August 9 will mark the fourth anniversary of the day Darren Wilson—a white Ferguson police officer—killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man. A grand jury decided against indicting Wilson for killing Brown, but Brown's family won a $1.5 million wrongful death suit against the city.
A plaque on the sidewalk near Canfield Drive now celebrates Brown's life, and every year residents of Florissant rebuild a memorial composed of teddy bears, candles, balloons, and cards near the spot where Brown's body lay for four hours following the shooting. One of the memorials burned shortly after it was built in 2014, and some suspected foul play. But with Until the Flood, which runs at ACT through July 8, phenomenal poet and actor Dael Orlandersmith has created a fireproof theatrical memorial to Brown, one that animates the conversations that continue to swirl around his death.
To create this 70-minute solo show, Orlandersmith conducted hours of interviews with 60 to 80 citizens of Ferguson, Missouri. "I let them talk, I let them talk," Orlandersmith said in an interview with Milwaukee Rep.
What emerged from those conversations is this collection of powerful monologues from eight different characters. Some are white, some are black, some are elderly, some are young, some are racist in obvious ways, some are racist in not-so-obvious ways. The playbill tells us the characters are composites, "not actual people," but I grew up in Missouri and spent plenty of time in St. Louis. These characters were real enough to me.
Orlandersmith renders them with nuance and accuracy, assuming bodies as diverse as the hunched-over, worn-down, ultimately fearful composure of a retired white cop, and the proud poise of an elderly black woman who bucked the "sundown laws," which barred black people from walking around the white parts of town after dark. One character, a 17-year-old named Paul, fears his dream to study art history at Berkeley might be cut short by a bullet from a white cop. Another 17-year-old kid, Hassan, an aspiring rapper and theater-maker, gets so frustrated with all the racist bullshit that sometimes he wants to confront the cops and dare them to shoot. Temperamentally, the characters couldn't be farther apart from one another, but Orlandersmith conjures convincing rage as faithfully as she conjures stultifying anxiety. It's amazing to watch her inhabit so many different characters and so many different emotions within such a short and emotionally intense period of time.
All her characters are in pain, and above all Orlandersmith shows how one moment ripples through their lives in profound and unexpected ways. Reactions to the shooting of Michael Brown create friendships but destroy others in this play. They open the eyes of some but close the hearts of others. And so it only makes sense that Orlandersmith would bind these disparate stories together with water metaphors, a recurring language of fluidity that seems to represent the human capacity for creation and destruction. One white character describes his anger as "a great storm" he wants to rain down on the world to wash it "clean, pure, white," for instance, while Paul, the Berkeley-bound teen, describes the life-giving movements of painters as "fluid."
I began to, uh, personally participate in the water metaphor when one of the characters in this show expressed a truth that brought Brown's tragedy back home for me. Hassan, the 17-year-old rapper, said he didn't know Mike Brown but he found himself talking to him every day. Due to the fact that I don't get threatened and harassed every day of my life because of the color of my skin, I couldn't say I have the same relationship with the deceased. But when the character Louisa appeared onstage in her final monologue and mourned the fact that college-bound Brown had nearly escaped, had nearly "gotten past the river" up to Chicago or East to New York like she did for a while, the sadness of Brown's death was refreshed within me.
Lots of people asked about my "life goals" as a kid. I'm sure I told them something, but the only goal I really remember was to leave Missouri. Didn't matter where to, exactly. The idea was to aim for a place where rampant intolerance was thinner on the ground. No shame on the friends and family who remained, but the state of things there make it hard to stay.
Brown's death wouldn't have been any less tragic if he weren't going to college, if he weren't taking a step to get out of Missouri or at least Canfield, but I'd forgotten that he was trying to leave somehow. I remember how much I wanted to know life outside my hometown, and the thought of being struck down because some cop thought I was a "demon" right before I got my change to go is so enraging and unjust I can hardly bear it.
That moment was one of many instances in the show that helped me see Brown's killing in ways I hadn't before. On my way out of the theater, I heard another patron turn to his date and say, "Welp, I've gotta tell everyone I know to come see this." I couldn't agree more.