“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” Richard Wright, “Black Boy” (1945)
With rhythms more reminiscent of song than spoken word, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Forever” is a requiem with three movements with a choir of Ms. Orlandersmith’s relatives looking on and an orchestra of audience members in awe of Ms. Orlandersmith’s remarkable artistry. The playwright’s long-awaited trip to Paris and her spiritual encounters with the “ghosts” of Jim Morrison, Richard Wright, Balzac, Modigliani, Piaf, and Oscar Wilde in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery comprise the first movement (the Introitus). These encounters lead her to reflect upon another “ghost” – that of her abusive and alcoholic mother Beula. This ghost “pulls her back” to her birth in October of 1959, through her childhood and adolescence, and to her eventual escape from her mother’s powerful hold.
Ms. Orlandersmith’s haunting recollections of her life with her “cut off, closed off” mother comprise the second and third movements of the “Requiem” (the Sequenz and the Offertorium) and include graphic verbal images of physical and psychological abuse by her mother and sexual abuse and rape by an intruder into her bedroom when she was fourteen. Her rage in the present reflects the depth of the pain inflicted upon her in the past and Ms. Orlandersmith’s performance here is deeply authentic and painfully believable. Ironically, this performance occurred on Mother’s Day perhaps the most saccharine-coated invented holiday in the calendar. Amidst the “hardness” in her mother, there was apparently a “softness” which came to Beula through “books/music/poetry” and often emerged in recitations of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Dreams.” The soft moments seem rare and there are more moments when Beula is “not human” and hurls insults and painful barbs at her daughter Dael. This long middle section of “Forever” is as difficult to see and hear as it must be for the playwright to share.
The only surcease for Dael was her childhood friend Tommy and the relationship was so salvific and redemptive for Dael that her mother forbade it, ended it. The second and third movements include graphic depictions of Dael’s mother’s hospitalization and death and these recollections are as powerful and engaging as the prolonged description of the rape. Under Neel Keller’s expansive direction, Ms. Orlandersmith commands the mindscape set designed by Takeshi Kata, moving in and out of the mood-filled pools of light provided by Mary Louise Geiger and re-membering her struggle for separation and individuation from her mother.
In the final movement of this requiem for her mother (the Communio), Ms. Orlandersmith seems to soften her tone and almost become forgiving of her mother’s abusive behavior. Crediting her mother for her love of books and music seems out of place and insincere. The young girl she sees at her first visit to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery morphs into her mother upon her return visit and Dael confesses that her mother is there with her in her “head/mind forever” and seems to welcome reconciliation with her mother. Obviously, this is Ms. Orlandersmith’s story and one must accept it in its entirety. However, the end of the play just seems out of place, perhaps out of time. Despite the decrescendo of the closing, “Forever” is a formidable piece of theatre full of sound and fury and a stream of consciousness that lingers with the audience long after the lights on the stage have dimmed.
Created and performed by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by Neel Keller. The creative team for “Forever” includes Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Kaye Voyce (costume design), Mary Louise Geiger (lighting design), Adam Phalen (sound design), Joy Meads (dramaturg), and Sunneva Stapleton (stage manager). Production photos by Joan Marcus. Presented the New York Theatre Workshop. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, Manhattan; Ticket Central 212-279-4200 or http://nytw.org/tickets.asp. Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.