Dael Orlandersmith and Yellowman – a phenomenon waiting to happen – Carole Woddis
This feature first posted in Jan 2006, possibly for The Herald (Glasgow).
Many months ago, Emily Mann, the author of Still Life, one of the finest post-Vietnam plays to be written in America, now artistic director of the prestigious McCarter Theatre in Princeton predicted, `Yellowman will take Dael to the next level as an artist’.
The Dael in question was the Harlem born playwright-poet-performer Dael Orlandersmith. And the play in question, Yellowman, was already picking up awards in the US before it touched down in the UK where it’s impact has been quite simply, overwhelming.
In the States, Orlandersmith who had picked up an Obie for an earlier play, Beauty’s Daughter, became a Pulitzer prize finalist with Yellowman; and here, last year, under the auspices of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse theatres’ energetic leaders, Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon, it not only took Liverpool by storm but proceeded to knock the normally cynical London critics for six during its Hampstead Theatre run. The upshot is now a national tour, the first the Liverpool Theatres have undertaken since their amalgamation. In Bodinetz’s words: `Few plays that we’ve put on in Liverpool have had such an extraordinary response. We felt it should be seen and would get that response wherever it went.’
Now, Orlandersmith is not exactly your shy, retiring flower. She’s been around, been writing and performing since she was 16 and her previous plays, all solo pieces, have been notable for their visceral quality and refusal to duck awkward questions. Monster, Beauty’s Daughter and The Gimmick (much admired when Orlandersmith took it to the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago) have all shared a similar sense of street realism and aspirational dreaming.
Ask her though if she’s been surprised by the way Yellowman has taken off in Europe and her answer expresses incredulity. `Yeah, I was shocked, absolutely shocked, both here and abroad. It’s even been read in Italy.’
Down the phone, it’s impossible to judge the look in her eyes as she’s saying this. But the voice is warm and husky. She talks fast, laughs a lot, often self-deprecatingly. (The popularity of Yellowman, she offers, is because it’s a two-hander and therefore cheap. A cackle whistles down the line).
The overall impression you get is of a big heart. And the shock you come to understand is one still of amazed appreciation that a play, set in 1960s South Carolina, should be greeted in far off countries with such enthusiasm.
In America, she performed in its premiere at the McCarter and confesses to having been terrified that conservative elements in her own black community might turn on her for airing, as she terms it, `dirty washing in public’. Undaunted, she argues that every group has its own internal rumblings and tensions – true but one that only very assured, confident artists can sometimes think of upholding. Negative images of oppressed minorities never go down well.
`What’s nice’, she goes on about the response over here, `is that people get the universalism of it. I’ve just been in Galway, with [the Irish director], Gary Hines. Irish people say, `it applies to us, too’. It’s a given, I’m black and a woman. But people see beyond that, apply it to themselves.’
Bodinetz also notes how audiences in Liverpool took to the play on many different levels. She’s not surprised at the response, recalling how she fell in love with the script as soon as she read it when at Hampstead Theatre as an associate. As soon as she and Aydon were appointed to Liverpool, it was one of the first plays they programmed.
`We thought it might have been one of the maddest decisions we’d ever taken, it was from such a foreign world. But it’s the poetry, the beauty of it, the absolute wave of writing that propels you from the beginning to the end and then sort of kicks you in the solar plexus. It still remains, I think, the only script that went to the script meeting (unusual in Liverpool in involving every department in the theatre from marketing to cleaners) and got an absolute universal “we must put this on” vote.’
Bodinetz also thinks Yellowman’s success is down to its twin appeals: a love story set within a political context that touches on a taboo subject: racism within the black community. Alma and Eugene have known each other since they were children. She is dark-skinned, he lighter. Their friendship deepens and they fall in love in an affair ultimately and fatally overshadowed by the past as Alma seeks to escape to New York but is sucked back to the south with shattering consequences.
