What’s new? Let me tell you about my date. How was your vacation? Listen to this! Like theatre, life is all a matter of storytelling. When we meet with friends or family (or text or phone), we’re in narrative mode. We are all chroniclers of our lives. And along the way, we capture, if fleetingly, the lives of those we love and hate, admire or despise, envy or pity. Perhaps best known for her solo works in which she often inhabits multiple characters—with admirably expressive subtlety—playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith is a storyteller through and through, an artist for whom no moment in life is insignificant, no person undeserving of consideration.
A talented conjurer of the banal and momentous, of people bruised and troubled, hurt and angry, joyous and excited, Orlandersmith has explored intraracial prejudice in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman, celebrated the parade of life in Harlem with Stoop Stories, and reckoned with child abuse in Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men. An artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, she appeared in the Owen Theatre last season in Until the Flood, a musing on the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. In her latest work, Lady in Denmark, she builds a tale from a chance encounter Billie Holiday detailed in her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues.
In this one-person piece—performed by Linda Gehringer—Orlandersmith imagines what became of a young Danish girl Holiday met when she arrived in Copenhagen on her 1954 European tour. The girl and her physician father—huge fans—met the singer at the airport. Noticing that Holiday had a cold, the doctor insisted that she come to the family home where he could treat her. “He gave me some medicine to soak sugar in and then swallow,” Holiday recalled. “I took it all and it cut out all my hoarseness. And then they brought out all this crazy Danish food. Between the medicine and the food, I sang like mad at the concert that night.”
The Danes admired Holiday so much, they told the singer she could come live with them anytime. “That never happened, but I loved the idea of that story,” notes Orlandersmith, who began working on her piece seven years ago. “I tried to find the family; I went to the Danish consulate, I wrote a few people,” she shares. Although she had no luck, she didn't give up on the idea of spinning a tale from the sliver of a memory in Holiday’s book. Letting her imagination run, Orlandersmith fast forwards to Chicago’s Andersonville, where Helene—the girl who met Billie—looks back over her own long life.
As a performer, Orlandersmith can evoke any character, from someone not unlike herself, to a middle-aged white woman or a young Latino. Although she’d probably have no problem inhabiting Helene—the lady from Denmark—Orlandersmith never intended to try. “I’m tired,” laughs the life-long New Yorker. “I’m tired. There are other thing I want to write, there are books I want to write. And I just don't feel like doing it. Also, I wrote this specifically for a white actress to do. I have to remind people that I am also a playwright and I want other people to do the work. I want other people to do Until the Flood, I want other people to do Stoop Stories.”
In her writing, Orlandersmith is equally at home pouring forth the present or convincingly resurrecting a past she never knew. And she won't abide any attempt to be put in a box, neatly tagged. “I use a lot of rock and roll in my work, and I know some people are surprised that, as a black woman, I know rock and roll. Until the Flood ends with [The Rolling Stones’] ‘Gimme Shelter.’ Someone might say, ‘Why not hip hop?’ I’d say, ‘Why does it have to be hip hop?’ Within the course of a day I might be listening to Nina Simone and Nina Hagen, I might be listening to Frank Sinatra and Frank Ocean. Don’t compartmentalize me. It’s a given that I’m black and female. What does that mean to you? I’m not going to fit anyone’s standards, or try to.”
An artist of great curiosity (with a mind ready to try wrapping itself around almost anything), Orlandersmith is currently getting into the pre-Raphaelite painters and re-reading one of her favorite writers, the Austrian novelist and playwright, Peter Handke. “I’m never short of ideas, just time,” she relates. “I am constantly reading, constantly going to museums, constantly listening to different kinds of music. I am an individual, a very flawed individual, and standing up on some kind of political podium, that’s not what I do. I hope I am a good storyteller, that I can give you a beginning, middle, end, a story with a conflict and a resolution. You have to understand something. I speak to people, I do not speak for people.”
Lady in Denmark currently plays the Goodman Theatre through November 18. Click here for tickets and more information.