In 2014, unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown was shot at least six times by a white police officer. His body remained on the street for four hours in Ferguson, Missouri, outside of St. Louis. The Black Lives Matter movement protested his murder and the institutionalized racism that kills people of color at disproportionate rates.
In 2016, St. Louis Repertory commissioned seasoned solo performer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith to parse the community’s response. She brings the Chicago premiere of Until the Flood to the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, where she’s an artistic associate, for a limited run through May 12, before the production moves to Seattle.
In the 70-minute one-hander, she’s surrounded by the ubiquitous ephemera of a street tragedy, makeshift memorial items like teddy bears and flowers. She moves among three chairs as she plays eight characters, sharing stories from real Ferguson residents she interviewed about the killing. We see their actual faces at the end, projected on an upstage scrim in a set design by Takeshi Kata, accompanied by Justin Ellington’s haunting score.
This play is evocative of 2000’s The Laramie Project, which explored the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, but here there’s only one actor to portray the spectrum of viewpoints. A single delivery provides continuity among characters, but also lends sameness to each person. Orlandersmith is a commanding presence and connects with the audience, but more differentiation, besides adding a shawl or a broom, would strengthen the disparate narratives.
The Louisa character, a septuagenarian African-American woman, bookends the piece and notes that racism’s legacy is to cause self-hate. She also echoes the protest signs from that time: “Mike Brown is Our Son.” Retired white cop Rusty is a typical “Missourah” man who focuses on Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old officer who shot Brown.
Hassan is one of two Black teen characters, who talks posthumously to “MikeMike” (Brown’s nickname), repeating the youthful lament “you feel me?” and echoing the water themes in the play and its title.
There’s the 30-something white teacher at the wine bar, fracturing her relationship with a Black counterpart in discussions about the murder. Bisexual Universalist minister Edna prays for the police. Black barber Reuben doesn’t want to be saved by the Northwestern University students who arrive to mete out social justice. He says that one student was Black, one was white, but both of them were green. “Don’t infantilize us,” he adds.
Dougray is a white man, the Trump base-type who continues to worry the country today. He’s an electrician and property owner from, by his own admission, poor, uneducated, addicted stock. He moved from West Virginia to make a better life for his family, but passes his racism to his kids. This character and Paul, the second Black teenager, are the most poignant and well-drawn.
Paul lives in Canfield Apartments, the same complex as Brown, which “looks and feels like a prison.” He’s getting ready to go off to college, and begs, “Let me get out. Don’t let that happen to me.”
Orlandersmith ends as herself, delivering a poem about boys and their fraught opportunities. Her riveting, point-blank reflection sparks introspection as Black men continue to be marginalized and murdered.
Orlandersmith’s work foments cultural education, empathy and conversation. To complement her explorations, also watch the 2017 documentary Whose Streets? (available on DVD and streaming) to hear more perspectives from Ferguson residents and activists.
Until the Flood runs through May 12 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are available at 312-443-3800, in the quite affordable $10-$29 range.