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Until the Flood

Yeah I would love to know what the TRUTH is in reference to Michael Brown . . . — Reuben
Until the Flood
Dael Oleandersmith (Photo: Robert Altman)
Dael Orlandersmith brings the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri back into the spotlight with her new solo show Until the Flood. Now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater it provides a fresh lens into the inflammatory event.

The piece is based on interviews recorded in St. Louis in the Spring of 2015 in which eight persons talked about Michael Brown's death. Orlandersmith, with her mimetic talent, slips into each persona and gradually evokes the atmosphere in Ferguson that smoldered in the aftermath of that event. Under Neel Keller's direction, it not only becomes a probing study of a community but a revelation of how blacks look at whites, and vice versa

. All the speakers, likable or not, attempt to ferret out the truth in their own idiosyncratic manner. Listening to each person search their soul, vent their anger, or express their bewilderment over the teen's death enables you to see why it still bleeds into the present day

There's Louisa Hemphill, a black retired school teacher in her early 70s who still mourns for Brown after listening to her preacher give a moving sermon about him at church. A feisty soul, Louisa tells us that she left Missouri in the 60s to get her education in New York City at City College. When she returned to Missouri, though, some local blacks hated her for earning a college degree.

Then there's Rusty Harden, a 75-year-old white retired policeman who sees Darren Wilson's dilemma. He confides that when working for the force he had to pull his gun out on some occasions. He recalls that the look on those people's faces one of "I don't care about dying/ I just don't care and I'll take you with me."

Another perspective is given by Connie Hamm, 35-year-old white high school teacher who sees Brown's shooting as a double tragedy for both blacks and whites. But she is shocked when her black friend angrily explodes at this notion and denigrates Darren Wilson for losing control and killing a black boy.

Until the Flood doesn't fall into any tidy theatrical genre. Yes, it's a solo show reminiscent of Anna Deveare Smith's work. So you can categorize it as a documentary or a multi-voiced monologue, or simply a Dael Orlandersmith play? No matter what you call it, however, it's a powerful piece of theater.

My first encounter with Orlandersmith's work was Forever, another solo work, also directed by Keller. In it, she explored the troubled relationship she had as a child with her abusive alcoholic mother and how she ultimately came to terms with it. Offsetting the grim reality of her childhood in Harlem, she recounted her visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery (where Richard Wright, Jim Morrison, Simone Signoret, and other famous personages are buried) and how it helped her to define herself as a person and writer. While her current production is nonbiographical, it does share the same raw emotional intensity that she brought to Forever.

While the production values at the Rattlestick are modest, Takeshi Kata's set and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting do capture the mixed sense of desolation and hope that underlies Until the Flood. The stage is pretty much bare except for a chair at center stage and the makeshift wardrobes (by Kaye Voyce) at stage right and left. But the set is amazingly transformed in the closing moments when the votive candles on stage begin to glow and flood the performing space with light.

The story that Until the Flood tells is a sad one. It suggests that no satisfying answers will ever be found regarding the Michael Brown case. Perhaps the real take-away is that the conversation on racism in our country must continue and that many voices need to be heard.

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Until the Flood
Written and Performed By Dael Olandersmith
Directed by Neel Keller
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Design: Justin Ellington
Projection Design: Nick Hussong
Stage Manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: Approx 75 minutes, no intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place
From 1/06/18; opening 1/18/18; closing 2/18/18
Mon-Wed 7:30pm, Jan 28 and Feb 4th: 2pm.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan atr 1/17/18 press preview

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