BWW Review: UNTIL THE FLOOD, Arcola Theatre
Using the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson as its starting point, but not its only focus, Dael Orlandersmith's Until The Flood bring into sharp relief the racial history and tensions in a divided America at the core of this tragedy.
This 70-minute, one-woman our-de-force was first commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St Louis and premiered at the venue in autumn 2016, transferring to London after its UK premiere run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That it was commissioned directly as a response to the death of Brown is indicative of the role arts will play in documenting and translating such seismic socio-political events in the future.
The opening sequence, a replay of the radio chatter between police officers in the minutes before Brown's shooting with the text flashed up on the brick wall, offers a starting point, but from there Orlandersmith explores every crack and crevice of society, knowing that is where answers - if any exist - will be found.
From there, Orlandersmith produces a profound and deeply necessary piece of theatre, avoiding outright anger and fury in favour of piecing together the ignorance and wilful blindness of a community and how that allows such events to unfold.
It's a staggering performance by Orlandersmith, who inhabits each of the eight different characters - young, old, black, white, successful and embittered - with ease, bringing forth their thoughts and mannerisms with a simple change of clothing and shift in octave. At times the focus drifts, sometimes in timely fashion, at others it seems to slow momentum.
From the black female minister to the white school teacher sympathetic to Wilson, the fearful teenager, the menacing racist and the wizened black barber, each character helps knit together the views of a fractured society.
Designer Takeshi Kata's set is simple but poignant, decorated with the tributes and murals to Brown that sprung up following his death, including candles that flicker and shimmer in the shadow of Orlandersmith's towering performance.
Neel Keller's direction is often understated, shifting focus onto the words of the people at the heart of this story, with each movement and stage placing carefully considered to accentuate the small differences that ultimately divide every one of us.
Orlandersmith, who also scripted the show from interviews with residents of St Louis, is masterful in allowing these composite characters to breathe outside of their views on the shootings. There is dark and light to everyone, and Orlandersmith takes care to illustrate this.
Stepping into her own skin for the closing poem, Orlandersmith brings the story full circle, emphasising that, however you look at it, at the centre will always be a life lost.
Photo credit: Alex Brenner