Get our free newsletter
Watch her body: It’s as eloquent as anything she says. And considering the powerful poetry in her words, that’s saying something. Dael Orlandersmith, the gifted monologist and playwright who gave us the linguistic fireworks of Yellowman, stands solo on the Studio Theatre stage, inhabiting the bodies of a junkie poet slinging defiant and desperate rhymes, an aging Holocaust survivor retailing memories of Lady Day, a dyspeptic Harlem sexagenarian trying to get his Nina Simone on in the Village—and for every individual she conjures there’s not just an electric phrase that pops in the night but also a physical signifier shaping an indelible sense of character. Nothing showy, nothing big— just something distinct and memorable: a hooded, drug-dulled glance and a self-conscious belly-scratch for a subway panhandler, for instance, or a shoulders-broadened territoriality for a stoop-sitting girl-watcher—”It’s my block,” the stance says, “and if you’re gonna walk down it that way, I’m not gonna pretend not to check you out.” It’s an essential tool for any serious solo performer, this brand of bodily specificity, and Orlandersmith wields it with an old master’s easy offhandedness, a looseness that takes untold work to achieve. Striking, too, are the stories it serves—the rhythms inevitable, the characters thoroughly embedded in the fabric of a neighborhood but eternally on its margins. The whole, now: That’s less shapely than its parts. Stoop Stories starts on those front-porch steps (handsomely rendered by Luciana Stecconi), and though it lingers there a while, it wanders off soon enough—to that Uptown dive where a damaged jazz diva and a lonely Polish Jew once made common cause, to that downtown-bound subway car, to the sidewalks of the east side and the streets of the Village. And as it moves—moodily, between memory and the present, through a city its creator clearly feels in her bones—the show begins to feel like its own skeleton isn’t quite fully formed; Orlandersmith herself could presumably tell you why she’s chosen “stoop stories” as a framing metaphor for a loosely organized evening of New York portraits, but I’m not certain I could. Here’s the thing, though: The portraits themselves are so loving that I’m not entirely sure I mind.