“Have I done it right?” ponders the ethereal voiceover that opens Dael Orlandersmith’s new solo piece Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance, now running at Rattlestick Theater through March 9. “Have I used my time right? Did I do anything at all?”
These questions press upon Virgil, the play’s narrator. And in speaking as Virgil each night, the poet and performer can’t help but consider them herself.
“As one gets older, you look back and wonder,” said Orlandersmith, speaking with TheaterMania after a recent preview performance in Rattlestick’s small, stiflingly hot dressing room. “Did I do things right?”
Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance is “in conversation” with Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Italian poet’s classic work tracing Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and into paradise, guided by the poet Virgil. Here, Virgil is a frustrated writer living in present day New York City, adrift in a fading East Village art scene and reeling from the death of her parents.
The essential crisis is the same, drawn from the opening lines of Dante’s work: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
“A lot of people are lost,” said Orlandersmith. “It can happen to anybody – people who don’t know why they’re here.”
If riffing on Dante sounds like a confident move for a writer, it is a confidence Orlandersmith has more than earned. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2002 play Yellowman, the acclaimed poet and performer has authored over a dozen plays, including Forever, a lyrical reflection on her fraught relationship with her abusive mother, and Until the Flood, a stirring response to Michael Brown’s death drawing on interviews with residents of St. Louis, Missouri.
Orlandersmith had always wanted to explore the themes of the Divine Comedy. But Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance was also born of the Covid-19 lockdown, a period in which death loomed unusually large in daily life and when many people, stuck at home with nothing but time, reconsidered their own pathway forward.
“One of the things we’re all afraid of is death – both literal and figurative death,” said Orlandersmith, who was most interested in loss of purpose, a kind of spiritual death. When we feel adrift, she wondered: “How do we give birth to ourselves? How do we reinvent ourselves?”
In Virgil’s early life, she is filled with purpose. Working as a DJ in the 1980s East Village, Virgil plays world music at a pirate radio station, and is alive to the art and to her community.
“People would ask: ‘Hey Virgil – what are you gonna play today – from what country?” Orlandersmith-as-Virgil recounts in one early scene. “And whatever country I chose, their eyes would light up! No matter how sad or defeated, they became present – here – alive.”
The transcendent power of music is a recurring theme in Orlandersmith’s work. In her 2015 play Forever, she recalls finding escape from an abusive home through the discovery of “Light My Fire” by The Doors – most specifically, Ray Manzarek’s organ solo. Music also guides the writing process for Orlandersmith, who associates music and color with characters as she writes them, a phenomenon called synesthesia.
“When I talk with Neel [Keller, the show’s director], I’ll say, “This character is like Boo Radley meets Keith Richards’ guitar solo on “Stray Cat Blues.”,” she said. “And he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Virgil herself suffers a spiritual death as the Village scene fades. She throws herself into sex and booze, working for money rather than artistic passion. But when her mother and father die just a year apart, Virgil’s trajectory is altered. She meets and gets to know their mortician, Jimmy. Struck by the care and dignity with which he approaches his work, she finds her own true calling.
To research after-death care, Orlandersmith traveled to a funeral home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana owned by a member of Rattlestick’s board.
“I walk in. This lovely guy named Mark says, ‘How ya doin!,’ and he’s got his hand inside this man’s neck,” she recalled. “He’d made an incision and was massaging him. I thought, ‘My God.’”
The morticians talked Orlandersmith through each careful step of the embalming process, details which she poured into the show. Orlandersmith aimed to make this process feel like a normal part of the cycle of life, the same as giving birth.
“When people bring a baby into the world, they smack them on the ass, or massage them, or put them into warm water,” she said. After-death care is “the flip side of that,” she argued, even if we hear about it much less.
Orlandersmith also borrowed a key line from one of the morticians who, in explaining their attention to detail, insisted: “I don’t want to be some fluid pusher.”
Throughout her long career, Orlandersmith’s work has remained insistently non-commercial, tackling challenging themes with a warm but unsentimental eye. As she performs Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance and prepares to turn 65, she is taking stock – her mother, she notes, passed at 68.
“It’s interesting to be close to that age, and to look back.” But Orlandersmith feels comfortable with the artistic path she has trod, even as she has remained, in her own words, “fringe.”
“If I got to be on Broadway, that would be lovely,” she said. “But I don’t know if it’ll ever happen within my lifetime.”
Above all else, Orlandersmith has remained true to herself, and to her own artistic purpose. A fluid pusher she will never be.