Orlandersmith’s play is not verbatim theatre, but it is grounded in interviews with real people who live in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014 a black unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. It comes garlanded with the idea that if we listen and listen hard to what people have to say about their lives, then we will be able to take the temperature of a place and a country far better than government statistics or academic reports can ever do.
Orlandersmith morphs into each character with a shift of her body, the throw of a shawl and a quiet, restrained grace. There is the elderly retired black teacher who recalls the dreaded “sundown law” that meant people of colour could not be in certain towns after dark and who, early in life, discovered that one of the legacies of racism is black self-hatred.
Dael Orlandersmith in Until the Flood. Photo by Alex Brenner.
We hear from the white women baffled by the abrupt termination of a warm friendship with a black peer when she voices the opinion that both Brown and Wilson must have been afraid. They may both have been, but of course only one of them is still alive.
Then there is Paul, the black teenager, who like Brown has college within his grasp, but fears he may not get out of his housing project alive. There is Dougray, who initially wins sympathy as he speaks about his upbringing wins before he reveals himself as a white supremacist who wants to make Ferguson “clean again.” Most entertaining is Reuben, the black barber, who acidly sees off the two liberal university students with their saviour mentality who want to see him as a victim.
This is unshowy theatre, but an anger simmers beneath its beating heart. There is sorrow and grief too, for all the loss and all the young men’s lives wasted. This is Orlandersmith’s own, searing wake-up call.