Dael Orlandersmith gives powerful voice to Ferguson in ‘Until the Flood’

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Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood,” as performed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, January 2018. | Robert Altman for Rattlestick

Writer and performer Dael Orlandersmith confronts the agonizing distance among perspectives on race in the U.S. in “Until the Flood,” a thoughtful, deeply compassionate one-person show about the death of Michael Brown, a black teen whose shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked days of unrest and exposed the intensely deep racial wounds of a community.

Orlandersmith’s work focuses far more on those wounds than on the incident itself. In many ways, this play isn’t even about Michael Brown, in that it doesn’t portray people who knew him, or try to provide any insights into the factual details of what did or didn’t happen in 2014 after officer Darren Wilson was told to look for a black teen in a t-shirt who had stolen a pack of cigarillos. To a certain extent, the point is that such a journalistic or biographical view of truth misses the bigger picture. Will there be a shift of anybody’s view of race in America or police violence and race, based on a determination of a single, authoritative version of this specific event? Is there such a thing?

‘Until the Flood’ ★★★ When: Through May 12 Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $10-$29 Info: goodmantheatre.org Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission

Instead of witness accounts of the incident or its aftermath, Orlandersmith depicts a set of eight characters – she refers to them in the program as “composites” of people she interviewed in Ferguson — who talk just as much about their own history as about the case itself. She then adds a brief poetic coda at the end in her own voice.

So instead of providing an opinion of what happened, we hear what the incident evokes in people. The core memory of the first character, a black woman in her 70s, involves a time when, exasperated at her father’s patience with black people who “know their place,” she called him a “Tom,” to then promptly be slapped in the face for it by her mother. Orlandersmith makes a key thematic point early: the impact of racism is deep and personal and complicated, specific to each individual, and that the chasms it creates are not just those between people of different races.

From there, Orlandersmith, with a slight change of an outer garment and gentle alterations in her voice and posture rather than immersion into character, portrays characters who include: a retired white cop who can imagine what his police “brother” Wilson must have been thinking (it isn’t pretty); a white teacher who loses her close friend by expressing sympathy for both Brown and Wilson; a white supremacist who describes a moment – a proud one to him – when he passes his hatred onto his young son; and a local barber who resents the outsiders – black and white but all “green” to the realities of Ferguson – who seem to believe they are going to come in, tell the story from their perches of privilege, and “save” the poor black people.

Under Neel Keller’s direction, the pace of the evening – the right, brief length at 70 minutes – feels a bit over-constant, which may simply be a result of Orlandersmith’s conscious refusal to piece together her composite characters’ tales into a narrative with a beginning and end, the more traditional docu-drama approach taken by such works as Tectonic Theatre Company’s “The Laramie Project,” Anna Deavere Smith’s “Crown Heights,” or the late PJ Paparelli’s “The Projects.”

But there is an affecting, overarching tone to “Until the Flood,” a certain remorseful intensity emphasized by Takeshi Kata’s set design — a collection of memorial objects that overflow the stage.

And there are contrasting characters who provide deep insights. Orlandersmith embodies two black teen boys who couldn’t be more different from each other. One is all righteous anger and pictures himself confronting Wilson. The other is a studious kid who experiences a moment of terror when he gets queried by a cop as to whether he stole the art books he’s carrying. For this character, the Michael Brown incident reminds him that the same fate could so easily – way, way too easily – happen to him. To me it was easily the most moving moment, as we feel the burden of that constant fear.

Then again, maybe I’m most moved by it because a kid with art books resonates personally.

In some ways, that’s the point of “Until the Flood.” Each viewer will pick up different cues based on our own histories, even if we all should take home an interest in listening a bit more closely, a distrust of the notion of outsider-as-privileged-understander, and any hope that there can be a truly clarifying epiphany to aid in healing a social injury this ingrained.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.

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