As the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota is nearing its end, Studio Theatre of D.C. today debuts a new streaming production of “Until the Flood,” Dael Orlandersmith’s play about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
First produced on stage in Missouri in 2016, two years after Brown’s death, and most recently streamed online last November as a joint production of eight theaters across the country, the show until now has been a showcase not just for Orlandersmith’s writing but also her acting — a solo show in which she performed a succession of monologues by eight widely varied characters, based on interviews with people who live in the area around Ferguson.
Director Reginald L. Douglas’s new production features three actresses. Felicia Curry, Ora Jones, and Billie Krishawn portray those characters — a black retired teacher in her 70s; a white retired police officer in his 70s; two black teenagers and a white high school teacher; a barber; a landlord; and a minister. But they also dramatize the conversations that those eight recount, so the monologues are now threaded through with brief two- and three-character scenes.
In the original productions, Reuben the barber told us about being interviewed by two student reporters – “one was black, the other one was white; both of them were very green,” pretty young women of privilege who saw Reuben as a victim of racism. Now we witness the scene playing out among the three performers, with Reuben knocking down their assumptions, amid the empty seats of the Studio Theater auditorium where the production was filmed.
Similarly, in the original productions, the white high school teacher Connie recounted her friendship with a black colleague, which was destroyed by their differing views of the Ferguson killing. Now they are both characters in the play. Connie tells her friend how happy she was to see protesters against the killing who were white, and how tragic the lives of both Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson. Her friend explodes: “Look, Connie, Michael Brown is dead, and that bastard Darren Wilson is alive. How is Darren Wilson tragic? My God, how I hate liberals. At least with out-and-out bigots, I know where I stand.”
The ensemble acting gives more prominence to these encounters, driving home the differing attitudes, misunderstandings, and outright divisions based not just on race but on class, and, more generally, on lived experience. This helps avoid a question I had with the streamed production in November: Was Orlandersmith’s play too granular, diving too deeply into the specifics of a particular killing, when there’s now George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright and Alex Toledo and…)? The details are different — I think it’s safe to say it’s harder to find white people who express sympathy for Derek Chauvin, as many do for Darren Wilson in this play – but the range of emotions still click. “Until The Flood,” varied and nuanced, remains shockingly relevant. I suspect it will continue to feel so whether or not the specifics of the Ferguson killing will take the kind of powerful place in history that the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till has – singled out, even though more than 4,000 other black people were reportedly lynched in the country over the 60 years before Till.
The use of three performers also downplays the expectation of tour-de-force mimicry, and helps us avoid comparisons with Anna Deavere Smith, who interviews and personifies her real-life characters, down to every “um,” for her solo documentary theater. The characters in “Until the Flood” are fictionalized composites.
Still, the performers, three black women of varied ages, do a fine, subtle job of embodying the reality of these characters, who each tell the stories of their individual lives with an unpredictable specificity that defies stereotype. Even Dougray Smith, the white landlord and electrician who fantasizes shooting down a line of Ferguson black men like something out of a Nazi extermination 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 struck me as something of a theme in “Until the Flood” when I first saw it. Hip-hop loving teenager Hassan, after yet another unjust encounter with the police, says “Please, God, let me get out.” Louisa Hemphill, the retired black teacher, 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….”
Somehow, though, this time around, when all three women gather together at the end like a chorus, and chant phrases and fragments in counterpoint or in unison —
Black boy down
White man shoot
Has the wakeup call been answered
“Until The Flood” seems not just about trauma and escape, but about hope.