Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old teenager, was fatally shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on 9th August 2014. Eyewitness accounts of the event were conflicting.
Orlandersmith’s absorbing one-woman show is based on interviews from locals from the St Louis area conducted after the shooting. And while none of Dael Orlandersmith’s interviewees in Until The Flood are direct witnesses to the shooting, they are witnesses of a sort. Pieced together, and all performed by the utterly compelling Orlandersmith, their testimonies document the racial and socio-economic complexities and hierarchies of the Ferguson area. Commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St Louis in 2016, Until The Flood continues to bear witness to the tense and fraught hotbed that led to Michael Brown being killed.
This is a show so deeply entrenched and aware of its local community. The suburbs and smaller cities of the Great St Louis Metropolitan Area are mapped precisely by the speakers, with place names evoking more than mere geography. For Until The Flood’s original audience in St Louis, this was given knowledge. But while Orlandersmith does a good job of giving some background of each neighbourhood for the non-Missouri-native, some intricacies and nuances are likely lost in touring the piece.
What’s obvious is racism is a lived experience of every single person Orlandersmith interviews, whether they are victims of it or are active racists themselves. From all of the speakers, and from Orlandersmith herself, there’s an emphasis on background: what colour you are, where you’re from, who you are, what neighbourhood you live in. Before each testimony, a projected slide (somewhat hampered by the bare bricks of the Arcola) gives the name of the person, and a voiceover mentions the rough age and race of the interviewee. These are markers that – to a certain extent – define or at least locate experience. No testimony or belief exists without context.
Those markers are often complex. Orlandersmith chooses knotty, often difficult, and compelling source material. Performing in front of a shrine of candles, teddy bears, heartfelt signs, and pictures of Michael Brown, Orlandersmith shifts from character to character so effortlessly it’s unsettling. These characters are portrayed by minimal but quite evocative costuming from Kaye Voyce. As Connie, a white 35-year-old teacher who frequents the wine bar in Ferguson, Orlandersmith holds a wine glass and wears a large silver ring. Or leaning on a broomstick, Orlandersmith is Reuben Little, a black man in his late 50s/early 60s who owns a barbershop. He is incensed by two young women (one black and one white) wanting to interview him, who come from what he calls the ‘smooth life’. He refuses their portrayal of him as a victim, rightfully dismissing the perpetuated myth that ‘black poor folks are intellectually inferior’. At the same time, Reuben is pretty sexist towards these women. Orlandersmith lets it all show, withholding judgment of her interviewees, embracing and vividly portraying their contradictions.
No account is given special status, except perhaps that of Louisa Hemphill, a black woman in her sixties and a retired English teacher, which bookends the piece. But each is given its own time and its own weight. This allowance is at times hard to take. Dougray Smith, a white West Virginia native who fled from an abusive home, tells a stomach-churning tale of how he indoctrinates his own son to hate his black classmates. As he imagines shooting a line of black people, his zeal is suffocating and chilling. It takes all of the air out of the room. However hard it is to hear, Orlandersmith gives it its own space. She lets us see where this type of white supremacy originates, and what it sounds like when it’s left unchallenged.
While withholding judgment, Orlandersmith intentionally stitches together testimonies to form a greater narrative. Paul, a black highschool student hoping to attend Berkeley in California, grew up on the same housing project as Michael Brown and knew Mike-Mike. Orlandersmith sits backwards on a chair timidly, facing the audience with fear while Paul explains: ‘That could’ve been me’. At the end of his speech he shouts ‘Please God get me outta here’, and Orlandersmith moves to Edna, a late 50s/early 60s black minister with a church in Tower Grove South. Her faith is unshakeable, even when her relationship with another woman estranges her from her devout parents. Orlandersmith then transitions back to Louisa. She broods on Michael Brown’s death: ‘I have been questioning my faith’.
With an epilogue, Orlandersmith confirms that Until The Flood also has a context. She provides her own testimony, a performed poem that emphasises the damages of racism on everyone and the ways in which violence is a result of toxic masculinity. It’s the right way to end the piece, admitting that in amassing this material and enacting it again and again through performance, she too is a witness.
Until the Flood is on at the Arcola Theatre until 28th September. More info here.