Tag Archives: Dael Orlandersmith

About the Baby…

by Robin Byrd

I almost died having the baby.  Feet.  Breached.  Early.  Late.  Viable.  I almost died…  I was alone and scared to push.  She weighed 8 pages when born.  Serious little thing.  Made such a fuss to get here – weeks of labor pain, decades in the womb.  She made me read to her and talk to her.  She requested Nikky Finney’s poem The Afterbirth, 1931; she said you’re trying not to say it.  Say it!  And Dael Orlandersmith, she said, look at her –  good – does she look like she messes around with plays?  Tell it!  And Charlayne Woodard, do you remember the expression on her face when you mentioned me…remember how even now that look makes you cross your fear…Write it! Straight – no chaser…

She seemed to gain strength there at the end – the baby – even though she almost aborted when Mr. Albee passed, screaming and flipping herself feet first so she could push better, wanted to be standing soon after her toes hit air.  You been digging the same well since you met him, time you hit water – it’s a gusher.  She pushed and leaned and pushed and leaned…  All that leaning on my rib cage made me ill but when she was born, I understood why the labor pains were so great.

She had talked nonstop that last month, and I wrote till I couldn’t write no more then she plopped out, feet first and stood before me, naked and unafraid.  She was beautiful, covered in afterbirth,  and I am not just saying that because she’s mine…it’s true…she’s been aching to be born…and she wears herself well…

Ever birth a play like that?  Hard to write but it won’t let you water it down, won’t let you go till you write it?  Because…you have to write it, even if it is a piece at a time.  Some plays are just meant to be…  Only you can write yours so —

Do your art.  You never know how it’s going to shake out or who it will inspire or who it will help survive the storms of life….  In hindsight, I realize that I gravitated to Albee because he distracted me in a the middle of a traumatic time in my life and made me think of better days…and possibilities…  The women — Nikky, Dael, Charlayne — they make me want to fly….


“I hope that in the year ahead the art you create makes our country a better place.  We need you.” Katherine James, playwright, actor


What’s on Your Viewing/Reading List?

I have listed some of the plays I like to frequent.  Some I have never seen on the stage and some I have read and seen; all are very good plays.  Have you seen or read these plays by these female writers?


Yellowman  by Dael Orlandersmith (2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist)

“Alma and Eugene have known each other since they were young children.  As their friendship blossoms into love, Alma struggles to free herself from her mother’s poverty and alcoholism, while Eugene must contend with the legacy of being “yellow” — lighter-skinned than his brutal and unforgiving father.”  From back cover*

My Red Hand, My Black Hand by Dael Orlandersmith

A young woman  explores her heritage as a child of a blues-loving Native American man and a black sharecropper’s daughter from Virginia.”   From back cover*

*”Alternatively joyous and harrowing, both plays are powerful examinations of the racial tensions that fracture families, communities, and individual lives.”   From back cover Vintage Books  play publication YELLOWMAN & MY READ HAND, MY BLACK HAND


How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1997 Obie Award winner)

A wildly funny, surprising and devastating tale of survival as seen through the lens of a troubling relationship between a young girl and an older man.  HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is the story of a woman who learns the rules of the road and life from behind the wheel.”   From the back cover of Dramatists Play Services, Inc. play publication


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Adaptation by Lydia R. Diamond

“Nobel Prize-winning Author Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE is a story about the tragic life of a young black girl in 1940′s Ohio.  Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove wants nothing more than to be loved by her family and schoolmates.  Instead, she faces constant ridicule and abuse.  She blames her dark skin and prays for blue eyes, sure that love will follow.  With rich language and bold vision, this powerful adaptation of an American classic explores the crippling toll that a legacy of racism has taken on a community, a family, and an innocent girl.”  From the back cover of Dramatic Publishing publication


Ruined by Lynn Nottage (2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, 2009 Obie Award winner)

“A rain forest bar and brothel in the brutally war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is the setting… The establishment’s shrewd matriarch, Mama Nadi both protects and profits from the women whose bodies have become battlegrounds between the government soldiers and rebel forces alike.  RUINED was developed through the author’s pilgrim to Africa where countless interviews and interactions resulted in a portrait of the lives of the women and girls caught in this devastating and ongoing tragedy.” from the back cover of Theatre Communications Group publication


Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley (1981 Pulitzer Prize winner)

At the core of the tragic comedy are the three MaGrath sisters, Meg, Babe, and Lenny, who reunite at Old Granddaddy’s home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi after Babe shoots her abusive husband. The trio was raised in a dysfunctional family with a penchant for ugly predicaments and each has endured her share of hardship and misery. Past resentments bubble to the surface as they’re forced to deal with assorted relatives and past relationships while coping with the latest incident that has disrupted their lives. Each sister is forced to face the consequences of the “crimes of the heart” she has committed.  From Wikipedia.org


Tea by Velina Hasu Houston

Four women come together to clean the house of a fifth after her tragic suicide upsets the balance of life in their small Japanese community in the middle of the Kansas heartland.  The spirit of the dead woman returns as a ghostly ringmaster to force the women to come to terms with the disquieting tension of their lives and find common ground so that she can escape from the limbo between life and death, and move on to the next world in peace — and indeed carve a pathway for their future passage. Set in Junction City, Kansas, 1968; and netherworlds.  from the back cover Dramatists Play Service, Inc. publication


Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner)

“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, a darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, tells the story of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, names given to them as a joke by their father.  Haunted by the past and their obsession with the street con game, three-card monte, the brothers come to learn the true nature of their history.”  From the back cover Theatre Communications Group publication


The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler (1997 Obie Award winner)

“THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES introduces a wildly divergent gathering of female voices, including a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, and a feminist happy to have found a man who “liked to look at it.”  From the back cover Dramatist Play Service, Inc. publication


HEADS by EM Lewis (2008 Francesca Primus Prize winner)

An American engineer. A British embassy employee. A network journalist. And a freelance photographer. As hostages in a war zone, each responds to the unbearable situation differently, with stark reality and difficult choices. HEADS is a heart wrenching story about finding hope and intimacy in an environment with seemingly no way out.  From the Pittsburgh Playhouse website.


Note: not all awards are listed for the plays or playwrights.


Write It Scared…

I’m pretty fearless when writing but there are still instances when I am not (two to be exact).  I was writing a one woman show for a friend some years ago.  It started pretty crazy with the voices coming out of my mouth while I was driving – always as I neared or left the Post Office.  This happened for a few days before I realized the voices were characters in a play and not me losing my mind out loud.  There is a poem in that first scene called “Before the Red”; I felt and still feel that the piece should have explored that specific subject matter but I ended it when the voices quieted enough for me to go on to write the other monologues in the piece – maybe because I was tired of those strange characters blurting things out of my mouth – maybe because deep down I knew I was not ready to go THERE…  Individually, the monologues work but the collective piece is not a conclusion to the matter.  And, though I did not censor myself in writing the monologues, for whatever reason, I did fail to push into that first world I found – the THERE space…  I know the exact point I decided not to write the whole ugly truth…when those darn girls stopped blurting out sentences.  It’s at that point where I decided to write a variation of that truth – a modified portion of it which merely scraped the surface – the almost whole story.  The meat of it was left in the quarantined sector in my story bank – in the scary dark – THERE…  Though I am not easily jarred, with this piece, I was scared.  Scared that to really tell it, I would have to go deep enough to hit oil.  Would I be able to survive the gushing out of it?  I was scared to find out and I was scared that if I could survive the gushing part, I would put it out there before its time…  I am a firm believer that “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…Ecclesiastes 3”  Baring “uglies” for no purpose other than to bare them is not part of my makeup as a writer.  Perhaps it’s all those Aesop’s Fable cartoons I watched as a kid or the Twilight Zone episodes…  I sort of let myself down by writing an alternate piece and it’s stuck in my head (annoying me with thoughts of – “You know you still have to tell that story ‘cause you didn’t really go THERE… and you know you didn’t.  When are you going to write that story?  Soon, I say, right after the submission period is over and I have more time.”). 

I had been able to push the first instance to the back of my subconscious for a few years until I met playwright Will Eno who wrote “Thom Pain: based on nothing”.   I met him at a conference and he knew at once when I read the girls’ scene that I had failed to let that play go where no play (of mine) had gone before…all the way to the scary dark THERE…  The conversation went a little like this (because this is how I remember it):

Me:  “I think I failed.  I think I edited myself in some way.  I think the play wanted to say something else.”

Will Eno:  “You’re right.  You failed.  You have to throw it out and start over.”

Me:  “But, what I ended up with – the monologues are good.  I can’t throw them out.”

Will Eno:  “Then keep them but you still have to start over.  Trust that the thing that originally motivated you will motivate you again.”

He’s right.  I started over.  Since I never actually kill my darlings, I have them on standby to recycle/rework into other pieces.  When I sit quietly enough, the girls start to chatter again, taking me back to those moments when the sparks of their voices made me shake…

More recently, the second instance came about when I decided that I did not want to write a piece too close to the occurrence of the current event that inspired it.  My preference…  Again, I was scared that the timing was not quite right to go THERE … so I wrote something else.  A good piece but not the project I should have tackled.  Then I went to see “Stoop Stories” by Dael Orlandersmith.  After the talk back, I mentioned to her how her play “Yellowman” affected me.  Profoundly.  It made me shake…made me remember the girls who have been stepping aside for all the other plays I’ve written (funny both plays involve just girls/women).  Dael’s work makes me think about those two pieces on my back burners; it makes me want to revisit them nowit makes me want to tackle the scary dark…just get right in there and look around.  I asked her how she was able to keep from editing herself.  I asked if she cared about what people may think or how they would respond when she’s writing.  I asked her if it scared her to be so open and honest.  She said – (and this is what struck me the most and this is how I remember it) – she said, “I care but I can’t do that to myself.  Do you understand?  I just can’t do that to myself.  Of course I’m scared; it scares me but I have to do it.” 

She’s right.  I just have to resolve it in myself that I will always write everything as open and honest as I can.  Otherwise, and I’ve learned this over time, I won’t give myself a pass because I can’t do that to myself either… 

As a writer one owes it to oneself to go to the THERE space… to the scary dark place and write it…just write it scared…