May 4, 2015

Dael Orlandersmith delivers an elegy with a knife-sharp edge in her solo show, “Forever,” which opened on Monday at New York Theater Workshop. In this raw and haunting work about her troubled youth and the rocky path she forged out of it, Ms. Orlandersmith illuminates in acid-etched detail her fraught relationship with her mother, who was abusive and alcoholic but also set an example in her hunger for books and music and her dream of a career as a dancer. The production, written and performed by Ms. Orlandersmith (a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Yellowman” in 2002) and directed by Neel Keller, begins at some distance from the rough Harlem streets where Ms. Orlandersmith grew up in a “vermin-filled house with dead-colored linoleum, booze stains and cigarette holes.” Entering a mostly bare stage surrounded by a strip of wood on which family snapshots are neatly arrayed, Ms. Orlandersmith conjures in words the glamorous ghost palace of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Getting to that city was a lifelong dream, partly because of the many celebrated artists buried in the Père Lachaise, the world’s most famous resting place for the gifted and dead. “I came to hear Colette tell me, ‘You’re a writer, where’s your pen?’ ” she says. “I came to hear Yves Montand sing to me and blow me a kiss, and I see Simone Signoret giving him a playful slap and Apollinaire looks on, laughing.” Strolling the grounds she finds consoling company in the varied people performing similar pilgrimages among the graves of the artists buried there, her own lodestars being Richard Wright and Jim Morrison. “All of us have come,” she continues, “all of us who are seeking, have come to be with these people here in Père Lachaise, who, beyond our parents, helped us give birth to ourselves.”