‘Until the Flood’ revisits the trauma, legacy of racism

March 22, 2018

By Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Playwright and star of “Until the Flood” Dael Orlandersmith.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old high school graduate just days away from starting college, was shot 12 times and killed by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old police officer in Ferguson, MO, a suburb north of St. Louis.

Brown was suspected of committing a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store; Wilson was the officer who answered the radio alert describing the suspect. Brown was African American and unarmed; Wilson was white.

In the aftermath of the shooting, peaceful protests erupted into civil disorder that lasted several days. Surrounding police departments joined forces to maintain order dressed in riot gear and carrying military-grade weapons. The name Ferguson became a buzzword, synonymous with police brutality and racial unrest.

Months later, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis wanted to find a way to engage the community in discussion about what happened with the Michael Brown incident. St. Louis Rep Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon reached out to New York-based playwright Dael Orlandersmith. He invited her to come to St. Louis to entertain the idea of writing a play to address the incident.

The result was Until the Flood, a one-act play based on scores of interviews Orlandersmith conducted with St. Louis-area residents from varying ages and backgrounds. Her interviews resulted in eight composite characters – black and white, young and old, male and female – their varying views on race, and whether it is possible for a community in crisis to heal, move on and grow together.

Orlandersmith plays all the characters, flowing from one to the next by donning a shawl or scarf here, a jacket or baseball cap there. As she crafted the characters and their viewpoints, each had to come to grips with the realization that “we all have a racist living inside of us. Some people don’t want to own that and some flaunt it. Either way, we each have to deal with that truth.”

Louisa, a black retired teacher who grew up in Ferguson, sees a community whose racial divide has only grown wider and deeper over the years, despite apparent legal and social change.

Rusty is a white retired policeman who patrolled Ferguson during the 1960s and ‘70s. He lives in Lemay in South St. Louis County. Although he seems not to see being pro-white as being anti- anyone else, he views the world from the vantage point of ‘us versus them’.

Seventeen-year-old Hassan speaks the language of the street in rap/rhyme that, from personal experience, voices a negative opinion of the police. Behind his gruff façade is a scared young black man wishing for a more stable life and the opportunity to be ‘somebody’.

Connie, a white high school teacher from affluent University City, learns about racism firsthand when she loses a presumed friend Margaret, a black high school teacher who labels Connie a misguided liberal when she calls both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson tragic victims. ‘How is Darren Wilson tragic? My god, how I hate liberals; at least with an out-and-out bigot, I know where the hell I stand!’ Margaret exhorted as she broke off her relationship with Connie.

Reuben is an older black man who owns a barbershop in North City and is acutely aware of the fact that people are always being judged on looks, especially race. His concern is about all people being treated fairly, without bias or preference.

Dougray is a white electrician who lives in Tower Grove South but owns rental property in Ferguson. He proudly proclaims his personal success as the result of his initiative alone. He fails to see that his white skin may have opened doors for him that still remain closed to minorities. His bigotry is palpable and he hopes to pass his beliefs on to his children.

Paul is a 17-year-old black youth from Ferguson who refuses to live in fear – of the police or of the realities of life in a racially divided community. He claims friends of all backgrounds, but he knows the police often see all black youth as all the same and up to no good. He dreams of escaping the tension of St. Louis for college in California…if he can hang on and stay safe for just one more year.

Edna is a 50-ish black woman who is a Universalist minister married to a white male, also a Universalist minister. She has lived in many cities across the country and now calls Tower Grove South home. She practices love and sees God in her own way, as not exclusive but inclusive.

As a production, director Neel Keller allows actress Orlandersmith to join forces with playwright Orlandersmith to present a work that forces the audience to listen to viewpoints that are often conflicted and inflammatory.

Scenic designer Takeshi Kata subscribed to the guideline, ‘less is more’, with minimal set decorations. The most arresting was the sparse stage surrounded by mementos – stuffed animals, homemade signs, balloons, crosses, candles, notes and liquor bottles – recreating the countless, similar impromptu memorials to unnamed victims of unprovoked police action against members of the minority community across America.

Until the Flood was commissioned in an effort to get a community to engage in a dialogue over a tragic event whose roots actually go back to the birth of this nation. The question remain: How do you feel about race? How do our feelings affect our daily lives and the decisions we make? Can we talk…really?

“Until the Flood” runs through April 22 at the Stiemke Studio at the Rep, 108 E. Wells St. Matinee and evening performance are scheduled and tickets are available via e-mail (tickets@ MilwaukeeRep.com); by phone (414/224-9490), or at the box office.