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Race Through The Lens Of Theatre

This Wednesday, I had the honor of going to a talk by Dael Orlandersmith, an award winning African American playwright, hosted at the Lenfest Center for the Arts.  Orlandersmith was raised in East Harlem for most of her young life, and still lives in the city to this day. She began her talk with a reading of an experimental work and then opened it up for a more colloquial conversation.

Orlandersmith started the talk with a reading from a new fusion piece she is working on.  A fusion, or hybrid, piece is a piece of writing that can be read aloud, read as a text, or performed as a play by anyone who wishes. She was inspired by Max Porter and his hybrid piece Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which combines prose and poetic verse.  Her piece was about a day she spent in Finelli’s Cafe and the everyday people she encountered.  The incredibly descriptive imagery coaxed me into closing my eyes without even noticing.  Her characters were so realistic and relatable, I felt I knew them.  Although I realize this all sounds extremely cliché, her purposeful word choice made mundane experiences remarkably impactful.

After the reading, Orlandersmith transitioned to a Q&A section moderated by Lynn Nottage, where many people asked her about her work and her experiences as a black woman in theatre.  Orlandersmith spoke about her struggles with her work being labeled and pigeon-holed. Her pieces are often prefaced with the fact that they were written by a black, female writer from New York City, separating them from other works by suggesting they needed the preface to prove their value, and couldn’t hold as a standalone piece.

She also spoke about feeling pressured to write about her life and experiences living in New York City as a black woman.  Her advice to young writers who feel pressured to avoid falling into racial stereotyping was to remember that you don’t need to represent everyone with your identity.  “If you love Bach, you should write about Bach,” claimed Orlandersmith. She advocates for focusing on your passions over your identity. When you write truthfully to yourself, you are breaking out of the box you have been pushed in.

In many of her pieces, Orlandersmith explores stories through the eyes of characters with whom she has little in common.  When asked how she creates these characters, Orlandersmith responded “I have always been a citizen of the world… always aware of the different people around me.”  Reflecting on the creation of her play Black ‘n Blue Boys/Broken Men, a story that follows the lives of men who have undergone abuse, Orlandersmith said, “The man in me needed to write that… we are all androgynous.”

When asked about how she channels her emotions into her often melancholy work, she replied, “You have to make peace with your darkness, that’s a part of who you are.”  Orlandersmith is known for her talent for processing pain into art, as is demonstrated in her play Until the Flood, which explores the response to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  She underwent extensive research and interviews in order to make the play as accurate as possible.

Until the Flood is performed worldwide, and as I listened to Orlandersmith’s stories, I was surprised by the amount of people who identified with it. Jamaican boys in Galway, Asian students in London, Mixed-race people in The United Kingdom.  People from many different backgrounds felt heard and unified in the piece, speaking to the power and universality of Orlandersmith’s work.

After the talk, there was a brief reception where I was able to talk to Orlandersmith in a more casual setting.  She was every bit as delightful and engaging as she was on stage, excited to hear about my life as a student and why I came to the event.  At the end of the Q&A Orlandersmith stated, “I love theatre because theatre can be used as a tool to make people sit down and talk,” and I’m so glad I was granted the opportunity to do just that.

The distracting view at the Lenfest Center via my phone

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