Forever is a fascinating title for Dael Orlandersmith’s equally fascinating solo play at Portland Center Stage, because the show traverses the fragile line between life and death. It dives deeply into the ways the two indelibly imprint one another in spite of the barrier between them: life begins and endures and ends, and yet it ripples on, becoming texture and meaning in another life, and on and on, forever.
Does this sound heavy? Well, it is. And yet it’s also light, because, although it travels relentlessly into dark places, Forever does so with a wit and warmth that make the journey both personal and personable, a kind of harrowing adventure guided by a truthful yet gentle hand. And it is excellent theater. Orlandersmith the writer is an expert storyteller, skillfully slowing things down and speeding them up, slipping assuredly from subject to subject, editing herself superbly, knowing when to be merciless and when to be merciful – not just to the audience but also to herself, because this is her own story. Orlandersmith the performer is congenial and enveloping, an actor with formidable presence and impressive range.
Staged simply in the company’s intimate downstairs Ellen Bye Studio, with little but a table, a chair, a turntable, and a tacked-up surround of memory photos, the 80-minute performance alternates between conversational ease and intense psychological drama. Orlandersmith manages the shifts subtly and sometimes shockingly: she can drop like a plummeting elevator into emotional depths that slow time down, and then ease her way back up again.
Forever, which opened Friday night at Center Stage, begins in a cemetery, Père Lachaise in Paris, where Orlandersmith has traveled to visit the graves of some of her heroes and heroines – Apollinaire, Proust, Richard Wright, Colette, Jim Morrison. At the cemetery, Orlandersmith finds herself part of an unlikely family, from the surly aunt guarding Morrison’s gravesite to the concerned gentleman to the awkward young woman who reminds her of herself. One way or another everyone’s here because of the famous people who are laid to rest in the cemetery grounds, and because of the effect their art and achievements still have on the living.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to point out that the cemetery scene is the lightest in the play, although later moments of humor pop up like little carefully plotted escape hatches: the shocked reaction in the ‘hood to her fierce childhood affection for The Doors and other white musicians, for instance. The cemetery action’s a surprisingly gentle entry into much gnarlier reminiscences that take us back to Orlandersmith’s childhood in Harlem, surrounded by poverty and dominated by the ever-presence of her mother, Beulah, a whining and erratic alcoholic who alternately beats her and wheedles her for sympathy. Beulah is a fright, a broken and embittered woman whom her daughter comes to despise, and yet she also provides the thirst for reading and knowledge and art that begin to shape Dael’s life and lead her to her Paris communion with the greats. The relationship’s messy, with mistakes and cruelties flowing both ways, and that’s just part of it. There’s the rape – a raw and brutal and moving memory that becomes, in the recollection, a living presence – and the moving on, which is not the same as an escape.
I’m tempted to write that Forever is the tale of Orlandersmith’s triumph over her past, but that’s not right: the past is part of her. Yet the play is also more than merely a story of endurance. It’s something between the two: a shaping, an emergence, an understanding that the struggle to understand won’t end but also that the past, while always present, doesn’t have to call the shots. Forever is Orlandersmith’s lament for the death and life of her fragile mother, and of the father she hardly knew, and in a way, for herself, the younger Dael who is no longer here and yet who continues to inhabit her thoughts, her body, her emotions. And it is a declaration of independence, a tale of coming into one’s own. For audience and performer alike, that is at least a measured triumph.
Things are percolating at the Armory, Center Stage’s home space, where the company’s Great Expectations continues to entertain the dickens out of audiences on the mainstage upstairs through Valentine’s Day. Forever, which continues through March 20, is moving into a complex schedule of space-sharing in the studio, dividing its time with another solo show, Dan Hoyle’s Each and Every Thing, which has begun previews and opens Friday, Feb. 12. Orlandersmith and Hoyle will hop among evening, noon, and afternoon performances; check the schedule for exact times and dates. Meanwhile, Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s irreverent contemporary take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, takes over the mainstage at the end of the month from Pip and Miss Haversham, beginning previews on Feb. 27. You can’t tell the players – or the schedule – without a program.