Commissioned to create a theatrical response to the Ferguson event, actor and playwright Dael Orlandersmith spoke with scores of St. Louis-area residents — across racial, cultural and class lines. The result: a solo show that paints a potent portrait of a community rocked by rage and sorrow.
Dael Orlandersmith is one of those actors who pulls you in close wherever she performs.
At ACT Theatre, Orlandersmith’s searing solo piece “Until the Flood” is staged in the in-the-round Allen Theatre, which furthers the intimacy between performer and audience. Ringed by Takeshi Kata’s design of clusters of stuffed toys, flowers, candles and other familiar tributes to the young dead, it’s a good place for holding that conversation — the one about race.
From the first words she utters as Louisa, a black retired teacher still absorbing and reeling from the seismic event that hit her town of Ferguson, Missouri, this noteworthy actor-writer makes us feel like she is talking directly, openly, intently to each audience member.
As Louisa, she is still trying to process what happened (or didn’t happen) when an 18-year-old African American, Michael Brown, was shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, the night of Aug. 9, 2014. Did Brown really steal a pack of cigarillos from a local convenience store? Did he pose a threat to Officer Darren Wilson, the white cop who stopped him, as he walked down the middle of a road near his home? How, in about 90 split seconds, did this turn into a fatal encounter, with Wilson shooting multiple times at the unarmed teen — mainly, claimed the policeman, in self-defense? (Other witnesses said otherwise.)
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Despite an avalanche of news reports, a grand jury hearing and a $1.5 million wrongful-death settlement, Louisa doesn’t have firm answers any more than the rest of us do. But the incident sparked weeks of protests and racial unrest, and for Louisa a sense of déjà vu — back to the civil-rights tumult she witnessed in the 1960s. Back to when there were “sundown towns” in the area, where blacks risked their lives if they showed up at night.
Anyone who thinks as a country we’ve transcended racial differences will get an argument from most of the eight characters Orlandersmith portrays, in this semi-fictionalized study of a community near St. Louis rocked by rage and sorrow.
Commissioned by the nearby St. Louis Repertory Theatre to create a theatrical response to the Ferguson event, the New York-based Orlandersmith (who has previously performed at ACT in other magnetic original solo pieces) spoke with scores of St. Louis area residents — across racial, cultural and class lines. But she and her astute director, Neel Keller, weren’t assembling an oral-history docudrama in the manner of Anna Deavere Smith, whose “Fires in the Mirror” and other solo works have also examined tumultuous, often racially charged public events from different perspectives.
Unlike Smith, Orlandersmith does not name those she interviewed in the play, nor quote them verbatim. Nor does she physically mimic them.
Her fictionalized, intensely personalized approach has risks. If you walk into “Until the Flood” knowing little to nothing about what happened in Ferguson, and its national wake-up-call impact, the 70-minute piece will not fill in many blanks.
The upside of Orlandersmith’s technique? It potently delivers the raw essence of the composite characters she has juxtaposed. With a shift of voice and posture, a change of outer garments, she exudes the fear and fatalism of black youths who were Brown’s peers. One is Hassan, a free-styling rapper haunted by the specter of police violence.
Another is Paul, a studious high-school senior the police have questioned for carrying around an art book about Leonardo da Vinci. (It’s from the library, but they suspect he stole it.) Paul worries he may not make it out of his housing project alive to study art history at the University of California at Berkeley. (Brown was also set to attend college at the time of his death.)
And we learn from Louisa how the history of segregation in the area, of “restricted” neighborhoods that barred Jews and blacks, leaves a long shadow of bigotry that fair housing laws have not dispelled.
Orlandersmith, who is black, gives voice to white residents of the area and their concerns as well. A by-the-bootstraps landlord, who is fine renting to black tenants, packs a gun in case any of them gets out of line (using the N-word for such people). A retired cop, Rusty, understandably empathizes with Wilson, explaining that the police have to make instant decisions for self-preservation (which was the reason for the shooting, in Wilson’s account) and need to look out for one another like “brothers.”
Saddest perhaps is the lament of Connie, a white schoolteacher who becomes friends with a black woman through their visits to a local wine bar — only to alienate her with an unintentionally insensitive remark about the Brown case. It’s poignant to see how, for all her good intentions, Connie can’t comprehend her America is profoundly different from that of her black friend.
“Until the Flood” (the title comes from the show’s many images of water, and the fluidity of art and history) offers no solutions to heal this rift, no pieties about everyone just getting along. It just pierces through the media noise and fog of assumptions with straight talk from hearts and minds.
Since Brown’s shooting, there have been so many other hotly contested killings of young black men (and women) by the police, including in Seattle. So many unanswered questions, so much grief.
And we are not done with this subject. Far from it. Racial harmony? “Not yet, not yet,” Orlandersmith says in the original poem that ends “Until the Flood” in her own voice. But she offers a glint of hope, trusting in those who are “awake,” with “arms outstretched.”
“But soon,” she implores. “ Very soon.”
“Until the Flood,” by Dael Orlandersmith. Through July 8; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets start at $20; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org.