Life, like theater, is full of stories—and we all are storytellers. Chroniclers of our lives, we capture, if fleetingly, the lives of those we love and hate, admire or despise, envy or pity. Perhaps best known for her solo works in which she often inhabits multiple characters—with admirably expressive subtlety—playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith is a storyteller through and through, an artist for whom no moment in life is insignificant, no person undeserving of consideration.
A talented conjurer of the banal and momentous, of people bruised and troubled, hurt and angry, joyous and excited, Orlandersmith has explored intraracial prejudice in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman; celebrated the parade of life in Harlem with Stoop Stories; and reckoned with child abuse in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men. A Goodman Artistic Associate, she appeared last season in Until the Flood, a musing on the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. In her latest work, Lady in Denmark, she builds a tale from a chance encounter Billie Holiday detailed in her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues.
In this one-person piece performed by Linda Gehringer, Orlandersmith imagines what became of the young Danish girl Holiday met when she arrived in Copenhagen on her 1954 European tour. The girl and her physician father—huge fans—met the singer at the airport. Noticing that Holiday had a cold, the doctor insisted that she come to the family home where he could treat her. “He gave me some medicine to soak sugar in and then swallow,” Holiday recalled in her 1956 biography, Lady Sings the Blues. “I took it all and it cut out all my hoarseness. And then they brought out all this crazy Danish food. Between the medicine and the food, I sang like mad at the concert that night.”
The Danes admired Holiday so much, they told the singer she could come live with them anytime. “That never happened, but I
loved the idea of that story,” notes Orlandersmith, who began working on her piece seven years ago. “I tried to find the family; I went to the Danish consulate, I wrote a few people,” she shares. Although she had no luck, she didn’t give up on the idea of spinning a tale from the sliver of a memory in Holiday’s book. Letting her imagination run, Orlandersmith fast forwards to Chicago’s Andersonville, where Helene—the girl who met Billie—looks back over her own long life.
Music is a big part of Orlandersmith’s own work. “I use a lot of rock and roll in my work, and I know some people are surprised that, as a black woman, I know rock and roll. Until the Flood ends with [The Rolling Stones’] ‘Gimme Shelter.’ Someone might say, ‘Why not hip hop?’ I’d say, ‘Why does it have to be hip hop?’ Within the course of a day I might listen to Nina Simone and Nina Hagen, Frank Sinatra and Frank Ocean. Don’t compartmentalize me. It’s a given that I’m black and female. What does that mean to you? I’m not going to fit anyone’s standards, or try to.”
An artist of great curiosity, Orlandersmith is currently getting into the pre-Raphaelite painters and re-reading one of her favorite writers, the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. “I’m never short of ideas, just time,” she relates. “I am constantly reading, going to museums, listening to different kinds of music. I am an individual, a very flawed individual, and standing up on some kind of political podium, that’s not what I do. I hope I am a good storyteller, that I can give you a beginning, middle, end—a story with a conflict and a resolution. I speak to people, I do not speak for people.”
This piece was written by Thomas Connors for Playbill.