by Lynn on December 8, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live Streaming for Free.

Written and Performed by Dael Orlandersmith

Directed by Neel Keller

Set by Takeshi Kata

Costumes by Kaye Voyce

Lighting by Mary Louise Geiger

Sound /Composition by Justin Ellington

A shattering piece of verbatim performance theatre about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And everybody should see it. Dael Orlandersmith is stunning.

Background: In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri Michael Brown, a black youth allegedly stole a box of cigars. The police were called and Officer Darren Wilson allegedly shot Mr. Brown several times and killed him. The details of what exactly happened were confusing. Officer Wilson said he shot in self-defence. Alleged witnesses disagreed. Officer Wilson was found innocent of any wrongdoing by a Grand Jury and was released.

Conservatory Rep Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Orlandersmith to create the piece in 2015 and also produced it.

Dael Orlandersmith is an American playwright who interviewed people in Ferguson, Missouri about their thoughts on the events. She did not interview any of the people who were witnesses or the police.  She culled the interviews and we hear the words of eight of them, alternating between a Black person and then a white person. Orlandersmith plays all the parts speaking in their voices.

They are all ordinary people: a retired school teacher, a barber, two 17-year-old  Black High school students, a retired police officer, a landowner and electrician, a school teacher and a minister.

In the voice of each interviewee, Orlandersmith speaks the name of the person, their general age, if they are Black or white and their job.

Takeshi Kata has designed a set with a single chair in the middle of the stage. Around it looks like a garbage strewn street or playground.  Kaye Voyce has created the costumes for each character. One might wear a bomber jacket, another a scarf or shawl. It seemed as if each one wore something with a vibrant pinky-orange colour to it. That colour on some part of different costuming seemed to bind these different characters in the event, not as being shackled, but as sharing the event.

Until the Flood begins and ends with “Louisa Hemphil, Black, early 70s, retired school teacher.” Louisa quietly sets the tone, concern, emotional toll, prejudice, attitudes in that town and almost as an afterthought, the effect of the killing of Michael Brown.  

She says, “I’m angry at him. I’m angry in general.” She laments that Michael Brown was so close to graduating high school and could have gotten out of there to a better life. She tells how she left Ferguson, Missouri to go to teacher’s college in New York City. She came home to see family and recounts going into a local store run by a (white) woman she had known for years. Her family frequented the store. Ms Hemphil was greeted by the woman who chided her about leaving her town to go elsewhere for her education, as if this was a betrayal. Orlandersmith delivered these words in a measured way, not forced or full of contempt.

Hemphil continued by saying when she was younger she thought her father acquiesced to being treated badly by whites. Her mother came back at her with pointed words who set the young woman straight about what she and her father had to endure to survive there. My cheeks stung with embarrassment for the rebuke and the reason her mother had to give it.  

We get the clear sense of no matter how friendly Blacks and whites were in that town, there was a sense of standing off, being apart, not melding.

Hassan was a Black 17-year-old, student,  rapper-loving man who said he didn’t care about dying and that he was going with the flow.

He was contrasted with Paul, also Black, also 17-years-old and a student. He knows and says that “it could have been me.” It could have been him that was shot by the police, not because he had stolen anything, but because he was Black.   You sense the very fine line Paul has to walk on to not get killed for no reason. He just had to graduate high school and get out. Hearing his story made you hold your breath, you so wanted him to be safe.

“Dougray Smith, white, late 30s early 40s, landowner, electrician.” He scared me. As a kid he was a reader. He loved books. His father was a bully and beat him questioning his ‘manhood’ because he loved books. One day Dougray was reading Steinbeck and his father took the book away and threatened to burn it. The last straw for Dougray. He took a chair and hit his father with it, left the house and never went back. He was 16. He lived in shelters for a time. Finished school; got jobs and worked hard; became and electrician; married; saved his money and bought properties as investments. He bought them in the Black section of town and said that he always got his rent on time. “Blacks know not to be late with the rent to me.” Orlandersmith said this quietly but with an edge, looking at the camera, a hard look.

One day Dougray was with his young son and the boy was bullied by some Black kids and came crying to his father. Dougray told his son to get right back there and beat that kid up, and Dougray suggested his son was a sissy for not doing it. The boy went back and beat the kid. His son was five years old. You suck air slowly with this complex, difficult story. The son bullied by his father becomes a bullying father to his own son. And so it continues, the anger, the racism, the divide.  

There were other interviews in Until the Flood told with compassion, wit, humour, perception, and wisdom. These people were complex, multi-layered and articulate in their own way. You get such a clear idea of the lives of the Black interviewees living in white America and how they were so different from their white counterparts.  Orlandersmith is brilliant in showing one’s pre-conceived ideas about another’s life, not only from the point of view of the characters in the play regarding each other, but also from our point of view of them.  She is never judgemental. She let’s her characters have their say. It’s a balanced, devastating work and every single person should see it.

Until the Flood streams at

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