In lean times theater directors turn more frequently to one person performances and very small casts. For material, the "written-and-performed-bys" mine the depths of memory. It is so much the easier if the remembered are dead and will never see the end product. That said, Dael Orlandersmith's exhumation of her mother has its moments of soul-chilling revelation. In the program she states, "it's this hybrid of fact, and also [my] impression of what happened." The result is 90 minutes of damnation seasoned with a bit of praise for the intellectual gifts her mother gave her.
Set in Paris, Père Lachaise cemetery, Orlandersmith verbally strolls amongst the graves of the literary and artistic august. She enumerates familiar names and reminds us that there are the people who have, beyond our parents, given us birth. She is clearly more comfortable with her intellectual parents than the messy reality of her mother, an African American woman from the segregated South who fled the fields; incredibly, her mother was fueled by these same writers and did whatever it took to finally get herself to New York.
From what Orlandersmith tells us, there is plenty objective material behind her howls: the mother who looked to her child for comfort, mothering, and physical support; the mother who slapped her daughter around and called her stupid when she had trouble with her math homework; the alcoholic mother who descended into a stupor with her friends every Saturday night. Most chilling is Orlandersmith's description of being brutally raped as a young adolescent: her mother's wailing as though the greater injury was to her, not her daughter, and the ultimate interjection by a kindly police detective who told her mother to get a grip on herself; it was not the mother's rape. The few allusions to the enrichments her mother offered ring hollow. Easier to credit the bodies in the ground of Père Lachaise. We, and she, do not need to deal with their messy personal lives.
Orlandersmith is an oft-produced playwright. She has a Guggenheim fellowship, an Obie, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. There are moments of brilliance in "Forever," but much reminds me, as a therapist, of the hours I've sat in my chair listening, wondering, as harrowing as this story is, what would I hear if the other person were in my consulting room too? Her statement in the program about "Forever" being a hybrid of fact and impression rings as self-serving.
I began this review by discussing the advantage to theaters of producing one-person shows, and the short-cut writing a personal memoir offers. Orlandersmith often consulted a notebook as she expounded on her story. But the number of times she seemed to stumble suggests it was not well rehearsed and undermines the notion that the notebook whose pages she turns is a prop. She gives us her pain in an almost unremitting howl. It is unremitting, it is graphic, it is acrid. It is something she apparently lives with daily. Does catharsis ever heal? I have my doubts. The question for you, the potential audience, is do you really want to take it on?