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Theater review: 'Stoop Stories' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

July 12, 2010 |  3:01 pm

Stoop Stories.Cropped
 Welcome to a block party of one. Sitting on a set of stairs in the middle of a bare stage, Dael Orlandersmith recounts close encounters of the urban kind in “Stoop Stories,” which played last week as part of the Kirk Douglas Theatre Plus series.

The celebrated writer-performer takes us on a stroll through New York City -- from Harlem to the East Village, full of resilient dreamers, nodding dopers, and lovers who never learn. For atomized Angelenos who spend most of our time bumper to bumper, it’s nice to get out for a walk. And nobody takes Manhattan like Orlandersmith, a sly, street-level poet with an angel’s heart. And great hair.

Never afraid of the dark, Orlandersmith has taken audiences to some bleak places in award-winning work like “Monster,” “The Gimmick” and “Yellowman” (nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize), stories of longing thwarted by racism, violence and addiction. Redemption was not always in sight. Here, she’s in mellower form, and this 70-minute prose poem plays as more of an appetizer than a full meal. (Her multi-actor show, “Bones,” directed by Gordon Edelstein, opens July 30 at the Kirk Douglas.) 

Orlandersmith is a chameleon griot: conjuring the other while never losing those knowing eyes, that signature clarity. We meet Herman, a Polish Holocaust survivor and jazz aficionado, whose love for an African American “goil” brings heartbreak. His subsequent encounter with a famous chanteuse is both bittersweet and moving — an unexpected collision of politics and glamour. There’s teenage Hector, maintaining his cool as he navigates tension at home and on the street, a smooth operator protecting a fragile heart. 

Not everyone’s a keeper. Some of the portraits never get beyond the superficial, as with a former friend turned musician turned junkie turned homeless, mourning the loss of the alternative music mecca CBGB. Begging for change, because he can’t bring it about himself. Time to cross the street.

Perhaps the most compelling sequence of “Stoop Stories” is not a character portrait but a description of a Village coffee shop on a Monday morning, where a group of businessmen and a construction workers caffeinate before reluctantly heading off work. Two young girls enter, talking loudly about their sexual escapades. Who has the real power here? Is it possible the white collars wish they were wearing hard hats? The talk is of oral sex on men, but what’s the real subject? With forensic clarity, Orlandersmith tracks the dynamics of class, race and gender that define this New York moment. I imagined her on “Law & Order,” canvassing a crime scene. Jeff Goldblum might have serious competition. 

There’s recycling here — the portrait of a smart, outcast girl saved by the library; a game of Miss Mary Mack; the requisite jazz metaphors. But the material always feels genuine, and the performer even more so. With her rich voice and expressive physicality, Orlandersmith is a consummate storyteller, mesmerizing with her vocal and physical cadences. Yes, her characters live and breathe, but her real achievement is to make you aware of the shape of language itself. How words rise and fall, become dense, then light, gently erotic, then tense with rage -- like the architecture and energy of a city block. 

The clean staging of “Stoop Stories” helps us take in all that verbal complexity. Veteran director Jo Bonney is credited as “consulting director,” and her sense of storytelling choreography is in evidence.  Sound designer Eric Shimelonis contributes ambient original music as well as a play list that includes Lester Young, early Blondie and plenty of salsa.  Richard Peterson’s lighting deftly shapes transitions and mood shifts.

Orlandersmith is one of a generation of gifted solo performers — among them Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones and Heather Raffo — who demolished the fourth wall of American middle-class theater. A godsend to cash-strapped regionals, these low-budget, content-rich shows turned recessionary programming and the “diversity slot” into revelatory drama. They definitively proved the personal is both political and poetic.

Yet we may be ready for a new iteration of the form: one that retains its inherent intimacy but explodes our expectations of art and life. YouTube, blogs, twittering revolutions — in many ways, the Internet has caught up with these solo pioneers. But theatre is wily; it always finds new ways to tell the present and signal the future. However this genre evolves, expect Orlandersmith to be right in the game.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Photo: Dael Orlandersmith in "Stoop Stories." Credit: Craig Schwartz.