Dael Orlandersmith | Performer of the week

Dael Orlandersmith in Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men at Goodman Theatre

Dael Orlandersmith in Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men at Goodman Theatre Photograph: Kevin Berne

In her one-woman show at Goodman Theatre, Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, Dael Orlandersmith brings to life six male characters who witness, commit, or are victims of sexual abuse. It’s an intense, heart-wrenching piece from a masterful performer and writer, who was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Yellowman. Born and raised in the South Bronx, Orlandersmith studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts then trained and toured with the Nuyorican Poets, a group that has included such influential playwrights as Miguel Piñero and Ntozake Shange. Orlandersmith has since become one of the country’s top talents for solo performances, last appearing at Goodman Theatre in 2009’s Stoop Stories. She speaks to us about why she wanted to bring these stories to the stage, the challenges in creating and performing the piece, and what she hopes audience members walk away with.

What inspired you to tell the stories in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men?

A couple of things. I’m always interested in gender, what’s considered male, what’s considered female. Some of this stuff is just indelible, some of it is just people stuff. There is androgyny. And some of the gender set-ups are archaic and very sexist. Like if a man is sensitive, we say he’s in touch with his feminine side. If a woman is smart, we say she’s in touch with her masculine side. There are some stupid men, there are some hard-ass women in the world. So to reduce simply to that is sexist. And another reason why is because in the ’80s, very briefly, I worked in a runaway shelter. A lot of those boys talked about being abused by both men and women and people didn’t really pay that much heed.

And so that always kind of stayed with me, combined with me just being a person in the world and also being a rock fan because rock 'n' roll also is a very androgynous medium. Not so much now, but when I was growing up in the ’70s, I idolized Bowie. And when "Rebel Rebel" came out it’s like, “Got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” And we were like, “Oh shit, this is too cool,” because the word “unisex” came out of that, and for a hot second there was unisex clothing, unisex haircuts, there was this thing that transcended the sexual stuff, the gender stuff, then it went straight to hell in a basket after that. But no one ever looked at men being abused, they looked at them as abusers, or if they were abused that it had to be by a gay man. And someone had asked me about this piece, they said, “How come you don’t have a gay man?” I said, “Because it just didn’t happen that way.” In a weird way I’m glad I don’t [have a gay man in the show]. Because [that] question and that kind of thinking would mean, oh this person must be gay because they were abused. So in a way I’m glad, because I don’t want to add to that kind of thought.

What is it that you like about performing one-woman shows specifically?

I don’t particularly like them. But the thing is, again, for someone of my type, there was no work for me. So I began to do that. See, this particular piece is also written where anyone can do it, a man can do it and anybody of any race can do it. It can be multi-character, it can be solo. And the reason why I put it in the world like that first is so people can have an idea as to how the language is because my language, when you read it, it’s very, very dense on a page. So people go, “What the hell do I do with this?”

What was the most challenging aspect of the process and what is the most challenging thing about the performance?

On both accounts, Tenny. Tenny is the predator, he’s the toughest one to do. But for lack of a better term, I have to love him. You know what I mean when I say that right? I mean if I judge him and make him into a monster, we don’t have an understanding. I ‘m not talking about love love. We have to empathize, not sympathize. [Tenny’s] a composite figure. There’s a guy called Father Oliver O’Grady and there’s a documentary [about him] called Deliver Us from Evil. And O’Grady is from Ireland. And he was in northern California and he's been in northern California for, I don’t know, God, 40 years what have you. And over that period of time, he had molested over 200 or 300 kids. And people would go and complain and they’d say, “Ok, well get him out of Stockton,” and then what they’ll do is put him in Berkeley. Or, we’ll take him out of Berkeley and we’ll put him in Salinas.

The Catholic church did not pay him any heed and when he speaks to you, when he talks about what he’s done, it’s the way I’m talking to you now. He’ll say something like, [Irish accent] “Well you know the people that I’ve touched, I don’t blame them for being upset at all, I mean if they want to sit and have mass or talk about it, I’d be willing to hear what they have to say.” I mean he talks just like that, he’s a total sociopath. And his youngest victim was nine months old. I mean, I can’t even picture that. But when you watch him, he comes off as, for lack of a better term, charming. When you watch him you see this friendly, kind of lumpy guy, awkward. He’s in jail now, he got caught with child porn in January of either this year or last year, but he’s only doing like three years. But he left the states when this documentary came out and he went to Scandinavia, they found out about him there, he went back to Ireland, they found out about him there and then I don’t know where he got caught. But I just wanted to look at that in terms of abuse. Or even in terms of not to that degree, where you have Larry, the guy in the park who’s looking at the boy who’s being told how to become a man.

How did you work with director Chay Yew to fine-tune the show from its premiere at Berkeley Rep? Did he help you build some of those characters and make them more distinct?

Hell yeah. Chay’s a genius. My fault as a writer is that I can either underwrite or overwrite and he’ll say, “No, bring it to the next level” or “Let’s take this word out and let’s flesh this more. Let’s change the order of this. Find a body movement or let’s find another way for this character to move.” I mean these are the kind of things that he does. He really is a maestro.

What do you hope audience members take away from this show?

I hope that the show gives people permission to be open. By that, what I mean is that a lot of times with American audiences, we want answers. And sometimes we have to bring ourselves to certain kinds of work. And I’m not saying this in an anti-American way. Because a lot of times the expression that we use is we want hope, we want this positive role model stuff. Here’s the work, you take it and you individuate it or you don’t. Sometimes we have to bring ourselves and we hopefully give people permission to go to a dark place. Because that’s the kind of work that as a theater person and a theater-goer, I love being a mental and emotional traveler, and sometimes you have to go into places that are uncomfortable. And that’s part of the human condition. And just because you throw your money down doesn’t mean you have to entertain me all the time.

Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men runs through October 28 at Goodman Theatre (170 N Dearborn St, 312-443-3800). Read our review of Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men.

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