“Until The Flood” is the third play I’ve seen inspired by the killing by police officer Darren Wilson of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, each of them attention-gathering events in their own right: “Antigone in Ferguson,”, one of the remarkable site-specific productions of Theater of War Productions using ancient Greek plays to explore contemporary issues; “Ferguson,” a controversial trial play based on a selection of Grand Jury transcripts. “Until The Flood” is an hour-long solo play written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, based on interviews with people who live in the area around Ferguson. A production was staged in 2018 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, a recording of which is what was broadcast tonight on public television and is available for streaming on the All Arts website. It is a joint project of Rattlestick and seven other theaters throughout the country, including the one that commissioned it in 2016, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, located some 15 miles away from the scene of the shooting.
Orlandersmith portrays eight varied characters in a succession of monologues: A black retired teacher in her 70s, followed by a white retired police officer in his 70s; two black teenagers and a white high school teacher; a barber, a landlord, and a minister. All offer opinions about the shooter and the shot.
This approach is reminiscent of the work of Anna Deavere Smith (such as Fires in the Mirror, about the 1991 Crown Heights Riots), and I’m sorry to say in some ways suffers from comparison to it. As a performer, Orlandersmith’s sometimes impressive mimicry is not as precise or as persuasive as Smith’s. She is also less committed to documentary theater: Her characters are reportedly fictionalized composites.
“Until The Flood” also provoked a question that would never occur to me to ask of Smith’s work: Is it past its moment? Has the police killing of George Floyd this year made Orlandersmith’s play feel too granular? It was hard for me to find the dozens of mentions of Darren Wilson all that relevant now.
Luckily, the characters Orlandersmith creates are not just commentators on the Ferguson shooting, but vivid storytellers about their own lives, and by extension, about America. Louisa Hemphill, who is both the first and the last character to speak (and the only one who gets more than one slot), recalls how in her youth “white people were protected by the Sundown Law. Now, in case you don’t know what that is, it’s a law, awful law, that stated if you were Jewish or of color, you couldn’t be in certain towns after dark.We grew up seeing those signs –‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You, N—-r.'”
The language they speak draws on the playwright’s skills as a poet without feeling artificially elevated. And both the characters’ views and their backgrounds are conceived with enough specificity and imagination to avoid being predictable. The Black minister is a woman, Edna, who was long-time lovers with a woman, which caused a rift with her folks. But then the couple broke up, and Edna married a white man. (“My mother was ecstatic.”) Even Dougray Smith, the racist landlord and electrician who fantasizes shooting down a line of Ferguson Black men like a scene from “Schindler’s List,” talks about his bookish childhood in an impoverished, abusive family, and how he was able to escape and make something of himself by getting an education.
Escape is something of a theme in “Until the Flood.” Hip-hop loving teenager Hassan, after yet another unjust encounter with the police, says “Please, God, let me get out.” Louisa tells us how she’s angry at Michael Brown because he had just graduated from high school and was about to enter college: “Why would you put yourself between a white man and a gun? You could’ve gotten out….”