BWW Review: UNTIL THE FLOOD Explores Community Turmoil Following the Fatal Shooting of Michael Brown
Five and a half years ago, the town of Ferguson, Missouri, became the focus of national attention following shooting of teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The unarmed, black 18-year-old was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, for allegedly robbing a convenience store on Canfield Drive, the same street on which Brown lived. Protests and media attention focused on the town for a year, while the community of Ferguson was left in turmoil.
Commissioned by Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, UNTIL THE FLOOD, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by Neel Keller, explores the aftermath of Brown's fatal shooting, created from her extensive interviews with residents across the greater St. Louis area to create composite characters that reflect a wide range of perspectives and experiences of race, bringing each of them fully to life onstage to discuss the roots of unrest and the search for healing. Now onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through February 23, UNTIL THE FLOOD was onstage at Portland Center Stage and the Galway Arts Festival in 2019. This year, she'll be performing the play not only at the Douglas, but at the Denver Arts Festival and Spoleto Festival in South Carolina.
During the play, Orlandersmith portrays several characters, both black and white, on both sides of the issue, by adding different costume pieces designed by Kaye Voyce to denote each one, with the actress changing her way of speaking and overall physicality with each new person she presents, with each name projected on the wall behind her. Every single one becomes unique thanks to her expert way of totally transforming herself, both physically and from her soul. Scenic design by Takeshi Kata gives Orlandersmith a few places from which to tell her stories with the entire stage surrounded by trash and candles, while Nicholas Hussong's amazing projection design shares portraits of the two men at the heart of the story as well as photos which reflect the areas being discussed by each of the characters. As Orlandersmith moves from place to place, lighting design by Mary Louis Geiger and sound design by composer Justin Ellington focus the audience's attention to enhance the intensity of the characters being presented.
We first meet Louisa Hemphill aged 60-70, black, a former teacher, who speaks from an easy chair about race relations between communities and their police force officers, noting that racism causes self-hate, leaving young black men a legacy of not caring if they are dead or alive. Louisa addresses the hardness in the souls of young black men who feel defeated because of the color of their skin and lack of opportunity to get out of bad situations at home and of their desire to live across the river to start a new life. And given the projected photos which enhance her story, it is easy to see why they want out yet cannot accomplish that goal, given the lack of opportunity based on race.The stage darkens as Orlandersmith dons a St. Louis team jacket to assume the persona of a retired white cop who makes sure we know from the start that he did not know the cop or the black kid he shot. But as a cop, he always gets egged on by black people when he confronts one about a violation. So while he does not know what really happened during the incident, he will always support his cop "brother" in his decision to shoot his gun as they are trained on what to do when confronted by an angry person in a threatening way.
Next we meet Hassan, a 17-year-old black student who walks from the upstage barber shop to downstage, with Orlandersmith hunching over and taking on a very "urban" walk and talk style to share how Hassan lives on the street and just wants to get out alive. And, of course he is thoroughly angry with situation, often exploding in his contempt of racial injustice.
Connie Han is a 35-year-old white college teacher who hangs out in a local wine bar, which she calls "a great place to tranquilize herself after work." To portray her, Orlandersmith sits in a wooden chair with wine glass in hand, talking about a friend who moved away with whom she could share about her life. She then shares about how her ex-husband was violent to her, as was her Dad, but no one believed her because they were hard-working white men. Left conflicted about staying in Ferguson, Connie moved to Chicago to start her new life and job.
Reuben Little is a black barber in Ferguson. He admits to hearing a lot since everyone comes in, sits in his chair, and gossips about the town, revealing truths to him they won't talk about elsewhere. "I guess they feel they can sit in the chair and not be judged," he shares. "But I judge by appearances like everyone else." The he shared a story about two Northwestern students, one white and one black, who came in to interview him about the Michael Brown murder case. His most telling comment, "At least with a racist I know where I stand. But these two green kids have a lot of learn about life. But everyone needs to be treated fairly. My life is all about fairness."Dougray Smith, a white, 35-40-ear-old electrician is brought to life with the addition of a camouflage jacket. Sharing how he was raised by poor white trash parents who were alcoholics, he reminds us that not all white people are privileged. "But I wanted more than that in life so I lost myself reading books." Soon after his Dad destroyed a book he was reading, Smith left town and never went back, but worked hard and put himself through college. And just as you feel sympathy for this man, he turns the tables by admitting he carries a gun for safety and declares "the world will be better when all blacks are dead leaving a clean, pure white world." His brand of racism is shocking, and totally unexpected thanks to Orlandersmith's brilliantly realistic portrayal.
Paul is a black 17-year-old high school student who wants to go to Berkeley to study Art History since he loves paintings but cannot paint on his own. So he studies the methods used to create it. Turns out Paul lives in the same Canfield apartments as Michael Brown, so he knows the environment in which Michael was raised around poor, hard-working people and young men in gangs dealing drugs. "I understand how Michael felt defeated in life and made a bad choice to steal cigars. Just pray I get out in a year and what happened to him does not happen to me. I want more out of life than dying on the street."Donning a scarf with a flying dove of peace, Orlandersmith becomes Edna, a black woman in her late 50s who is now a minister. Her vantage point is relevant since so many in black communities gather their strength from attending religious services. Edna talks of both the "He God" and "She God" who live everywhere. Then she surprises us by admitting she fell in love with a woman when she was young and was kicked out of the house by her religious Mom who was totally opposed to the lesbian lifestyle and did not speak to her for 5 years. "But Mom called me when Dad passed as she did not want to be alone. But three years ago, I married a wonderful man who happens to be white, and it took my Mom awhile to accept him into our family. But now he and I minister together in our church, where Mom attends services." Edna talks of how gentrification is changing neighborhoods and causing racism to rise. "But my church welcomes all and I pray for everyone on all sides. That's how God speaks to me." At the end as herself, Orlandersmith undoes her long corn rows and comes downstage into a spotlight to speak to the audience about her own concerns for how young people are growing up, isolated from one another either at home or on social media, leaving us with sad and bad boys who feel they have no place in society. At that point near the end, all the candles amid the trash surrounding the playing area suddenly lit up and flickered as Orlandersmith shared her hope for the world to be better and fair for everyone. "It's not happened yet - but soon." May her heartfelt words prove as true as her heartfelt character portrayals.
UNTIL THE FLOOD performances run 70 minutes without an intermission, and continue at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232, through February 23 on Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No Monday performances. Ticket Prices: $30 - $75 available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 972-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office. Groups: (213) 972-7231. Deaf community: Information and charge, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS. Free three hour covered parking at City Hall, with validation available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz