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Dael Orlandersmith refuses to bow to stereo-types and takes things into her own hands.

Drunk on Words


When you're black and female, the kinds of roles available on television and in films are limited. Actress Dael Orlandersmith says she is always being offered parts as a "'ho" or a "big mama." Such stereotypes and limited opportunities have driven her to write her own plays. Her motto is simple: "If I don't write, I don't act."

She'll present selections of her writing, characters from her plays as well as poetry and prose for this week's Fast/Forward on June 23 and 24 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In her performance, Orlandersmith plays a diversity of well-rounded characters — from a male Holocaust survivor to a Puerto Rican guy and girl — who confront issues such as survival, addiction and friendship. She received an Obie Award in 1995 for off-Broadway's "Beauty's Daughter," which she wrote and starred in and has appeared in productions of "Macbeth" and "A Raisin in the Sun." She has toured extensively with the Nuyorican Poets Café (now known as Real Live Poetry), and a collection of her plays will be published by Vintage Press this fall. Her struggle to prove her range is ongoing. "No matter what anybody else says, racism is alive and kicking," she says. " … The parts offered me I simply do not want."

The characters Orlandersmith creates are not the African-American caricatures often presented in the media, black actors using slang even though it doesn't fit the character in order to "keep it real, i.e. black, i.e. stereotyped black. … Even though you have a middle-class black person talking, it'll be flavored with 'You go, girl' or 'I heard dat.' You can never have a regular conversation and speak intelligently."

Finding a place for her intelligence has been an ongoing challenge. Born in New York's East Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, Orlandersmith sought refuge early on in books. She claims Eugene O'Neill, Rimbaud, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Andre Gide as influences. "Those cats ... give me more pleasure than hanging out with a whole bunch of people," she says. Though she has been writing since age 8, it wasn't until the mid '80s with the revival of black musicals and with attending Hunter College that she began to take her writing more seriously.

After seeing and reading playwright and monologist Eric Bogosian she realized that her own approach to her acting and writing had to be less conventional. "Sing and dance, that's not what I do," she says. "Why am I trying to fit myself into something I don't feel comfortable with, that I'm not going to do right? … I have to follow my inner voice."

Orlandersmith's work has been described as rhapsodic, her performances electrifying. The Philadelphia Inquirer has called her a "black female Walt Whitman, drunk with the power of words." Her unconventional choices fit her well. Still, the limited engagements discourage her, especially with finding more and more work in Europe where she hopes to set up a home.

"I love writing and I love acting." After all, she says, "How many ways can you say 'ho?" Orlandersmith prefers a much more expansive vocabulary.

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