First Nighter: Orlandersmith Impressively Goes on 'Forever,' 'A Queen for a Day' Is Crowned

05/04/2015 10:42 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Even before Dael Orlandersmith begins her monologue Forever at the New York Theatre workshop--as a follow-up to, among other writings, her acclaimed Yellowman--there's plenty to look at and even something to do.

Boards line the walls on both sides of the auditorium and attached to them are notes from spectators on which they've scribbled a tribute to a late family member, friend or associate who influenced them. A program insertion invites those in attendance to add their thanks to someone(s) who "passed" by using the paper and pencils provided on the tables at hand.

Notice the use of the verb "passed," which I've always regarded as strictly a euphemism for "died." But when Orlandersmith enters and steps up to the on-stage riser where two chairs and a table holding a turntable have been placed, she lights what's undoubtedly meant to be a memorial candle and begins to talk. In her discourse is an important implied difference between "died" and "passed." "Died," it's safe to say, connotes something final, ended, over. "Passed" suggests not the cessation of a person but rather the potential for the deceased having entered a new reality.

That's the real burden of Orlandersmith's spoken song. She begins by reporting on a rainy-day visit she made in an unspecified year to Pere Lachaise, the eastern Paris cemetery where arrondissement locals like Edith Piaf are buried and others like Frederic Chopin, Héloise and Abelard, Richard Wright, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and, never forget, Jim Morrison are also interred.

While wandering through the cemetery, Orlandersmith recalls that she heard her mother's voice chastising her simply for being there. Who does she think she is, visiting Paris, looking at the tombstones of people with whom she should never assume herself to be worthy of mingling. She's remembering her most significant influence now passed.

Her request in regard to the note board is, it seems, to have whoever attaches a remembrance (adhesive tape is provided) mention a positive influence. On the other hand, she's focusing on a negative influence--her mother, who is in the last analysis turns out to be a positive influence. She describes her mother at various stages from her own birth on October 29, 1959. She recounts verbal and physical beatings she suffered in childhood. She talks about having to remove herself from her mother's control. She recalls running into her mother accidentally some years later and the chilly exchange that resulted.

The upshot is she now believes firmly that her mother's cruelty instigated her own growth into the woman she's become, and for that she's endlessly grateful. As it happens, she's reiterating an understanding in works like Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive that not all negative influences remain strictly negative.

Returning intermittently to the day at Pere Lachaise, Orlandersmith mentions other strollers, one a young woman whom she eventually sees wearing one of her mother's disapproving expressions. With that, she confirms her belief that no one ever really dies. People pass to somewhere else, but they are, as her title proclaims, forever.

In Forever, she also redefines "family" for herself. Perusing Pere Lachaise, she insists that the famous people on the map there--the artists there--are her true family. (She's already played The Doors' s "Light My Fire" and declared it was a very early influence.) Those buried there can speak to her. She can reply. Yves Montand can give her a flirtatious wink. Simone Signoret, buried alongside him, can give him a playful smack.

They're all alive, and so is Orlandersmith, as, dressed in black with braids swinging and directed by Neel Keller, she takes the stage and transforms it.


Unlike the late 19th century and earlier 20th, rip-roaring melodramas are hard to come by today. All the more reason to make sufficiently big deal about A Queen for a Day by lawyer-moonlighting-as-dramatist Michael Ricigliano Jr. and at Theatre at St. Clement's.

Starting with a title that doesn't have anything to do with Jack Bailey's old radio and television show, nothing seems what it is as the action rolls on. A Queen for a Day unfolds within high gray warehouse walls (Andreea Mincic's set) somewhere in Brooklyn. Mafia lawyer Sanford Weiss (David Deblinger) has arranged a meeting between his client Giovanni "Nino" Cinquimani (David Proval) and Patricia Cole (Portia), who will hand over government proffer papers that, when Nino signs them, will promise him immunity in court from whatever information he confides during the clandestine hour or two.

(Note that cinquimani, which can be translated roughly as "five hands" already sends a warning signal.)

Angrily reluctant to divulge any information, especially about his brother Pasquale (Victor Pastore)--who makes a very late entrance--Nino resists for some time. More than once he checks outside the room for anyone who might be lurking. But Cole is persistent and just as prepared to confront Nino as he is to confront her. Eventually, she does break him down. He blabs about assassinated characters called Jimmy and Pat with whom other "family" members and he had fateful dealings. He reveals other suspect facts about himself.

So far, so straightforward, but Ricigliano has any number of blissfully unexpected twists up his lawyer's expensive three-piece-suit sleeve. Just as patrons figure they understand what's transpiring, things start to pop like gunshots. Whether there are actual gunshots won't be revealed here.

What will be revealed is that by the time A Queen for a Day ends, most, if not all, spectators will be shaken, raddled and rolled. What will also be revealed is that, under John Gould Rubin's energetically taut direction, Deblinger, Pastore, Portia and Proval give high-wire performances. And yes, Pastore, Proval and Deblinger are alumni of The Sopranos and know how to present the sinister milieu absolutely right.

Nothing this effective in a melodramatic way comes along that often. So if this is the kind of Porterhouse steak you like to chew on, take advantage of its offbeat sizzle.