The Repertory Theater of St. Louis confirmed the political power of theater when it commissioned this one-person show written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith to capture the reactions of Ferguson, Mo., residents to the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the summer of 2014. The results are both eye-opening and quietly moving.
In this Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation, Orlandersmith, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Yellowman,” brings an entire community to life by channeling her interviews with people who were on the scene of this inflammatory racial incident, in which a black teenager was gunned down by a panicky young white cop. Sensitively directed by Neel Keller, “Until the Flood” is a group testimonial composed of a variety of voices, from angry teenagers to reflective elders, all struggling to come to terms with the issue of race on its most personal level — their own.
“That whole race thing was a long time coming,” says Louisa Hemphill, a retired black schoolteacher who seems to think she escaped the worst of it. But in the course of her monologue, she is pulled back to the past, recalling occasions in her youth when she, too, was injured by racist prejudice. She remembers the so-called “Sundown Laws” that brought everyone to their proper neighborhoods when night fell. Acknowledging these painful memories finally brings her to the realization that she’s angry with Michael Brown for the stupid, thoughtless action that led to his death. “I’m angry at him!” she admits, and then adds, sadly, “I’m just angry in general.”
With a minimum of costume changes — a leather jacket for a shawl, a scarf for a hat — Orlandersmith slips in and out of character. One minute she’s a white cop stunned at the way black teenagers would call him “honky” while he’s carrying a loaded gun. “It’s like they want to die,” he marvels. The next minute, she’s one of those reckless kids, rapping and raging and finally breaking down and admitting that he didn’t really want to die. What he really wanted was a father.
There’s poetry to some of these testimonials: “I watched some of the kids I’m in school with paint. The way they paint, the way their wrists move, it’s like liquid.” There’s also cold, hard wisdom: “I’m seventeen, man,” one kid says. “Sometimes I feel seven. Sometimes I feel seventy.” Mostly, though, it’s sadness that comes through. A white woman misses the black friend who broke off their friendship. “I really wish I could tell her that I’ll miss her. I really wish I could.”
And once in a while there’s good humor. Like the testimony of a black barber who shakes his head in disbelief at the upper-class girls, one white and one black, who want to interview him, as a black man, about being “a victim.” “Black men are not children,” he says. “I am not a child.”
It’s hard to say exactly what Orlandersmith does that makes all these people come to life. Her costume changes are minimal. She doesn’t modify her voice dramatically. And she certainly doesn’t strike poses. Somehow, though, she gets under these black skins and white skins and finds the common humanity of people who are just … people. Like Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.