Writer: Dael Orlandersmith
Director: Neel Keller
Reviewer: Liam Harrison
Dael Orlandersmith’s Forever is a semi-autobiographical monologue centred on two lives. It is a celebration of Orlandersmith’s own life in Paris, visiting the graves of kindred spirits – Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust – at Père Lachaise Cemetery. It is also a mourning for the life of her Mother, Beula, and the abusive childhood she inflicted upon Orlandersmith.
It is a childhood of beatings and body-shaming. Orlandersmith asks her mother questions with childish innocence, ‘why am I so much bigger than everyone else?’, but in her mother’s drunken rage this vulnerability is bitterly thrown back at her. Now her mother has passed away Orlandersmith holds a makeshift wake on the Peacock stage, a space divided which forces one half of the audience to face the other.
In Forever the trauma is caused by crimes against the flesh. Orlandersmith articulates what is inflicted upon women’s bodies, black bodies, big bodies, and how these wounds are remembered and retold. Most harrowing of all is the tale of her raped body being treated as a crime scene, her agency and humanity clinically reduced to the point of nothingness.
Orlandersmith tries to exhume the voice of her dead mother, yet the impression lingers that she never will, as she mocks her mother’s South Carolina accent and mannerisms. More stark is Orlandersmith’s brutal account of how distant her mother is after Orlandersmith has been raped, suggesting the chasm between them to be unbridgeable. This absence of empathy re-emerges as the performance reflects on the obligation to try to understand the dead, along with the impossibility to do so.
The escape for Orlandersmith is through the literature and music she encounters, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, and she is berated in her Harlem childhood for ‘listening to that white shit’. Orlandersmith also escapes her world of torment through brief glimpses of kindness, by stumbling across an apple tree in a needle-ridden wasteland, or hearing comforting words during moments of terror from an Irish policeman.
These moments allow Orlandersmith to dream of exile, such as her fantasy of an idyllic Ireland with a family of Phil Lynott and Eugene O’Neill. Similarly in Paris, Orlandersmith name-checks the famous dead of Père Lachaise to create her own family of consoling ghosts, who provide the solace and inspiration that her own mother never could.
Orlandersmith manages to reflect on her mother’s own childhood and aspirations, allowing her mother’s voice to takes its place among all the other dead voices which whisper and rustle throughout Forever. This chorus of voices, real and imagined, known and unknown, are scattered among various books and records on the stage, as well as the messages dedicated towards missed ones on the walls which the audience are invited to add to after the performance.
Despite the horrendous crimes perpetrated on the body, it is the voices which ultimately remain; the voice of her young mother singing when she was unknown and happy; the words of Patti Smith singing ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’; the scarring threats of the uncaught rapist; and the penetrating words of the author Richard Wright, which Orlandersmith powerfully recites, causing them to reverberate throughout the play:
“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 the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”
Runs until 15 July 2017 | Image: Joan Marcus