Dael Orlandersmith’s ‘Black N Blue Boys’ transcends all races, economic status
A huge part of the problem, as playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith sees it, was embodied in the man she had to restrain from clocking during an audience talk-back at California’s Berkeley Rep. His question, she recalls, came after a performance of “Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men,” her excruciatingly vivid one-woman show about horrifically abused young boys and their evolution into damaged men.
“He asked if I’d performed this for audiences like Berkeley’s — mostly white, upper-middle class people — before,” Orlandersmith, 52, recalls. “Because, he said, ‘we don’t have abuse like this in our community. It’s a problem for lower-income people. But not for people like us.’ I wanted to kill him. I seriously wanted to go over and punch him. ”
Opening Oct. 7 in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, “Black N Blue Boys” has Orlandersmith playing boys and men across a spectrum of income levels, races and ages. They are Puerto Ricans, Anglos, African Americans and Irish men, ranging in age from 11 to 50, coming in all demographics from food-stamp recipients to middle-class suburbanites. That the stories transcend race and economics is no accident.
“Abuse knows no racial or economic boundaries,” says Orlandersmith succinctly.
The only thing in common the characters share is their gender. She focused the piece on male victims, Orlandersmith said, in part to chip away at the overwhelming silence and the stigma surrounding them. “When a man abuses a girl, it’s molestation. When it’s the other way around, it’s initiation,” she says. As a counselor in the mid-1980s at an emergency shelter for runaways, Orlandersmith based some of “Black n Blue Boys” on the tragedies she encountered there. Her graphic depiction of those tragedies isn’t always easy to take. There were walkouts in Berkeley, say both Orlandersmith and director Chay Yew.
“I had to accept that some people just hated it, ” says Smith, “I suspect because they didn’t want to hear what I was talking about. Or because they’d been abused and it hit too close to home.”
“It’s an act of courage, both to tell these stories and to listen to them” adds Yew, “It’s not ‘A Christmas Carol.’ I know there are people who are like, this is a night out at the theater — do I need to be hearing this? But I say that if these stories don’t get told, they’re going to keep happening. It’s the silence that’s so damaging. Look at [Penn State]. Look at the Catholic Church.”
Silence is one thing Orlandersmith does not do well, whether portraying abuse from the point of view of a preteen raped by his mother or a middle-aged pedophile fighting — and failing — to control urges he believes he was born with.
“There’s nowhere to hide in Dael’s performances,” Yew adds, “She doesn’t have a set. Or fancy costumes. She looks you straight in the eye. The question becomes, are you willing to participate in this conversation?”
If the conversation is difficult, the storytelling is enthralling . For those who caught Orlandersmith’s “Stoop Stories” in 2009 at the Goodman, this doesn’t come as news. Orlandersmith happens to be a black female, but she’s got a thrilling ability to vanish into the cross-section of humanity she depicts on stage.
“With the best performers, you don’t see their race or gender when they’re inhabiting their characters,” says Yew. “You can hear and see them, but you can also sense and feel and almost smell them.”
Yew’s not the only one of that opinion. Smith’s one-woman piece “Beauty’s Daughter” won a 1995 Obie Award. Since then, she’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for “Yellowman”) as well as the recipient of too many grants, awards and other official kudos to list here.
Her storytelling is partially the result of growing up in Harlem in the late 1960s, “surrounded,” Orlandersmith says, by violence and drugs. Which isn’t to say her stories are autobiographical. “My plight wasn’t succumbing to the street so much as it was people getting mad at me for not succumbing to the street,” she says, “I wanted to be alone and read a lot of the time.”
In addition to the chaos, she was surrounded, she stresses, by books. Eugene O’Neill was an early discovery, and one that impressed on her the common threads binding seemingly disparate populations. “I remember seeing ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and thinking here was this white Irish family dealing with the same kind of addiction I saw in Harlem.
“I was always aware of how superficial things can be, how much we try to cover things up,” she adds, “I don’t set out to make people uncomfortable, but to give them a truth. There’s darkness in the world. I see no point in trying to powder over it. That’s part of the problem.”
Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.