I came into this world by way of a C-section. Like me, Dael Orlandersmith entered this world by leaving a scar on her mother’s abdomen. But when she departed from the stage on Wednesday, she made a different scar on the hearts of the audience members present.
“Forever,” a one-woman play at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a memoir of Orlandersmith’s life, which tries to explain the origins of her creative passions. Despite her undying love for Jim Morrison, Richard Wright and French culture, Orlandersmith’s true inspiration comes not from iconic legends of music and literature but from her mother. However, this inspiration is not spawned from the warmth and encouragement of a nurturing caregiver. Instead, her mother’s pitiful drunkenness and abusive nature fuel Orlandersmith’s escape. More than anything, she longs to escape from her roots and reject the possibility that she could become the same hysterical woman. Thus, she immerses herself in art, theater and writing as the way to heal herself and become an independent person.
In this incredible piece of acting, Orlandersmith creates vivid images and scenes all alone. When her eyes look off into the distance searching the face of another character, I wanted to look over my shoulder. In another flash, Orlandersmith sits in the darkness, with only a single spotlight, retelling the horror of her childhood rape. Her words washed over us, laden with emotion, full of beauty in the midst of ugliness. As an audience, we sat in shock, unable to prevent the act which seemed to be occurring again right before our eyes. We lived through her nightmare with her but could only sit in silence, hyper-aware of our own inadequacy to empathize as mere observers.
Set with merely a table chair and minimal props like books and records, the design is simple, but pure and honest. Surrounding Orlandersmith’s world are real photos from her past, constant reminders to the audience that we cannot escape from the weight of things that cannot be taken back.
In the climax of the show, the play reveals itself as more than memoir. During her mother’s convalescence, Orlandersmith admits her intention to leave her. And after her mother’s unexpected death, Orlandersmith at first rejoices in the final separation. Then, shrieking through her grief, she pours out her repressed trauma to the dead body. At this pivotal moment, I could feel the audience turn inward with the shame of identifying with her turmoil. I realized that Orlandersmith’s piece was not only one of self-reflection but a mirror for the spectator to view himself.
Instantly, we all shared the scars inflicted by our parents and feared the power we have to inflict similar, inevitable pain onto our own children. Orlandersmith seeks an escape so desperately that she metaphorically slashes her way out of her mother’s life just as we all do when entering the world. Cringing in discomfort, we recognize the richly deserved escape but the dangers of unforgiveness.
Although her love for art may stem from an abusive, self-centered mother, Orlandersmith’s love also delivers her to the moment in this play for a chance at reconciliation. In “Forever,” we too must come to grips with this tragic truth: that a rooted history and identity can never be forgotten or erased, that they live on, as indelible as the scar of a C-section.