Our two major political parties, once frenemies, appear locked down in irremediable differences. Disputation has poisoned our daily life, coarsening relationships and affecting too many aspects of daily existence. Anger, incivility, prevarication and racism have plunged us into social paralysis.
To say nothing of shootings.
Too many shootings have been of black men by white cops, often in situations where the how and why is hard to ascertain. So when on August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, under murky circumstances, people took sides. And when the St. Louis County prosecutor and the US Department of Justice cleared Wilson of wrongdoing, all hell broke loose. Whom to believe…?
But when the phone call came from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to Dael Orlandersmith — a black poet, playwright and performer — offering to commission a theatre piece from her about this event, she said yes, adding peremptorily that director Neel Keller would be “doing it with me.”
That was the start of Until the Flood. Orlandersmith and Keller have worked together on and off for 25 years, ever since he invited her to play The Nurse in a production of Romeo and Juliet at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Playhouse. Six years ago, they joined forces to develop Forever, a one-woman “semi-autobiographical exploration of the family we’re born into and the family we choose.” Staged by Keller and commissioned by Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group (CTG), where Keller is an Associate Artistic Director, it cemented the relationship. He said of that piece, written and performed by Orlandersmith, “a very special experience.”
When it came to tackling the Michael Brown incident, Orlandersmith’s intuitive response was to distil the reaction of people she interviewed around Ferguson and put their words in the mouths of eight composite individuals of her own creation — young, old, man, woman, black, white, liberal and not.
Her characters are a fascinating lot, of varied persuasions and occupations. Retired black schoolteacher Louisa’s confusion over Brown’s death sets the stage for others’ emotions to follow. Rusty, a retired white policeman, echoes some of Louisa’s conflicted feelings.
Orlandersmith’s younger creations express a different kind of fatalism: Not wanting to die, but wanting to get out alive, free of the condemnations determined by the color of their skin.
High-schooler Hassan, eager to find his own “right” way, wishes that his married-with-children and beloved history teacher were his Dad. “I’m thinking of the kids that have parents,” he tells us,
“both parents. Married and carin’ about them…. I’m 17, man. Sometimes I feel seven, sometimes I feel 70…. I want out.” Paul, also 17 and black, lives in the same public housing where Michael Brown lived. “Looks just like a prison,” he tells us. “Please God, let me get out. Just let me get out…”
In contrast, Connie, a white schoolteacher who grieves for both Wilson and Brown, is mortified when her good friend and colleague Margaret — a black teacher, with whom she shared a solid friendship, wine and confidences — is so infuriated that she severs the relationship.
Reuben, a black barber who deals daily in “appearances” is equally wary of so-called liberals for similar reasons. He owns his shop, likes his life and has seen it all. He gets his chance to explain himself to two college students — one white, one black — who invade his shop on a crusade to “save him.” Reuben delivers a memorable lesson in social boundaries to those girls that they may never forget.
Nor does Orlandersmith hesitate to take on Dougray, a self-acknowledged product of “white trash,” smart enough to leave that life behind him and make his own way, even if he hasn’t quite found the compassion to not exploit the less fortunate. He may have escaped a drunken and abusive father, but he’s not yet a better man.
If Orlandersmith was not eager to say much about how she and Keller put the show together, Keller was.
“Dael trusted my artistic impulses and way of collaborating,” he said. “We knew that working on Until the Flood would take us into difficult historical, cultural and emotional places and I think we both felt we could support each other with that investigation and self-reflection.”
The play takes flight confirming all we see and hear, with increasingly poetic utterance. When asked where the title came from, Orlandersmith elliptically responded: “St. Louis is near the Mississippi River…. It’s a Catholic city; water as redemption, as purity, cleanliness….” And like her play, Noah’s Ark also allegedly had just eight human beings on board.
Until the Flood only confirms this poet-playwright as an exemplar of locating that fragile kernel of anguish and truth inside each one of us we like to call a soul. Even less expected is the breadth of her reach. Until the Flood benefits from her philosopher’s mind and an even-handed fairness that dominates her rich diversity of points of view.
Contrary to expectations from someone so precise, she’s not territorial. She’s prepared to give any serious company the right to use eight different people to play the eight characters she’s created or fly solo with it, as she does. Whether others can begin to match her skill at inhabiting each character as distinctly as she does remains an open question.
When the educated Louisa expresses indignation at the disdainful smirk a less fortunate young black girl sends her way, her father cautions her, “Sometimes, you can know so much and know so little…”
It’s what this Flood is all about, upending preconceptions and offering a tough, uplifting as well as humbling moment for us all.
SYLVIE DRAKE is a translator, writer, and former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association., a contributor to culturalweekly.com, and occasional contributor to American Theatre magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
Originally scheduled as part of DCPA Theatre Company’s 2019/20 season, Until the Flood will be streamed at denvercenter.org.