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Until the Flood
by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Neel Keller
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 14, 2016

Deel Orlandersmith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Just say the word “Ferguson” now and basically anyone in the country, and certainly in St. Louis, will know what you’re talking about. The inciting incident is two years in the past, but the conversation and the challenge continues–not just how do we think, but what are we going to do? Until the Flood at the Rep is playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith’s contribution to the conversation, although it seems to provoke more questions than it asks at times. Still, it’s an intriguing, well-crafted production, with some remarkably powerful moments and some impressively structured writing.

This isn’t really a play. It’s more of a collection of monologues offering different perspectives on the same topic. Orlandersmith, who is not from St. Louis, was commissioned by the Rep to write this piece. It’s the result of a series of interviews she conducted with various people, black and white and of various age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, concerning the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014. Since then there have been more officer-involved shootings and more dialogue and concern about racial bias and profiling in law enforcement, but Until the Flood stays focused on the one incident in Ferguson. Orlandersmith plays all of the characters, and they recount their own life experiences, incidents of racial conflict in their own lives and how those experiences have shaped their own attitudes. We meet a variety of characters, and there’s a voiceover before each monologue that tells us the name of each character, their age and whether they are black or white. Most of the characters are middle-aged or older, with two teenagers being the exception. The perspectives are somewhat limited, but there are still some powerful moments, especially from her younger subjects, Hassan and Paul, 17 year old black young men who live in the neighborhood where Brown was killed, and both recounting their experiences with the understandable emotions of anger and fear, but also some hope for change in the future. Her older subjects are sometimes reflective, such as Edna, a Universalist minister from Tower Grove who hopes to foster unity among people of all viewpoints and backgrounds, and Louisa, an older black woman who remembers the days when Ferguson was a “sundown town” with restrictive laws about when and how black and white residents could interact.  We also get to meet Connie, a 30-something white schoolteacher, who sips wine in a Ferguson wine bar and expresses her genuine regret at the loss of a friendship with a fellow teacher, who is black, as a result of their conversations regarding the shooting; Rusty, a white retired police officer who views all police officers as his “brothers”; and Reuben, an older black barber who reflects on the various conversations he hears in his shop. There’s also Dougray, a 40-ish white man who tells his personal history in a chillingly crafted monologue that gradually reveals that he’s a lot more like the father he claims to hate than he would probably be willing to admit. It’s this monologue that displays the most blatant, overt racism, although I find myself wondering why the more subtle forms, and especially from the more “sophisticated”, upper class circles, were not as clearly addressed, and why Orlandersmith chose to highlight middle-aged and older people more often than younger people.

Still, these are just a few stories, and there isn’t enough room in this context to represent all ages, viewpoints, and walks of life. Orlandersmith plays her characters well, convincingly portraying young and old, black and white, with convincing changes in mannerisms, speech patterns and tone to portray the different people we get to meet in this production. Orlandersmith is a skilled storyteller, and the overall effect of this is as a piece of performance art rather than a cohesive play. The technical setting is convincingly achieved as well, with a simple, well-appointed set by Takeshi Kata that surrounds the stage with a representation of the memorial to Michael Brown that was set up on the street where he was killed. There are excellent, effective projections by Nicholas Hussong and atmospheric lighting by Mary Louise Geiger as well, and effective use of music and sound by sound designer and composer Justin Ellington. The costumes by Kaye Voyce also contribute greatly to the production, aiding in Orlandersmith’s characterizations and transitions between the various characters she portrays.

This production isn’t an attempt to answer all the questions people might have about Ferguson, the Michael Brown shooting, or racial tensions in St. Louis and America. No one play can do that, and an ongoing dialogue is essential, as well as actions in response to that dialogue. Here, at the Rep, what we’ve been shown is something of a conversation starter, or more of a conversation enabler since there’s no real way to avoid these important issues, and they need to be addressed. I’m not entirely sure about the overall effect of this particular piece, particularly considering the limitations of the viewpoints that Orlandersmith chose to portray, although there are certainly some extremely powerful, emotional moments. Until the Flood isn’t a perfect production, but it’s still a compelling one, and one that is sure to help foster important conversations.

Dael Orlandersmith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Until the Flood is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at Webster University until November 6, 2016.

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