[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, January 19, 2018.]
A quiet contemplation of America’s newly energized racist past
In her resonant work Forever, first staged at Center Theatre Group in 2014 and then New York Theatre Workshop in spring 2015, playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith includes herself as a character and observer in scenes that visit Paris, childhood abuse and memories of her mother. In Until the Flood, running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through Feb. 18, Orlandersmith applies her well-honed journalist-dramatist skills to uncover dramatic themes and distinct voices from conversations with the people of Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere, after the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014.
Creative intimates from her Forever production join in on this new adventure — Neel Keller (director), Takeshi Kata (sets), Kaye Voyce (costumes), Mary Louise Geiger (lighting). In the earlier piece, the stage and theater walls were covered with family photos and memorabilia. In Until the Flood, the walls are painted black.
The core action of this 80-minute documentary theater work seats Orlandersmith center stage, surrounded by the all-too-familiar sight of citizen tributes and testimonials: stuffed bear toys, lit candles, hand-printed signs. Her movement is minimal, only an occasional removal of a jacket or addition of a layer.
Yet we’re riveted by the rich monologues Orlandersmith culls from her interviews with people of all ages, from teens to their 70s, both Black and white, both from rich suburbs as well as subsidized housing. As in the best documentary theater, she uses people’s own words to paint a world of engaged and emotional citizens, here grappling with the aftermath of a summer afternoon: some white cops, some fear, some guns, another dead, Black teenage boy.
Louisa, a lifelong 70-something Black resident of Ferguson, begins and ends the show. She recalls the days of posted signs warning Black visitors “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” She sets the stage for a socialized legacy of self-hate, of continual reminders to keep your place. Rusty, a white male and retired cop in his 70s, speaks of law enforcement just enforcing the law, of all Black youths filled with rage. “When someone has nothing to lose, you gotta use your gun,” he explains.