Actor’s Play Tells Tales of the Stoop

Posted March 17, 2009 at 5:03pm

Most people describe poet, playwright and actor Dael Orlandersmith as a force to reckon with.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002 for “Yellowman— and the winner of an Obie, or off-Broadway theater award, in 1995 for “Beauty’s Daughter,— Orlandersmith “is like 100 watts of light on stage,— said Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Studio Theatre. Orlandersmith’s new work, “Stoop Stories,— will open Friday.

Yet despite the accolades, Orlandersmith admits to still feeling invisible.

“That’s because there’s so much emphasis — especially in my line of work — on physicality … almost to the point of caricature,— she said in a phone interview from her apartment in New York.

Because of the tendency to focus on appearances, Orlandersmith said people pay less attention to stories that others want to tell. “The people who are in fact the dreamers and the people who have to struggle are the people who simply don’t get looked at,— she said.

This is why Orlandersmith wrote “Stoop Stories.— “I want to give voice to the invisible. Because in my own way, I feel what it’s like to be invisible,— she said.

“Stoop Stories— is Orlandersmith’s semi-autobiographical account of what people hear on the stoop.

“You hear dreams on a stoop. You get a sense of somebody on the stoop. The stoop leads to people’s houses … to the extension of themselves. They wanted to stay close to home, but they want to be out of the home, so they sit on a stoop,— Orlandersmith said.

As a black woman, 49-year-old Orlandersmith said people sometimes see her for her color and not her talent.

“I had a work recently turned down. I was told it’s because [they] don’t know how to sell this stuff to the black audience. And I went, Why don’t you just try selling it to an audience?’— Orlandersmith said. “There’s a pressure to write a certain way.—

But Orlandersmith said she wouldn’t budge. “I tell everybody that I write about what moves me,— she said.

Orlandersmith first told her stoop stories as part of a character sketch called “The Blue Album— in Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre in April 2007. During the “Under the Radar Festival— in New York in January 2008, Orlandersmith was invited to retell her stoop stories.

Meanwhile, at Studio Theatre, Zinoman was busy finalizing the 31-year-old theater’s lineup for the 2009-10 season. “The hardest job is to decide what show to put on. We wanted to feature voices of women,— she said.

“Then my son saw Dael at the festival and he told me how wonderful she was,— Zinoman said. At that point, the artistic director knew the choice was clear. “I am familiar with Dael’s work. I love her. Dael is an extraordinary writer and actor. She has a thrilling presence on stage,— said Zinoman, who wasted no time sending a stage manager to see Dael and start working on the world premiere of “Stoop Stories.—

Under the direction of Jo Bonney, who specializes in theatrical productions by solo artists, Orlandersmith will transform herself into an array of at least nine characters, whose conversations she overheard from the stoop in Harlem.

Orlandersmith will introduce the audience to the 72-year-old Al, who traveled by train to the East Village to see Nina Simone. “He’s a cranky old bastard, but he’s funny. He hated everybody that is young and begins the conversations with Back in my day …’— Orlandersmith said.

Another character whom Orlandersmith wants people to meet is Yiddish-accented Holocaust survivor Herman, who has a sober conversation with Billie Holiday. “Herman is a merchant. He defined himself through music, but he’s not a musician.—

Asked whether she would sing in playing Herman, Orlandersmith replied, “Hell, no. I don’t do that. No way, man. When I am singing, I sound like a mating call of a yak, you know,— she said.

Nonetheless, Orlandersmith said she would take her audience to different genres of music: blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll. “Music is indelible. A lot of times you might not be able to describe your feelings with words — all you have to do is listen to a piece of music, and there you are. There’s universalism with that.—

“Stoop Stories— will run through April 5.