×

Off Broadway Review: ‘Until the Flood,’ a Docu-Drama Set in Ferguson, Mo.

In her quietly moving one-person show, Dael Orlandersmith dramatizes reactions of St. Louis residents to the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

With:
Dael Orlandersmith.

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.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Until the Flood,' a Docu-Drama Set in Ferguson, Mo.

Rattlestick Theater; 99 seats; $41 top. Opened Jan. 18, 2018. Reviewed Jan. 17. Running time: ONE HOUR, 15 MIN. 

Production: A presentation by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater of a play in one act by Dael Orlandersmith, originally commissioned and produced by the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.

Creative: Directed by Neel Keller.  Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Justin Ellington; projections, Nicholas Hussong; production stage manager, Laura Wilson.

Cast: Dael Orlandersmith.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content