Review: “Until the Flood”

Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood” now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St., through May 12. – Robert Altman


Where: Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through May 12
Tickets: $10-$29
Phone: 312-443-3800

Theater Critic

Commissioned in 2016 by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood” looks at the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old African American, by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

As for “Stoop Stories” and “Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men,” her other one-woman shows staged at Goodman, Orlandersmith uses a quasi-documentary style, crafting a series of monologues to tell a story. In this case, she interviewed dozens of people in and around Ferguson and St. Louis, and they inspired her eight composite characters—male and female, black and white, young and old. She also includes her own alter ego with a poem late in the 70 intermission-less minutes.

While the shooting, protests that followed, investigation, and decision not to indict Wilson were documented in the news in detail, Orlandersmith is more interested in exploring the sometimes subtle racism that permeates and damages all our lives. Her compelling portraits cover a range of perspectives and all, even that of the most virulent racist, are infused with compassion. Her repeated image of the flow (of events, emotions, etc.) somehow holds out hope for the future at a time when similar violent incidents continue to be all-too-common, and our society seems increasingly polarized.

The evening begins and ends (except for the poem) with a wise, feisty retired 71-year-old black schoolteacher named Louisa Hemphill. She recounts what it was like growing up in a racist town but also says, as no white person would be allowed to, that Brown was not only set up to be a victim but also set himself up. An elderly black barbershop owner also offers insights, explaining that he’s a self-made man who’s interested in fairness, not special treatment.

At the other end of the age spectrum are two 17-year-old black men, whose experiences are the saddest. Hassan, a “street kid,” freestyles about his rage at the cops who harass people like him on a daily basis, while Paul, a bookworm who lives in the same Canfield Green apartments as Brown did, prays to God to let him get out of there alive.

Among the others are Rusty, a retired white police officer inclined to justify Wilson’s use of his gun, and Dougray, the white supremacist with a back story of abuse who fantasizes about lining up all the black men (and Jews) and shooting them. They’re balanced a bit by Connie, a well-meaning white teacher in a wine bar who can’t understand why saying the Ferguson killing was a tragedy for both Brown and Wilson alienated her black friend.

Carefully directed by Neel Keller, Orlandersmith becomes each of these characters, some better than others, simply by changing a shawl or jacket (costumes by Kaye Voyce) and moving to a different part of Takeshi Kata’s set. The most dramatic feature is the stage apron replete with candles and stuffed animals resembling the impromptu memorial set up on Canfield Avenue in the weeks after Brown’s death. Mary Louise Geiger’s moody lighting, Nicholas Hussong’s projections, and Justin Ellington’s elegiac music do the rest.

Although Orlandersmith’s presentation is comparatively understated, I found “Until the Flood” more moving than I expected. It’s also thought-provoking and hopefully will help open the floodgates of a much-needed national conversation.