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Dael Orlandersmith's new solo show offers a multiperspective response to Ferguson
Michael Brown. Ferguson, Missouri. Hands up, don't shoot! Black Lives Matter. Regardless of your political leanings, these words invariably stir up powerful emotions more than three years after Brown's death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. In the immediate aftermath, when Ferguson was roiled with protests that some called riots, the division between black and white Americans seemed wider than ever. But in Dael Orlandersmith's latest solo show, Until the Flood at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, the performer, playwright, and Obie winner portrays a diverse array of characters from the Ferguson area whose commonalities are as striking as their conflicts.
Brown and Wilson actually had similar upbringings. Both were born to teenage mothers and raised in unstable homes, so "they're two sides of the same coin," Orlandersmith says. "They were even born under the same sign." Yet she doesn't depict either of the young men in Until the Flood -- indeed, she doesn't portray any real-life people in the show. Instead, she created composite characters inspired by dozens of interviews she conducted with local residents, both white and black.
"No one knows what really happened between those two," Orlandersmith says about that fateful night on August 9, 2014 when Wilson shot Brown dead. Consequently, the piece isn't about the circumstances surrounding the killing. Instead, she "wanted to get a sense of where people were in that part of the world, racially," Orlandersmith says. "How did this shooting affect them? That was the thing that was compelling."
Despite an increasingly polarized political climate, Orlandersmith refuses to amplify certain voices over others. After all, she isn't a judge, she's a storyteller. "People often want their own sense of justice at the expense of someone else's truth," she says, but that's not something she gives audiences. "You have to approach these characters honestly. You have to love them, you have to respect them."
A tall, commanding, African-American woman with long braids and a nose ring, Orlandersmith was originally an actress by trade. She started writing plays back in the 1990s in order to create roles for herself. But the characters she plays in Until the Flood rarely resemble her. They run the gamut in terms of race, age, and gender.
While audiences will probably find it easier to warm to the studious African-American teen who fears he won't live to go to college rather than the white businessman who teaches his five-year-old son to use the N-word, Orlandersmith isn't interested in making the show easy or comforting. These characters aren't types; they're fully fleshed-out people with faults and virtues. Even if you dislike some of them, they can't be dismissed, ignored, or put into a neat little box. "Just because someone pays for a theatre ticket doesn't mean that you're going to get what you want," she says.
Until the Flood was commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where it premiered in the fall of 2016, as a response to what the staff called "Ferguson fatigue." Unfortunately, the systemic violence that fueled the Michael Brown tragedy shows no signs of abating. "I think last year there were like two more [police] shootings or attacks on black men in St. Louis," Orlandersmith says, and a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article actually puts the number even higher. "It's almost like it's epidemic, isn't it?"
But as she takes this show on the road across the country -- to Milwaukee Rep, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and Seattle's ACT -- she's focused on connection, not division. "I don't speak for people, I speak to them," she says adding that she's been gratified to see such diverse audiences at the Rattlestick run. "People of every race, every gender, all ages -- that's where it's at."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker, and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Dael Orlandersmith in Until the Flood. Photos by Robert Altman.