THE FINAL RESTING PLACE of Jim Morrison, Richard Wright, Colette, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust, Père Lachaise Cemetery should be a haunted place, but it isn't. That's because Père Lachaise, on Paris' Right Bank, is like most Parisian cemeteries, akin to public parks where people pay tribute to icons of literature and art. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, it costs nothing to visit the last places that Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Man Ray, Charles Baudelaire, and Serge Gainsbourg were seen. (A Parisian suburb even boasts what's arguably the world's grandest pet cemetery; Rin Tin Tin is buried there.) At Montparnasse Cemetery, people leave metro tickets and thank-you notes on de Beauvoir's and Sartre's shared grave. At Père Lachaise, a small army of pink and purple lipstick imprints adorn the cold stone of Wilde's final home.
Dael Orlandersmith's autobiographical one-woman show, Forever, which opened at Portland Center Stage last weekend, is set in part at Père Lachaise, and full of similar small tributes. Orlandersmith raises a glass of wine to Wright, and makes meaningful eye contact with the other visitors who crowd Morrison's grave. But while building and honoring an artistic canon of one's own is a rite of passage for any young artist, there's much more in play than literary tourism. Orlandersmith's desire for communion with her chosen alternative canon exists in stark contrast to her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic who was at times abusive and hugely selfish. By Orlandersmith's telling, Père Lachaise comes to signify self-preservation in the face of trauma, dysfunction, and the far-reaching consequences of her mother's own artistic dreams left unfulfilled. When Orlandersmith says, "I got myself to Paris," her very survival is bound up in that statement.
I first saw Orlandersmith perform excerpts from Forever at an event hosted by Hedgebrook, a women-only writers' residency in Washington State. There was no set—just a podium, and a room full of brunching patrons of the arts. But Orlandersmith's gravitas and charisma on stage can take over any room, which is exactly what happened. Fully staged, the emotional pay-off is even bigger, as Orlandersmith implicates the audience as witnesses to her trauma—and her survival. Orlandersmith's story isn't just a "here is the worst thing that happened to me" memoir, either. One of Forever's most powerful moments comes from the hard-won discovery that the artist's homage to the heroes who carried her doubles as a complicated tribute to the mother who never did.