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Orlandersmith hoping ‘Until the Flood’ opens the gates on meaningful discourse

Dael Orlandersmith is photographed April 23, 2018, at the Goodman Theatre. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

When Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith enters the room, her unique brand of quick-paced, unfiltered, humorous and painfully honest perspective overtakes any in her sphere.

This playwright/performer’s personality and energy are effervescent.

When she speaks of her most recent journey leading to “Until The Flood,” a one-woman show exploring social unrest sparked by the Aug. 9, 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., what follows is a raw discourse on race.

‘Until the Flood’

When: April 26-May 12

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn


“I’m someone who hangs out with everybody. But having said that, I think within all of us there is a racist. It gets very sticky when one talks about race,” says Orlandersmith, 45.

Her 70-minute tour-de-force play, coming off its Milwaukee Repertory Theater run, following an off-Broadway appearance at New York’s Rattlestick Theater, opens April 26 at the Goodman Theatre. The New York Times called the play “an urgent moral inquest.”

Debuting in St. Louis in October 2016, the play was commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, in an effort to shine a lens on an incident that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, and rocked the nation.

“When approached about writing a piece about Michael Brown, I made it very clear that if you wanted a documentary, I don’t do that. I speak to people, not for them, because I think certain theater is meant to entertain, and others, to set ideas,” Orlandersmith said.

The unrest in Ferguon occurred after the 18-year-old Brown, an African-American suspected in a convenience store robbery, was killed on the street by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Days of protests erupted, met with a militarized law enforcement response that drew national criticism. Prosecutors and the Justice Department eventually concluded the shooting was justified.

Dael Orlandersmith, photographed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, April 23, 2018. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Dael Orlandersmith, photographed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, April 23, 2018. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

“Within three or four days, I interviewed 60 to 80 people in Ferguson and different parts of St. Louis, including Michael Brown Sr. and his current wife. I just sat down and talked to them. I told them, ‘I’m not playing you,’ ” said Orlandersmith, whose raw 2002 play on the topic of colorism, “Yellowman,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Drama Desk Award nominee for outstanding play and outstanding actress.

“In ‘Until The Flood,’ I wrote a play based on composite figures. I play different races, ages and sexes. I wanted to get a sense of not only what race means in Ferguson, but also what race means in America, because this is my story, too, and everybody else’s,” the she said. “We can’t talk about ‘Who’s right or wrong?’ Because there are many truths, as opposed to the one truth.”

Her play has dissected the flashpoint incident through perspectives of black, white, old and young, and was described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a “fast-paced, imaginative” theatrical experience. Orlandersmith “finds common humanity,” said Variety, as her characters come to terms with the complex events which spawned the slogan: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

“I’m hoping to invoke and provoke thought, conversation. I don’t have the right to tell people what to think, because I’m a very flawed individual. How dare I do that? I’m just hoping to plant a seed,” says Orlandersmith, whose previous Goodman collaborations include the 2012 “Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men,” and 2009 “Stoop Stories.”

Dael Orlandersmith in a scene from the January 5, 2018 dress rehearsal for “Until the Flood” at New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. | Robert Altman
Dael Orlandersmith in a scene from the January 5, 2018 dress rehearsal for “Until the Flood” at New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. | Robert Altman

“Until The Flood” heads to Seattle from Chicago, then Portland. Though tackling such a difficult subject matter, it’s been generally well received, said Orlandersmith, whose honors include the 1995 Obie Award for “Beauty’s Daughter,” 1999 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for “The Gimmick,” and a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship, among others.

“The majority of people who see it like it. Of course, there’s always one or two people that don’t, especially when you’re talking about race in certain parts of the world. Some people will take things totally out of pocket,” she said.

“At this point, I don’t have an answer for the race question. You know, I did the interviews in 2016. And just in the past two weeks, there have been the two young men arrested at Starbuck’s in Philadelphia, the young man shot by police in his backyard in Sacramento, and the unarmed man shot on the street by police in Houston. These just keep happening.

“I keep wondering what black boy will get pulled aside or shot next? And it makes this play harder to do,” Orlandersmith said. “There’s a part of me that keeps asking, ‘What in the hell is going on?’ Or as Shakespeare said, ‘What fresh hell is this?’ ‘Until The Flood’ was commissioned as a theater piece that could bring about communities coming together in conversation on these topics.”