentary on Beckett. I always read Beckett, but I never really sat and read Beckett. He would just write a character and that would be considered a play. Three lines about the description of a room and that would be considered a play. And I think it's brilliant. I am not saying that I am in the same league as Sam, but, you know, that kind of stuff. I did not know I was doing it, really, but I was.

Q: Did you encounter Shange's...

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Yeah, I saw for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. I think she is an incredible poet. I saw it in the '70s. My best friend at the time, her mother, brought us down to see that. So, yeah. It was cool.

Q: What did you think ...

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: You know, I saw a lot of men hold their genitals. I think some of her poetry is brilliant. And the fact that she did something that I have always wanted to do -combine poetry with theater. I have poetic characters, and actually have poems juxtaposed with the characters, the bridges between characters. And I think her work had a lot to do with it. We are totally different people. But she, I think she has done phenomenal work.

Q: Twenty years ago, black female playwrights--

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: We have always been here, but people just didn't know we were here. Anna [Deavere Smith] is somewhat different. Anna is a sociologist, and what she does is documentary in theater. It is valid, and it is needed. But when you talk about Kia Corthron, Suzan-Lori Parks, and myself-we are writing characters. We are actually writing the characters. But, again, I am saying documentary theater is very valid. When you ask about the surge in black women in the theater . . . . We have always been here and I hope it does not take on this form of popism. You know, this is the Year of the Black Woman, whether it be Halle Berry winning the Oscar or Suzan winning the Pulitzer or me being nominated for one. I mean, hopefully we are here to stay, and people realize we are not one voice-that we are varied voices. This is my worry about that. I am glad we are here, and I hope the numbers will increase. But, my worry is the expectation that people expect us to write a certain way simply because we are black. Because I have been asked some very strange questions this year.

Q: Like what?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: "How do you think this is going to benefit your people?" I mean, I am a person. I write. I wrote a story, not the story. One person can not write for an entire race or sex. And when you try to do that, you take on the very bias that has been put onto you, and you perpetuate it. You know, it is a given I am black, a given I am female. Hopefully, I am a writer and actor before anything else.

People jump on... you know, political correctness used correctly is not a bad thing. My background may not be similar to another black person's background. Does it mean it's invalid? Certainly there is a given history, but we are also individuals. And when people expect us to write about the same thing, I have a major problem with that.

Recently this guy was talking about music, and he goes, "You know, I really don't know your stuff." I said, "I can understand why you wouldn't. A lot of people know me, most don't." He said, "I hear blues in your stuff." And I said, "Well, it's interesting, when I was writing the piece that you're talking about..." And he was talking about one of my pieces called Monster. I said, "David Bowie and Lou Reed are throughout that whole thing. I don't know why you hear blues because the references are to Bowie and Reed, the New York Dolls." You know, I am 42. By the time this interview is over I'll be 43.

Q: When you were nominated for the Pulitzer, did you and Suzan-Lori Parks talk about it?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: I don't know Suzan at all. We met years ago. That girl has been writing for 20 years. Solely plays. Actually, well over 20 years. I mean, she has been doing this a long time-since, I imagine, college. Like I said, I just began to write over the past 14-15 years. And prior to that, I was a poet and actor. But, no, she got the Pulitzer. She deserved the Pulitzer. I was not disappointed, because I am not that writer yet. I got a ways to go, a ways to go. I am just beginning to nip it in the bud. It is hers, and she deserves it.

Q: What about Yellowman?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: My mother was from South Carolina, and this is very, very, loosely based on a family down there. When I was a kid my mother would send me down in the summer. And there was this family that used to interbreed to keep the light skin going. Yellow, "high yellow" was a nasty term for lighter-skinned black people.

When the '60s rolled around, the Black Power movement started in this particular region in the South and in other places as well. I remember people who were extremely dark and extremely light getting together simply because it was a taboo, and you could not do it before. Yellowman is loosely based on this community, on this family, when the '60s rolled around. There was a bust-out of stuff. It became a catalyst for me to look at internal racism -the rift between light-skinned people and dark-skinned people, which has its roots in slavery. So in this particular case I don't want to let anyone off the hook. The people that have enslaved, and the people who have taken on being enslaved and taken the very bias that's been done unto us. You know, because it still happens.

Q: You say "internal racism...

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Racism that is within a race. Every group of people does it. Eastern European Jews vs. Northern European Jews. The rift between blondes and brunettes has nothing to do with hair color. It has to do with what people perceive as racial purity. I wanted to look at how it affects black folks. And beyond that, because Yellowman is about the sins of the father and the sins of the mother. It's about alcoholism. It's about how children are not seen as people, you know? I love this philosopher, Khahil Gilbran, who says your children are not of you. They pass through you. There is this narcissism that is involved with child birth. I think there is healthy and unhealthy narcissism. "You are a chip off the old block" or "you are nothing like me" are things parents say to their kids. But guess what? They don't have to be like you. They are not put here to be like you. That's what I wanted to look at in terms of Yellowman. The oppressed and the oppressor. People take on the very thing they did not want, and it's done by the people oppressed.

You know, the line of work I am in, I guess also being an actor is not lost on me. A Halle Berry, a Jada Pinkett-lighter-skinned actresses are working more so than darker-skinned black actresses. Within the history of film and theater, until very recently with Brian Stokes Mitchell, there has never been a light-skinned black man in theater or film. The O.J. [Simpson] trial, when that rolled around, I don't know if people remember that they were making him darker in pictures. There was a rift. He would get darker and darker and darker. Look at the black men in the prison system. There is a higher percentage of darker-skinned men in the prison system than are fair-skinned. The flip side of that, too, is lighter-skinned girls. And men have been made to feel guilty because they are light. And darker-skinned people are made to feel ugly because they are dark. I don't know how, but as a kid I would watch light-skinned girls get their hair pulled and slapped. And light-skinned guys... You also have the thing that just because someone is light they become handsome. They like to say, where I came from in Harlem and the South Bronx, they would have to fight "extra hard."

So at what point does the people thing, that individual thing, come into play? We do have responsibility. I mean everybody in this room can give you a horror story about childhood, but at what point do we look at it and go "OK." You go, "Bad break. " I don't mean to oversimplify it, but now it is your responsibility. The set of parents that you have, the set of circumstances you are born into-you have to change that now. It's not easy, but you have to change it.

Q: Rosie Perez says she was a victim of child abuse growing up and decided to "throw in the hand" she was dealt.

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Well, good for her. People say, "Is this autobiographical?" And I say, "No, it's not. It's autobiographical in the sense that it interests me. I am black, female, and all that. But, no, it is not autobiographical." Everybody assumes that because I'm in it. But, ironically enough, thank God, we have to audition understudies tomorrow.

Q: Why do we need diverse voices?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Or Eugene O'Neill's? Or Sam Shepard's? It's the theater that interests me. It's theater that makes me learn. I mean simply about being in the world and being aware of other people and how they live. The role of theater is not just for the sake of entertainment, but for the sake of education and communication, and people's dreamscapes and how people live on a day-to-day basis.

I think Sam Shepard kicks royal ass. Especially the early stuff. Geography of a Horseman, that is phenomenal writing. I didn't know that stuff happened. I didn't know that this is how certain people think. That's the kind of theater that interests me. And that is why it is needed. You know, there are Hispanic writers and Native American writers needed. It puts us in touch with the world. There is nothing more gorgeous that being in a room with a play or watching someone on a stage delineate the human condition. And that's the beauty of it.