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Spinning Human Poetry From the Pavement on Studio's 'Stoop'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dael Orlandersmith is taking a breather from pain. In her new one-woman show, "Stoop Stories," the gifted solo performer eschews the jagged edges of her previous works for a warmer reflection on the New York neighborhoods that shaped her troubled early life.

The production, which is receiving its world premiere at Studio Theatre, is a short and -- by Orlandersmith's hard-earned standards -- sweet survey of the people she's bumped into in that city of sharp elbows. You do get the feeling that this might be a work that she herself is still finding her way around, as there is, at this juncture, some tentativeness in the presentational framework for her well-crafted anecdotes and impressions and poetry.

Then again, one cup of Orlandersmith is worth a gallon of what most other monologists serve up. "Stoop Stories" offers this aromatic storyteller as a guide to her home town and, more specifically, to Harlem. She greets us on a replica of an uptown stoop and over the next 50 minutes takes us on a tour of her city, a teeming "New York gumbo" of junkies and jazz, of places to hang and places to avoid, and places to watch the world go by.

Anyone who has seen her solo performances or her drama for two actors, "Yellowman," mounted at Arena Stage in 2004, knows that Orlandersmith's antennae are sensitively attuned to life's sting. In monologues such as "Monster," in which she explores her cruel Harlem upbringing, and even more explosively in her follow-up, "The Gimmick," she applies lyrical varnishes to rage. ("Yellowman," a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, exposes the tensions in a relationship between a light-skinned African American man and a darker-complected woman.)

"Stoop Stories," which credits Jo Bonney as "consulting director," finds Orlandersmith in her trademark blonded braids, but in a more nostalgic frame of mind. The gallery of city characters she embodies still leaves a trail of sadness: most poignantly in the case of Nilda, a girl of promise who, succumbing to the elusive charms of a neighborhood addict, turns into one herself. More generally, however, Orlandersmith assumes the role here of wryly analytical onlooker who can absorb both the pathos and the irony unfolding all around her.

In a Manhattan coffee shop, she provides a revealing account of how a table of construction workers and a table of businessmen eye each other, and how both tables respond when a couple of crude and squealing rock-star groupies enter with the clear intention of creating a girlish stir. On a street outside a basement-level jazz joint, she segues into a giddy vignette about an older black man with a cane, irate that retrieving his Nina Simone tickets means a trip up and down the stairs.

Simone, Bob Dylan, Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Ella Fitzgerald: Singers and the establishments that featured them crop up frequently in "Stoop Stories." It is the music of the city that paves Orlandersmith's way back to various times and places. In what proves the unlikely centerpiece for the production, she assumes the voice and countenance of an elderly Jewish immigrant and Harlem resident named Herman, who recalls for us the night many years before, when he was sitting at the bar of a favorite neighborhood watering hole as Billie Holiday sat down next to him.

Herman buys the celebrated down-on-her-luck chanteuse a drink and then another, as they fall into a discussion of Herman's past, his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. The story, Herman explains to us, moves Holiday to dedicate a song in her set to him, a rendition of "Strange Fruit," the mournfully powerful number she made famous that decried the lynching of black men.

The interlude is riveting, particularly when Orlandersmith recites several lines from "Strange Fruit," which itself was adapted from a poem. It resonates in a lovely way, for "Stoop Stories" is embroidered with recitations of other snippets of poetry.

Words, after all, are anything but strange fruit to this compelling spinner of city stories, with whom you'd always be happy to spread out on the stone steps, and listen some more.

Stoop Stories, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith. Consulting director, Jo Bonney. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costume, Brandee Mathies; sound, Eric Shimelonis. About 50 minutes. Through April 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

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