Orlandersmith Finds Documentary Theater in Ferguson, MO

A quiet contemplation of America’s newly energized racist past

Dael Orlandersmith in Until the Flood. Photos: Robert Altman.

In her resonant work Foreverfirst 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.

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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.

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Orlandersmith as Paul.

A pair of Black 17-year-olds offer different combinations of hope and anger. Hassan is poetic, curious, angry. In his monologue, the presence of Orlandersmith as his interviewer is pronounced to make a point: Hassan is so young that he talks about a future he only just learned about as she interviewed him. (He’s never been to a play; maybe he’ll write one or two.) Paul is another student navigating the charged waters of need, racism and anger. He grew up in the same community as Brown, and he’s trying to chart a different path while living in a world that sees all Black men as threats and pariahs. On his daily walk by the Michael Brown shrine, he feels deeply that it could have easily been him shot in the street, which reinforces his resolve to leave. “I got one more year to get out,” this high school junior intones. “Just one more year, please God let me get out, just let me get out.”

Orlandersmith as Dougray.

Two white 30-somethings bring forth their own distinct perspectives. Connie is a liberal school teacher, living in the area near Washington University. She is troubled but not shocked by the loss of a Black colleague based on their takes on the Brown killing. Dougray is a working-class success story — landowner, electrician, college educated — who describes family violence and putting himself through college. Gradually, after charming us, he shares his racist and dismissive attitudes toward his neighbors and the tenants of his houses. He dreams of purifying the town, of shooting non-white residents. He terrifies:

After all their blood has been spilled, there will be a great storm, a great rain making it all clean, making the town clean, making Ferguson clean like it must have been once.

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One of the strongest monologues Orlandersmith delivers is by Reuben, a Black man in his 60s who owns a barber shop in the northern part of Ferguson. In what could be the framework for a full-length play, he describes a visit to his barbershop by two inexperienced college students (“the green Black girl and the green white girl”) seeking the community’s response to Brown’s shooting, but lacking the experience or wisdom to see what stood before them. “White do-gooders come under the guise of liberalism trying to help me because they felt I couldn’t possibly stand on my own two feet,” Reuben tells us. “Black men are not children, I am not a child, I don’t need you to defend me, I don’t need you to speak for me.”

By design, Until the Flood doesn’t speak for its characters, but Orlandersmith’s performance does give them a platform; there’s a quiet contemplation of America’s newly energized racist past, and there’s carefully parsed, expertly poetic language. The end result is potent and devastating, leaving us in a circle of love and wonder as it tears at our American soul. There is hope. There is damage. There is so much work for us to do.