Sunday, January 21, 2018

145 (2017-2018): Review: UNTIL THE FLOOD (seen January 20, 2016)

“Black Life/White Cop”

Award-winning actress/playwright Dael Orlandersmith (Forever) owes a debt of gratitude to Anna Deavere Smith’s playbook in creating her one-woman play, Until the Flood, soon to be joined in repertory at the Rattlestick with another solo show, Draw the Circle. The work was originally commissioned and produced by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2016.

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman.
Smith, of course, is the remarkable actress/writer/activist/social scientist/journalist, who has given us such remarkable solo performances as Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. In such works, Smith interrogates major, racially motivated conflicts by recording interviews with people representing all sides of the issue and then speaking their words in uncanny replications of their tone and manner.

In Until the Flood, Orlandersmith, a robust African-American woman with a high forehead and her hair in red-tinted dreadlocks, represents a small number of people she interviewed in St. Louis in 2015. Her subject is the widely reported killing a year earlier of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.
Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman.
Opening the piece is a prologue sequence playing, as we see the words projected, the actual radio transmission between the Ferguson police dispatcher and Officer Wilson regarding a theft of cigars from a convenience store. Wilson’s search for the suspect, of course, ended tragically with Michael Brown’s death. Like similar cases in the not that distant past, the event inspired local and national protests, gave life to the Black Lives Matter movement, and put the spotlight on many similar cases in which black citizens were harassed, beaten, or shot by policemen, usually white.

Following this setup, Orlandersmith, using only a chair and an occasional prop, and backed by Nicholas Hussong’s projections, portrays a sequence of seven black and white individuals (Fires in the Mirror had 26!) offering, in their own words, their thoughts and feelings about the Brown shooting as well as their own race-related experiences. Regardless of whether her characters stand or sit, Orlandersmith alters her accent and body language accordingly.

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman.
Each person—none of them celebrities—offers a thorough, sometimes eloquent explanation and defense of his or her perspective, their opinions ranging from outraged liberalism to narrow-minded white supremacism. As in Smith’s work, the artist takes no side; no single point of view predominates, not even among the black persons. 

The goal is to demonstrate the multiplicity of positions on the spectrum of racial attitudes and opinions regarding police actions when it comes to dealing with black people. There may be no major surprises but it’s definitely healthy to hear the diversity of views so humanly represented. And Orlandersmith even manages to inject a note of love and hope into the generally angry maelstrom of responses.
Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman.
Straightforwardly directed by Neel Keller, Until the Flood is performed in a neutral setting--dressed with a typical street shrine to the victim--designed by Takeshi Kata, lit by Mary Louise Geiger, augmented by Justin Ellington's effective music and sound, and costumed by Kaye Voyce, who provides simple items of clothing to differentiate one person from the other. 

Orlandersmith’s characterizations are all apt, both vocally and physically; she’s as able to replicate the mannerisms of a black kid with hip-hop moves, speech, and attitude as, for example, a retired black school teacher, a barber with a professorial vocabulary, or a hulking white guy who thinks little of telling his little boy to fight back against a “nigger” child.

Distinct as these people and Orlandersmith’s characterizations are, they rarely have the emotional power that Smith achieved. Smith was extraordinary at capturing not only vocal tones and gestures, but at duplicating stutters, stammers, and other verbal lapses. She also capitalized on reproducing telling minor tics that might otherwise go unnoticed.

After all these years, minor moments in Fires in the Mirror still rush back, like the way Nation of Islam representative Minister Conrad Mohammed, sitting over a cup of coffee, rhythmically flicked his packets of sweetener to settle their contents. Until the Flood never creates the kind of theatrical presence such minute touches brought to Smith’s performances.
Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Robert Altman.
Also, none of Orlandersmith’s interviewees, while all expressive and interesting, are especially memorable, nor are their stories as indelible as those in Smith’s work. The lack of celebrity personages, like Al Sharpton in Fires in the Mirror, is another drawback, since having recognizable speakers would help lighten the overall tone and prevent it from a general sense of anonymity.

Whether or not Dael Orlandersmith continues to develop the piece, audiences will receive a first-rate performance addressing a compelling problem in American society. It doesn’t attempt to offer solutions but if it can keep the conversation going it will have done its job.


Rattlestick Theater
224 Waverly Place, NYC
Through February 18