Dael Orlandersmith: A ‘theater worker’ who writes the truth

April 12, 2018

By Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Kevin Berne

Others have described Dael Orlandersmith as an actress, a performer, a playwright, a poet. From her own viewpoint, she is simply ‘a theater worker’. That is, she is someone who applies their talents to create products for public consumption to be delivered via the stage.

The award-winning, self-described ‘theater worker’ is in Milwaukee to present Until the Flood, her oneact, one-woman play that explores the emotional reactions of people in and around greater St. Louis in the aftermath of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Brown was an unarmed, African American teen from the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO, a predominately black town with an all-white police force.

Born Donna Dael Theresa Orlander Smith Brown in 1959, she grew up in a housing project in East Harlem, NY. Her father died when she was a child. Her mother sent her to Roman Catholic schools through high school, despite the economic hardship that placed on the household. Dael grew up surrounded by neighborhood drugs and violence. She sought refuge from the chaos in reading, writing, music and attending acting classes.

During her teens, Dael became involved with the Nuyorican Poets Café, a performance venue in the Alphabet City area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its co-founder, Rutgers University professor and poet Miguel Algarin, explained the venue’s philosophy: “We must listen to one another. We must respect one another’s habits; and we must share the truth and the integrity that the voice of the poet so generously provides.”

The Nuyorican Poets Café has been described as “the most integrated spot on the planet” and claims to be the birthplace of the New York poetry slam movement. The Nuyorican exposure helped to light Dael’s artistic fires. After high school graduation, she briefly attended Hunter College, but soon left to study acting at HB Studio and the Actors Studio. She also sharpened her playwriting skills at the Sundance Theater Laboratory, established by Oscar-winning actor- director Robert Redford in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Dael started writing her own plays out of frustration with existing theater fare. “I didn’t fit the mold for most theater roles of the time,” she said. “I was always taller and bigger than the other female actors. Also, I don’t sing and dance. When it came to film and stage work in the 70s and 80s, the typical roles portrayed drug dealers, pimps and ‘hoes’. There aren’t that many ways you can say ‘hoe’. I started writing plays in which attributes like race, age and gender were irrelevant.”

Dael’s first commercially successful play, Beauty’s Daughter, debuted in 1995. As both writer and actor, she told the story of a young woman coming of age in Harlem and the challenges she faces in life, including growing up with an alcoholic mother. The work earned her an Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway play of the season.

One of Dael’s most well-known works is Yellowman, one of her first plays written for more than one character. The play is the story of two African Americans – a light-skinned male and a dark-skinned female – and explores the phenomenon of ‘colorism’, a form of racism practiced within some segments of the African American community. The play earned a 2002 Pulitzer Prize nomination for Best Drama.

A recurring theme in much of Dael’s work is truth – not necessarily ‘the truth’, but truth as an element of humanity. She readily admits that truth can have a dark side that makes some people uncomfortable.

“My role as a writer is to be a universalist and maintain a sense of boundaries,” she explained. “The same things that repel are the same things that attract and unite. Not all theater is about being entertained unconditionally. Oftentimes, people come to the theater seeking an individual sense of justice at the expense of someone else’s truth.

“I don’t deal in giving or sending messages. My job as a theater worker is to present a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, without judgment. Your job as the audience is to come with an open mind and take what you choose to take from the work.”

One thing is certain. Dael Orlandersmith is not about the business of telling you what to think. But she will invite you – challenge you— to think for yourself.

“Until the Flood” is playing through April 22, 2018 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio. Call (414) 224- 9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com for tickets or more information.