Writer's Room: DAEL ORLANDERSMITH
Black N' Blue Boys/Broken Men
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith belongs to a daring new generation of African-American women writing for the stage and winning establishment recognition for their work. Orlandersmith often acts in her plays as well, delivering critically acclaimed portrayals of lives torn apart by poverty, racism, or substance abuse. Commenting on the sometimes desolate emotional territory that her stories traverse, the New York-based writer reflected in an interview with Stuart Miller for American Theatre that “there is humanity within a bleak story. We find that humanity by exposing the darkness. I use language as a tool. Just the fact that the story itself is told—and hopefully well—is cause for hope.”
Orlandersmith was born in 1959 and grew up in public housing in New York’s rough East Harlem neighborhood. Her father died when she was young, and her mother sent her to a Roman Catholic parochial school, despite the hardship the expense brought on the household. In late 1960s and early 1970s, East Harlem was a dangerous place, as was the South Bronx neighborhood where her best friend lived. “Heroin was at its height then,” Orlandersmith told Miller. “I remember people would carry an extra $5, in case a junkie came up to them, so they wouldn’t lose their life.” She admitted to being somewhat of an aggressive youth herself, but was focused on learning as well, she said in an interview with the Edinburgh Scotsman. “I have always been work-oriented, even when I was a child,” Orlandersmith told journalist Jackie Mc-Glone. “At ten, I was writing a journal, reading voraciously, listening to music.”
An encouraging teacher suggested that Orlandersmith take acting classes, and for a time she was involved with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in her teens. As a young woman, she enrolled in Hunter College and settled in New York’s East Village in the 1980s. When she returned to acting classes after leaving Hunter, she began writing her own dramatic scenes for performance assignments, and her classmates often asked her who had written them. In the early 1990s she became reacquainted with the Nuyorican group as a poet-performer, toured with them in Europe and Australia, and began landing small acting jobs. She even appeared in an episode of Spin City, but it was sometimes suggested to the statuesque Orlandersmith that she lose some weight, and so she eventually turned her energies to playwriting full-time. Her first finished play was for her Manhattan Class Company, and titled Liar Liar.
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men was co-commissioned by the Goodman and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2012. In it, Orlandersmith turns her attention to a subject often shrouded in silence: the devastating impact of sexual and physical abuse on boys, and the mark that such abuse leaves on them as adult survivors. Embodying six men of different ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds, Orlandersmith takes us into a world of violence, addiction and mental illness—but also one of courage, resilience and transcendent dreams. Described by one critic in its California premiere as “fierce, uncompromising and alive with sharply observed, humanizing detail,” Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men is a difficult but eminently rewarding journey, one that sheds a harsh but often compassionate light on human frailty and the damaging cycle of abuse as passed down from one generation to the next.
Earlier this year Orlandersmith premiered her latest work, commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Until the Flood. As a response to the events in Ferguson, she created and performed a moving piece that represented the community of St. Louis and Missouri as a whole, and how this community reacted when put in a national spotlight they neither expected or relished.
Orlandersmith’s plays have been published in book by Vintage. Beauty’s Daughter, Monster, The Gimmick: Three Plays, appeared in 2000, and in 2002 Yellow-man and My Red Hand, My Black Hand —the latter a work for three characters—appeared in print. An ardent fan of music in all forms, Orlandersmith continues to live in New York City and is a well-known figure in the downtown arts scene with her six-foot frame and multi-colored, sometimes platinum-blond dreadlocks.
Click here to learn more about Found Space Theatre's Production of Black n' Blue Boys/Broken Men!