Review: A Raw and Unsettling “Until the Flood” at Kirk Douglas Theater

Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood." Photo: Robert Altman

Pulitzer Prize finalist and celebrated performer Dael Orlandersmith (Forever, Lady In Denmark), a robust African-American woman with a high forehead and her hair in red-tinted dreadlocks, brings to life a small number characters based on several people she interviewed in and around Ferguson, MO in 2015. Her subject is the widely reported killing, a year earlier, of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer, Darren Wilson.

Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood.” Photo: Robert Altman

Although Brown was hit by six bullets, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the shooting was justified self-defense. The event ignited social unrest and also propelled forward the activist movement known as “Black Lives Matter.” Representing all sides of the issue, Orlandersmith portrays several of the many faces found within that community, giving each a chance to take center stage and craft a stunning 70-minute, one-woman show that must be seen. The personas she assumes include a variety of citizens in and around Ferguson — African-American, White, young, old, angry, caring, frightened, sad, resigned — and she transforms seamlessly from one to another with chamelonesque talent.

More than a play about race and racism, this is also about individual potential and personal accountability. Orlandersmith isn’t interested in dramatizing simplistic good-versus-evil scenarios, but in building a sobering, brick-by-brick portrait of a society still dealing with racism in all its ugly forms. An example of this chilling racism is depicted through a white property owner, Dougray Smith who spits out the N-word and recalls an incident in which he forced his young son to viciously retaliate against a group of black teenagers who supposedly disrespected him.

Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood.” Photo: Robert Altman

We meet characters whose diversity transcends contradictions: A black teenager more interested in art history than rap and harassed by white cops for supposedly stealing a book on Leonardo da Vinci, a barber who resents liberals for reducing all African-Americans to “victims” until proven otherwise, a 17-year-old black rapper who is into his own “flow” and can’t waste time on hate, a black minister who refuses to discriminate any more than did the Creator; and, at the beginning and end of the play, a black woman in her seventies who patiently explains the “sundown laws” that made outsiders illegal after dark and decries the legacy of self-hate that becomes bigotry’s silent enforcer: “knowing your place”.

When, in the show’s final minutes, Orlandersmith finally speaks in her own voice to articulate her own sorrowful, yet hopeful perspective, the effect is reminiscent of a prayer, a poetic plea for understanding and peace that needs to be heard all across the land. Certainly, Until the Flood will have its detractors, people who say it goes too far or doesn’t go far enough in assigning roles of villains and victims. But no one can deny that what the playwright has achieved here is bringing a community’s raw emotions from the streets onto the stage in thoughtful and reflective fashion. Nicholas Hussong’s projections add an element of raw realism with photos and names of real Ferguson residents. And director Neel Keller (Quack, Office Hour) gives a thought-provoking glimpse into the  human stain of racism that we can only hope will someday be washed away by a big flood.

— Victor Riobo

Until the Flood plays through February 23rd at CTGLA Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tickets HERE.