'Stoop Stories' circles back to Weston
WESTON -- In any walk of life, returning to one's roots is not always possible. For Obie-winning actor/playwright Dael Orlandersmith, her presence at Weston Playhouse during the next two weeks will feel like a homecoming.
Beginning tonight, Orlandersmith will perform in a limited run of her highly acclaimed one-woman show, "Stoop Stories."
Its connection to Weston is more than casual. In 2009 Orlandersmith developed the play in part at a Weston Artists' Retreat. There she met fellow Obie-winner Steve Cosson, who specializes in directing new plays and will direct her in the current production.
"Getting out of the city, coming to Weston, it was all so good when working on this play," Orlandersmith said following her first rehearsal upon arriving in Vermont. "The people here, the community, everyone appreciates your work as an actor and writer so much. I really like being back."
The play is based on characters and scenarios from Orlandersmith's life while growing up in New York City, and from her imagination.
Jacki Brown, Weston's director of education and outreach, said that in "Stoop Stories" Orlandersmith plays multiple characters. This gives her a chance to tell poignant, yet often difficult stories.
"In the play, Dael embodies a half-dozen roles," Brown said. "From an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor recounting a chance encounter with Billie Holiday to a 13-year-old Latina girl who succumbs to a sexy young gang member, [they are] united over the course of time by a ubiquitous city stoop."
Brown added that the play is a crisp 80 minutes long, "an emotional journey with delicate souls whose voices are seldom heard."
She said seeing life from Orlandersmith's stoop is poignant but also can be gritty in its approach.
"[She] speaks the language of the streets of New York," Brown said. "While beautifully written, it's not always pretty."
That writing style, Orlandersmith said, has grown from her childhood in the streets of Harlem and from many writers she has admired throughout her life.
"O'Neill, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and many others," she said. "But add Jim Morrison, too. I try to write like a musician, if that makes sense. Deep down I think I'm just a frustrated rock-and-roller."
Orlandersmith has come a long way in the drama world since her Harlem upbringing. She won her Obie for "Beauty's Daughter," which she wrote and starred in at American Place Theatre. She is best-known for "Yellowman," commissioned by the McCarter Theatre, and for which she was a 2002 Pulitizer Prize finalist for Drama and a nominee in 2003 for a Drama Desk Award.
Accolades and honors aside, Orlandersmith remains a storyteller at heart, and in practice.
She said all theater is centered around three elements: story, conflict and resolution. While other playwrights may focus on delivering themes and morals, her primary interest remains in rendering a compelling tale for her audience.
The one-actor play, she explained, adds to that.
"A play is still a play, regardless of how many actors," Orlandersmith said, "But yes, there is a certain type of intimacy created when it's just one performer inhabiting all these people. In ‘Stoop Stories,' this means playing six characters, both male and female."
She has found it important to have a director for the show.
"If there is what you would call a downfall to plays like this, especially if they are seen as being somewhat autobiographical, it's that the playwright tends to overwrite," she said. "That's why I like having what I call a page savvy director like Steve [Cosson]. He'll keep us where we need to be."
Steve Stettler, Weston's producing director, said bringing "Stoop Stories" to Vermont was a testament to the work on new play development ongoing at Weston, as well as the quality of artistic talent that can benefit from programs that encourage creativity to flourish.
"People coming here to see this playwright and actor are in for a treat given her accomplishments in theatre and her talent at addressing important aspects of humanity in her work," Stettler said. "It's particularly rewarding, though, that Dael's journey with this play began here at Weston, and that we are cultivating such development as a top priority."
The solo act, Stettler said, is one of "artistic magic and emphasizes the power of storytelling."
It does this with two things: a stirring script and a gifted performer, he said.
"What we end up finding are cautionary tales," Stettler said. "These stories show their relevance, and really, how fitting it is to see them here in Vermont. We learn that problems that plague the inner city -- such as being swept up into drugs with no greater vision in life -- also exist right here in a rural setting, too. The irony will resonate with audiences."
Spectators will watch Orlandersmith's performance in the smaller arena of Weston's second stage, housed in the Rod and Gun Club building. It's a setting meant to enhance the intimacy of performances, where Orlandersmith said she will tell real stories of real people.
"I'm a thinking person who reads and engages in the world," Orlandersmith said. "I'm not much of a message person. Hopefully my play has given a form of the truth, and told simple stories about people in the city and in my head. Do they reach you? Do you dislike it? Both are OK."
If you go ...
What: 'Stoop Stories'
When: July 24 to Aug. 3
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays,
2 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Weston Playhouse,
703 Main St., Weston
Admission: Starts at $15
Information: (802) 824-5288 westonplayhouse.org