In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Dael Orlandersmith stars as several St. Louis natives living in the aftermath of Ferguson in "Until the Flood."

The Rep's "Until the Flood" opens the floodgates on an essential conversation

Some of the floor boards are warped.

On the platform that makes up the majority of the physical set for The Milwaukee Rep's "Until the Flood," the one-woman docudrama by Dael Orlandersmith, some of the boards are crooked. They have been wedged together too tightly for too long, some water has probably gotten into the wood and the pressure has forced them out of their flat plane. Curved, reaching up, they no longer fit into the neat rows where they were laid.

An apt metaphor for the building racial tension in the U.S. that is threatening to burst, these warped boards stick up around the edges of the playing space where Orlandersmith inhabits eight distinctly different characters – men and women, white and black, teenagers and septuagenarians – as she recounts the reactions of individuals in and near Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed black teen Michael Brown was killed by the white police officer Darren Wilson.

Commissioned by the St. Louis Rep to create this series of monologues, Orlandersmith had conversations with a wide spectrum of people who held wildly divergent views about the shooting, and the violence and protests that ensued afterwards. With equal time devoted to each "witness," she does a deep dive with people that the rest of the country might only recognize from sound bites on CNN or our own, deeply rooted assumptions.

The result is a collection of composite characters that Orlandersmith inhabits completely to relay troubling, gut-wrenching, thoughtful and complicated stories about an important moment that became a touchstone for the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the actress seems to be consumed by this cross-section of clashing communities. The thoughts, histories and motivations she uncovers are nuanced and aching, as each person looks for answers and explanations, trying – or in some cases not trying – to bridge a racial chasm that has plagued this country for centuries.

Aided only by a few chairs and some costume pieces such as a St. Louis Cardinals jacket or colorful silk scarf, Orlandersmith deftly uses her physicality, her gait and her stillness to speak volumes about Louisa, the 70-something black retired school teacher who has seen great hatred, change, loss and disappointing stagnation in race relations over her lifetime; Dougray, the self-described product of white trash, abusive, alcoholic parents who brutally teaches his own son about hate and racial violence; Reuben, the elderly black barber who owns his own shop and has no time for young do-gooder journalists who want to tell the story of his victimhood; and Hassan, the enraged, rapping teen whose fury at this latest injustice morphs from youthful bravado to grave threats, to a secret wish that his history teacher could be more than a surrogate father for him.

Through clear changes in vocal tone, accent and cadence, accompanied by a signature gesture and prop, Orlandersmith disappears into people of different ages and races. Her body is much like the uneven blank canvas that serves as a backdrop to the piece, placing each character in the Ferguson landscape through videos that dissolve into blurred watercolors.

In the midst of so much violence, the final, breathtaking image of the play is healing. Candlelight emanates from the makeshift memorials to Michael Brown surrounding the stage. Amidst the flowers, signs, liquor bottles and stuffed animals, the small flames of dozens of candles glow as a tribute and a hope for peace.

As stunning as Oerlandersmith's performance is – and it is – there is much to appreciate in her writing also. Underlying themes recur in unexpected places and common words keep bubbling up to the surface. Hatred and self-hate. Anger and fear. Cycles of violence that begin in childhood and change that takes generations. The struggle for acceptance, for visibility and representation.

The hard work of forgiveness. A lack of trust and a search for understanding. Breakdowns in communication. The presence and absence of god. The fact that "at least with a bigot you know where you stand."

In addition to this powerful piece of theater, which comes in at just over an hour, the Milwaukee Rep is using "Until the Flood" to extend conversations about race by inviting a local community leader to comment on the production for a few minutes just after the applause dies down. Audience members are then also invited to join small conversation circles in the "second act" portion of the evening.

Participation is optional, and even if you do pull up a chair in the lobby, you will not be required to speak. These informal talks are designed to be safe spaced, facilitated by trained leaders from the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion. Although I did not stay for this conversation opening night, I have participated in similar talks after previous shows and found the exercise surprisingly accessible and illuminating.

Whether you stay for the post-show activities or not, "Until the Flood" is the start of an intelligent, emotionally moving and essential conversation we all need to participate in so we can move forward.


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