Bodinetz believes the play works `so beautifully’ precisely because `it can be taken on the personal, micro, level as a love story between two young people, or on the larger, macro level of the political structure in America, from the 60s to the present day. Those two strands run and overlap each other exquisitely. You can get lost just in the personal, love story. But the political context is extraordinary.’
It’s a political awareness that Orlandersmith is at some pains, strangely, to underplay.
`I’m not someone who likes to be beaten across the head with a message. I prefer to show by doing it. If I see a play where that’s happening, I’m ready to leave. I go to the theatre to be moved’. Arthur Miller, she adds somewhat surprisingly, `he’s such a dancer with language.’
Now many would argue that Miller, great playwright – arguably America’s greatest dramatist – though he is, isn’t afraid to whack his audiences over the head with his message. However, Bodinetz believes it’s that lack of `political head-butting’ that has made Yellowman so universally popular with audiences here, whatever their colour. `Ultimately one could argue that the white man is responsible. But it’s there very subtly. It’s why a white audience can surrender to the politics of the play without feeling the finger is being pointed at them.’
Once you start talking to Orlandersmith, though, you begin to realise the one thing she doesn’t want is to be categorised. `I don’t want to become a spokesperson for this or that group, for women, or the black community. I don’t want to speak for all people. If you do, you start taking on a political agenda. I don’t want limitations.’
She says she always had an enquiring mind and if her background – her father, who came from Nassau in the Bahamas, was a tailor; her mother, from South Carolina, a telephone operator who remembers hearing Marlon Brando chatting up his girlfriends over the phone – was no more or less than a typical Harlem one, that enquiring mind and perhaps an inspired teacher who took her teenage writings seriously and encouraged her to read omnivorously, took her up, out and away.
At 16, a drop-out from college – `I wouldn’t be here if I’d stayed’ – a trained actor who has never stopped performing (her film credits include Hal Hartley’s Amateur, Spin City and the movie, Get Well Soon with Courtney Cox), in the 70s she was soaking up the music of British punk and the likes of the Sex Pistols, Siouxie and the Banshees and Joy Division; later she was to be found helping to storm the citadels of poetry with the influential Nuyorican Poets Cafe, now known as Real Life Poetry – a movement that began performance poetry’s stratospheric journey to popularity. In the 80s, the revival of `black musicals’ with their unending characterisation of ghettoised blacks so `got on my nerves’, it triggered the start of her writing and the emergence of her solo pieces, Monster, Beauty’s Daughter and the Gimmick.
If she has a credo, it is certainly when she says her aim is to `to fuse the poetic genre and drama’, as it is when she talks of wanting to write like a painter, or a musician.
She has a precedent in the Afro-American writer, Ntozake Shange and her choro-poems, one of which, For Coloured Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf also found popular support over here. But Orlandersmith has a clearer dramatic sense. She has the poet’s touch alright but also a terrific sense of theatre. And perhaps an even wider canvas.
Her visit to Ireland coincided with a reading of what she calls her `Celt’ piece, `Raw Boy’.
Interestingly, the link goes back to Yellowman. Orlandersmith talks of how, when she was growing up in the 60s, she would go to visit her mother’s folks in South Carolina. There she became aware of the subtle distinctions of skin colour. To an extent, you could say Yellowman is autobiographical in the sense it reflects the behaviour of the relatives she saw around her at that time (and which the two actors, amazingly, re-enact between them – children, overbearing parents, grandparents and all).
But her ear also picked up and replicated the South Carolina dialect – geechie – a mixture of, she reveals, Celtic, English, African (specifically West African) and Scottish or Northern Ireland.
`My cousins would say, “I’m just goin cross the road for a piece of fash”. And then I heard someone in Belfast saying fish exactly the same. And I said, “that’s how my cousins say it”’. She looked into it and somehow it all made sense. Cross-fertilisation, mixed race, bi-racial – whatever you like to call it – has a long, long pedigree.
No wonder audiences respond to Orlandersmith. She has a line into ancestral voices that reach way back or, as The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote of Liverpool’s original production `the two performances are a triumph in a play that is racially specific and emotionally universal’.