Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories are a series of monologues that become hypnotic poetry about people she’s watched in New York who pursue the American Dream. Because they are outsiders, losers and dopers, the unseen ones, they sit on their front porch steps to talk, to drink and dream. They never go anywhere, but they travel and take you with them – far beyond Harlem, the East or West Villages, Brooklyn or the Bronx.
When this actress/playwright/virtuoso performer embodies each persona, her well-anchored, deep voice conveys authenticity. Her straight-ahead directness is breathtaking. She could be your grandmother or your best friend sharing secrets but also telling you which blocks not to cross. Her people come from hard knocks, from racism on mean streets, out of alleys that stink with garbage. And like any master story-teller, Orlandersmith, in a spellbinding performance, lets her people speak the truth of what defines them. It’s the way her expressive face illuminates her character’s agonies and ecstasies that is so moving.
The set in the Methany Theatre is stripped to minimalist dark-tones and black. Indentations, shaped like city windows line the back stage wall. Orlandersmith sits on a stool or a step of the stoop center-stage and gives us a symphony of voices with different pitches and inflections that welcome us into “the land of 1,000 hoods.” With each new scene, she morphs into someone new: an innocent pubescent girl, a panhandler, a drug addict who swears he isn’t hooked; two teenage hookers plying their trade; a hilarious night-clubber who prefers Harlem to Midtown. Then there’s Herman, a Polish immigrant, who has lost the love of his lady because her parents didn’t approve of a white man. Heartbroken, he shares his pain in a chance meeting with the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who personalized the singing of the blues. Herman finds connection between his life as a concentration camp survivor and her troubled childhood, growing up black in the 1920’s. “Even with scars on her face, she’s still a beauty,” he says. Later when he learns of Holiday’s death from drugs in 1959 at age 44, the loss of love devastates him.
If you stand there and let the stories come, you experience an epiphany, the storyteller promises. “A woman is jazz – pure jazz. She’s like a musical instrument…..jazz is pure. Jazz is a woman, a lady,” Orlandersmith recites in a break out moment. We empathize with the adolescent girl, a kid, who sing-songs: “I’m thirteen and bleeding.” Then there is the 15-year-old who has a baby, a daughter, who at 15 has a baby, who at age 15 produces another generation of babies. And then little pockets of joy pop up, like the odyssey into an oasis of green in Harlem’s center, the Marcus Garvey Park, where kids are swinging on the swing sets, playing. “There are still roses in Spanish Moreno Harlem,” she chants like a refrain.
The contrasts are beautiful and compelling. Life in a city is one continuous flow. Neighborhoods morph, and the dope peddlers come and go; just as styles of music change from Swing to Rock ‘n Roll and straight-ahead jazz or the Salsa beat. Cultures collide but the results bring evolution, not violence, from jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie’s scat and Bebop (1940s-50s) to the soul-scorching pain delivered by the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone (1960s and 70s). And underneath, a sax wails through a scene transition.
Some people fall through the cracks. A drug dealer named Hector tells us “Drugs are good-at first.” But some come out winners, like Orlandersmith herself. A New York librarian reprises the dealer’s drug story with a variation: “Books are good. Words are tools. People who write put ideas on paper.” And Orlandersmith, who is herself as a wide-eyed kid, says: “When I grow up. I’m going to have a house filled with books, filled with words.” In the auditorium, you can hear spell-bound silence.
That’s essentially what Orlandersmith does for us. She fills us with celebration, not just of fresh ideas, but for the sensuality of life all around us, the endless stream. Even if the gap between the generations seems wide, the essence of it all keeps moving forward; not in reverse. Her message is one of hope.
I felt reluctant to leave the Methany Theatre at the too-soon ending of an hour. Like the hunger in the souls of Orlandersmith’s people, I wanted more from each and every person. Even now, I want to hear more about getting knocked down and the survivors who pick themselves up.
Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Jo Bonney
Produced by The Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.