It seems a strange profession for a loner, standing on a stage and performing for a crowd. But Dael Orlandersmith says that as a writer, she too is a loner of sorts. And she's drawn to the sort of "invisible" characters she embodies in Stoop Stories, the performance piece she's bringing Sept. 26 to The Andy Warhol Museum's Off the Wall series.
Orlandersmith last visited Off the Wall in 2004, with a virtuoso solo show: a series of monologues in the voices of characters you'd imagine couldn't be more unlike her. Onstage, the New York-born African American, 49, became a young white guy, an old Jewish man, a little kid -- each with a moving, funny story to tell. And she made the Warhol's auditorium feel as intimate as the back booth in a dimly lit bar, where confidences are exchanged, jokes shared and truths revealed. Her skill as a playwright was also evident in Yellowman, a wrenching and widely produced drama Pittsburgh Public Theater staged in 2005.
Stoop Stories, which Orlandersmith calls "a public work-in-progress," was first performed this year, at New York's famed Under the Radar series. Speaking by phone from New York, the East Village denizen says the hour-long Stoop Stories has fewer of the prose pieces -- like letters written in character -- that marked her 2004 Warhol show. "It's much more character-oriented," says Orlandersmith. "They're swapping stories with the audience."
"Chuck in a Hotel Room in Miami," written with performance artist David Cale, is about a black gay man who's in the closet. Another piece depicts a mentally challenged adult woman. A couple of the characters are children.
"I'm interested in people that are invisible," says Orlandersmith. "What are their stories?"
At one with each character's invisibility is his or her sense, consciously acknowledged or not, that a single incident somehow defined a life. For the Holocaust survivor named "Herman," for instance, it was a long-ago chance meeting with Billie Holliday near the end of her life.
One stoop story, "Two Damn Trains," concerns a Nina Simone concert where the singer failed to appear, an incident partly based on an experience Orlandersmith had. Her stage work isn't generally autobiographical, though she is writing a memoir. It's one of many current projects, including a new play -- Horse Dreams, about a wealthy businessman addicted to heroin -- and a teaching gig at Sarah Lawrence College.
Orlandersmith's own tastes likewise encompass writers and performers who are outsiders, left of mainstream, invisible in their roles: the painter Francis Bacon; novelist Elfriede Jelinek (Austrian author of The Piano Teacher); and actors like Jeffrey Wright and Cate Blanchett -- who, Orlandersmith says, "did Bob Dylan better than Bob Dylan" in I'm Not There.
Orlandersmith calls her Stoop Stories personas, variously, "a bunch of crazy characters" and "my people."
"I'm going to my outside guys," she says. "I know these people very well. ... Writers spend a lot of time alone. That's a solitary job."
Dael Orlandersmith performs Stoop Stories 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 26. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $20 ($10 students). 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org