Dael Orlandersmith hasn’t read a single review of Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men (running through October 28 at the Goodman Theatre). “It’s the first time I haven’t read reviews,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist says. “Whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, I still have to do the work. It has to come down to the work.”
That work, by the way, is telling a story of abuse—or rather, six stories. In the show (which she also wrote), Orlandersmith channels six different characters, all of whom are abusers or were abused. All the characters are male, but range in age, ethnicity, and story.
Orlandersmith, on one of her rare nights off from the show, relaxes at RM Champagne Salon with a glass of her favorite champagne, Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé. “It’s nice. You like rosé?” she asks. “You’ll like it.”
She found RM shortly after moving to Chicago, when Food & Wine magazine listed it as one of the Top 25 Places to Drink Wine Right Now. “I said, oh this seems cool. It reminds me of [where] I live in the East Village in New York. In Freeman’s Alley, when you go across Chrystie Street, there’s a place that’s exactly like this.”
Her life in New York, and her time working in a shelter for abused boys in the 1980s, inspired Black n Blue Boys. She took special interest in deconstructing stereotypes about abuse, especially those around the victims. “No one looks at boys being abused, they only look at abusers,” she says.
The show coincidentally opened the same week that Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 years in prison for child sexual abuse, a fact Orlandersmith brings back to her show. “He upsets the shit out of me,” she says, but how (and more importantly, why) certain men become predators has always bewildered her. “There’s also the part of me that asks, what creates that? Did we individually or collectively create that? Let’s say we come from the same background. Let’s say our parents screw us all up. Let’s say I turn into this thing but you work it out. What creates that? I’m always blown away by that.”
In fact, in a disturbing twist in the play, one of her characters in the show is a man who abuses his nephew, a role she took a long time to perfect. “That person doesn’t see themself [as a monster],” she says. “On a human level, I have to understand him. I don’t have to like him, but I have to understand him.”
Orlandersmith turns 53 on Monday. She proudly reminds me that makes her a Scorpio—and maybe explains why she really doesn’t read reviews. “We’re more sensitive than people realize. It’s a hard sign. Great sign.”
Photograph: Emmet Sullivan