She Takes You There
(Culver City, Calif - July 9, 2010) With only a staircase, good lighting and synchronistic sounds, Dael Orlandersmith presents her love poem about the characters she grew up knowing so well in Harlem. The consulting director for this production is Jo Bonney.
Stoop Stories is a one-woman show written and performed by Orlandersmith. It's now playing in a limited run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre's DouglasPlus Program. According to Center Theater Group, this program encompasses "an eclectic mix of theatre choices, ranging from fully staged or minimally staged events to workshops and readings."
Dael Orlandersmith is a veteran writer performer. She won an Obie award in 1995 for her play Beauty's Daughter, and she has been a nominee for the Drama Desk Award as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her other plays include The Gimmick, Yellowman, The Blue Album, and Horsedreams.
Georja : Stoop Stories is set mostly in the past - “when black people used to be colored” - and flits through time to present day. Orlandersmith draws a literary portrait of desperados, junkies, a Holocaust victim, Billie Holiday, Latinos and a multitude of other neighbors. She has a commanding presence onstage. Her voice and her face are mesmerizing and authentic.
Gerald: The chronology is the story, the evolution of Harlem over the generations of the late twentieth century. It's a transition from tenements to condos, from junkies to yuppie tourists. Orlandersmith's character portrayals don't link up to form any other overall story. They are vignettes. If you like poetry, they will draw you in. If you're wanting storytelling, you'll find it within the vignettes, as you would in a collection of short stories all set in the same place.
Georja: At times she unabashedly breaks into poetry, coming from her narrator persona and at times coming from one of her characters. Other times she is looking directly at the audience and engaging us in a one-way conversation. And then there are her many characters who she often seems to be channeling rather than portraying.
Most of the stage area is a tenement stoop where her neighbors used to hang out when she was a kid. Inside were the rats the size of cats, and every kind of trouble. But when the gang was sitting on the stoop, drinking booze mixed with soda or loosely hidden in paper bags, their imaginations would take flight. And though they mostly had traveled nowhere, they would conjure up wild stories of vacations on the Riviera. Others would chime in and swear they had been there.
Later the same stairwell serves as the steps to the library where Orlandersmith as a young girl discovered books and the power of words. Her love of words and her choices to follow her own path have been her stairway out of the misery of the projects.
Gerald: The limited playing space, essentially a black-box set, is one of several concepts in the DouglasPlus program. (We recently reviewed Palomino, David Cale's one-man show there.) Although the stage is stark, Richard Peterson's lighting design is as careful and meticulous as you'd expect in a more elaborate production. Eric Shimelonis's original music and sound design also add dimension to the imaginary playing space. His period-piece musical backgrounds and sound effects cue Orlandersmith's character transitions and help transport us back to the 1950s, say.
Georja: All of the characters are amusing and interesting, but she does not sugarcoat the pain and desperation that they are coming from. Most of the people she portrays gave up their lives to drugs or sex. In one of her poems, the young people “lose their souls” in the hoods of cars.
She creates Herman, a Polish concentration camp survivor whose black girlfriend marries someone else. He sulks at a neighborhood bar where he meets and has a meaningful encounter with Billie Holliday. It is a vivid and poignant story, and the first time I've experienced a black woman so fully owning the character of a Jewish man.
Gerald: It took guts for her to put on Herman like an old coat. An actor with less chops wouldn't be able to bring it off. It would seem like a parody. But I believed him.
Georja: Another touching character is the girlfriend she sees on a trip back to Harlem. They were close at age 15, when Orlandersmith admired the fact that she had boyfriends and could dance. And now that same friend at age 48 has four kids and is a great-grandmother.
Gerald: Particularly in the early years she describes, I'm struck by the pervasiveness and tragedy of the junkie life. Drugs can be self-medication for an existence that's barely tolerable much of the time. No one in it creates that life, and no one chooses to be born into it. You have to get that.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
July 7, 9, 10, and 11, 2010
Tickets are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or two hours prior to performances at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office.
July 9, 8pm
July 10, 2pm & 8pm
Jully 11, 1pm & 6:30pm