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Theatre in Review: Until the Flood (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman

In her latest work, Dael Orlandersmith takes a leaf from Anna Deavere Smith's book, channeling a chorus of voices who comment on the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the aftermath of which tore apart the town of Ferguson, Missouri, and helped give birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Orlandersmith, a fine writer and formidable technician as an actress, has created a work that is, in its way, as powerful as anything Smith has ever done. However, where Smith's approach is expansive, providing room for her characters to reveal their quirks and contradictions, Until the Flood is compact and hard-hitting, a stark exploration of the racial and class divides that, at the moment, constitute a gaping wound in our body politic.

None of the characters evoked by Orlandersmith was directly involved in the Brown case -- Brown, a suspect in a convenience store robbery, was killed by a police officer, Darren Wilson, in circumstances that have been sharply debated -- but each of them has something to say -- something cutting, cantankerous, or coolly observed. Louisa Hemphill, a retired schoolteacher with a laser-sharp eye for racism, gives us the lay of the land, recalling how, returning to the area in the 1960s after studying at City College of New York, she was greeted with open hostility by a shop owner who told her, "All the colored folk -- sorry, or should I say black, 'cause all of you are black now -- all the blacks are going to Chicago or New York -- forgetting where they come from. Maybe it's better you leave; that way, you won't be causing any trouble here." Rusty Harden, a retired "pro-white" policeman, describes the fear of being trapped in a crowd of angry blacks, hurling epithets like "honky" or "white trash," adding, "They surround you and dare you to shoot." Hassan, a talented, and lost, 17-year-old street kid, drives with his friends through well-off white neighborhoods, looking at a life he can only imagine. Speaking about his history teacher, a married black man, who offers him some encouragement, he says, "I wanted to cry, wanted to say to him, 'Take me home with you, I want you to be my father'."

The deeper Orlandersmith probes, the more she finds a profound rage on all sides. Connie Hamm, a white high school teacher, relives the death of her friendship with Margaret, a black woman. Commenting that both Brown and Wilson were tragic, Margaret exploded: "That white bastard gunned down a black child and his life is tragic? My God, how I hate liberals." Her tone is echoed by Reuben, a black barber, who is approached by a pair of young female journalism students from Northwestern who chirpily want to expose "the emotional and mental strife that you, Reuben, and all blacks have had to suffer, historically." He responds with a savage take-down of white liberalism, adding, "Black men are not children. I am not a child. I don't need you to defend me. I don't need you to speak for me." The most disturbing portrait is of Dougray Smith, who clawed his way out of an abusive "white trash" family, making money in real estate. His chilling self-possession -- which doesn't entirely mask his issues with masculinity -- drives him to force his five-year-old son to fight back against a group of taunting black kids, one of whom punches him. Instead of protecting the boy, he demands, "You will not act like some queer. You will hit that n-----r back now." In their defensiveness and rote empathy, many of the white characters seem like predictors of the white working-class fury that ushered in the Trump Administration.

Clearly, Orlandersmith is a brilliant listener, getting her subjects to frankly reveal feelings that are rarely, if ever, expressed in public; adding to the impact of each vignette is her skill at transforming herself into each of the speakers at a moment's notice. Some of them are pitiable, others are sympathetic, and still others are monstrous -- but, in giving each of them his or her say, without comment or judgment, she lays bare the festering grievances -- the tangled web of inequality, prejudice, victimization, and free-floating anger -- that lurk underneath the national conversation about race, and which must be addressed if anything like healing is ever to occur.

This brief, fast-moving piece maintains its grip from first to last, thanks to Orlandersmith's riveting work and Neel Keller's tight direction. Takeshi Kata's set design provides an open playing area -- with plenty of room for the compelling sidelight washes by Mary Louise Geiger -- marked by replicas of the tributes (candles, notes, stuffed toys) left for Brown on the street where he was killed. Nicholas Hussong's projections include a number of city scenes, abstracted by layers of color and texture; they are attractive and evocative, yet they don't steal focus. Justin Ellington has provided the plaintive original music in keyboard and bass arrangements, along with a variety of effects, including the far-off rumble of angry crowds.

For much of its running time, Until the Flood seems as despairing as it is arresting, a cauterizing of wounds that is as painful as it is necessary. Orlandersmith does allow some hope at the eleventh hour, however, introducing Edna Lewis, a black Universalist minister who previously lived with a woman and is now married to a white man. "Love cannot be limited" is her mantra, and one feels deeply grateful to meet someone who traverses the rigid lines set by the other characters. She visits the scene of a riot and approaches two young officers, one black and one white, offering them the gift of prayer, a seemingly naïve gesture that has at least one of them choking back tears. "I prayed for both those young men," she says. "Some people got mad. But that's how my God speaks to me. That's how my God speaks to me."

This is the closest that Until the Flood comes to offering a way forward, but it is, at least, some kind of beginning. This is a brave and powerful testament that holds up a devastating mirror to our tribalized society. "Has the wakeup call been answered and deleted?" Orlandersmith asks, speaking for herself. Only time will tell. --David Barbour

(19 January 2018)

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