Dael Orlandersmith most likely didn’t set out to do it, but she has written one scary play if you were a white person sitting at The Rep opening night when her “Until The Flood” opened in the Stiemke Studio.
Her one-woman play grasps the a four-year old tale of small Missouri town by the neck and shakes it until the fallout drapes like a shroud of memory.
Who doesn’t remember the town where an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The exact facts of the encounter will forever remain clouded by uncertainty and unreliability of information. What we know for sure is that Wilson fired his gun eight times, Brown ended up dead in the middle of the street.
The shooting sparked protests the following day, days and days of protests that streamed into the living rooms of America. Violence, anger, looting fires, hand -eldrocks and bottles and thrown at police who took on the spectre of an occupying army. It was an unruly and frightening and reignited a national debate a quarter century after the beating by Los Angeles police of a black man Rodney King, made us begin to talk and think about how cops treated black men,
Playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a play about that incident using dialogue actually gleaned word for word from interviews with Angelinos, both white and black. David Cecsarini directed a searing and incandescent production of “Twilight: Los Angeles” two years ago.
“Until the Flood” is no less incandescent and may well be even more searing.
Ms. Orlandersmith, who plays eight different characters, created composite characters, ranging from two 17-year old black boys to a 75-year old white retired cop.
There are no subtleties in this play, as quiet as it is. It hits you smack in the forehead, right from the get-go.
It opens with a 71-year old retired teacher named Louis Hemphill. She recounts some of the moments in here life when she came face-to-face with bigotry. And she explains the sundown laws in Ferguson.
“Those laws,” she says, “said that if you were a Jew or black you couldn’t be out after sundown. It was ‘Don’t let the sun go down on you nigger.’”
Ms. Orlandersmith, along with her long-time collaborator, director Neel Keller, keep the pressure on for just over an hour. One after another, the people of Ferguson take the stage with just a minor costume or prop switch.
From Louisa we move to Rusty, the retired cop who has justified the shooting, based on his experience. “When someone has nothing to lose, you’ve gotta use your gun,” he says.
And then comes Hassan, the 17-year old who is “fly” and “flows”through his street life. He tells the tale of being pulled over when the driver of the car he was in was going just a “little bit fast.” They were confronted by police.
“This motherfucker was hungry to shoot a nigger,” he said, sounding sad, angry and scared, all at once.
The genius and importance of this play sneaks up on you. At the start it seems almost polemic. But in truth it’s full of insight. Some of the racial stereotypes are striking, but there is some truth in why a stereotype becomes a stereotype.
There is wisdom as well, some we can all use. The wisdom of the barber, who is the subject of interviews by a couple of “green girls” from Northwestern who want to write a story exposing the exploitation of the black men.
“I own this shop,” says Reuben Little. “I own this building. I know you want us to be victims. But I’m no victim.”
There is also one of the most frightening moments you’ll ever see on a stage, when white electrician Doug Smith shows up.
He explains his background in a drunken and abusive family, and how he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He’s a success, in his mind, with a wife, a house, and two boys, 4 and 5.
He is full of rage for the “niggers” and the “black bastards” and the “apes” and even “kikes.” He tells the story when he and his youngest son were coming out of a store, and the boy was pushed by a black youth.
He orders his son to go “hit that nigger back.” But the boy, shaking, tells his dad, “I don’t even know what a nigger is.”
Paul, a high school junior who lives in the same project as Michael Brown (“it looks like a prison) and who is going to college to study art history, talks eloquently of his struggle to resist the temptations and pressures of life on the streets of Ferguson.
“Please God,” he says. “Let me get out.”
He means physically, emotionally and, most of all, still alive.
PRODUCTION CREDITS: Director, Neel Keller; Scenic Designer, Takeshi Kata; Costume Designer, Kay Voyce; Lighting Designer, Mary Louise-Geiger; Sound Design/Original Music, Justin Ellington; Video/Projection Designer, Nicholas Hussong; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.
Second Act: “Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.”
That’s the mission statement of The Rep, and this play fits into it like magic. The Rep takes this whole thing of helping a larger community very seriously.
They hold an Act II small group discussion session after the performance, designed to continue conversations stimulated by the play. It’s an admirable attempt.
However, most these discussion and research projects, like the city’s “Blueprint for Peace,” never get to the individuals responsible for the violence in our community. Until that happens, all the discussion groups and blueprints are likely doomed to have little impact.