Arcola Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
When it comes to capturing the soul of a nation, America can certainly field some big hitters. Last year it was the mother of verbatim theatre, Anna Deveare Smith who appeared briefly in London with Notes from the Field, a searing, intense investigation into discrimination seen through the penal and education systems – the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison, excluded from schools and shot by police. This year, it has been the turn of the Harlem-born poet/playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith.
Orlandersmith is not a name you can easily forget, nor, for me, was the impact her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman made on me and British audiences generally 14 years ago.
The return of Orlandersmith, then, has been one rich in anticipation. Until the Flood had already garnered raves during its Edinburgh Fringe run. I sadly only caught up with it at the Arcola late in the day, when it is reaching the end of its run. My wait has not been in vain and I would urge you to see it in the time remaining.
Until the Flood is a further postcard from the edge, and like Notes from the Field, based on verbatim interviews – from Ferguson, Missouri to be precise. There, the shooting on 9 August 2014 of a young African-American, Michael Brown by white policeman, Darren Wilson split open the uneasy co-habitation that had existed between black and white.
It is, once again, a searing indictment of the legacy of slavery, the repercussions of which continue to spread like tentacles into the American – and British for that matter – body politic.
And, like Deveare Smith, despite the anger, bitterness, and injustice Until the Flood’s characters demonstrate, Orlandersmith yet finds compassion enough to deal with African-American black or white with extraordinary fairness and balance.
For her white racist, for example, one Dougray Smith, she explores a personality steeped in individualist ‘making it on his own’, one coming from an abusive, alcoholic background who has done well for himself in real estate but who nonetheless ultimately comes to express the poisonous ideology of ‘racial purity’.
And there is understanding too, for a white teacher who has lost a friend, a fellow teacher, by expressing concern for both men – both the young teenager and the policeman.
What comes through from both these encounters is the pain and waste and an attempt to understand what childhood experience might have shaped those two men, Michael and Darren, on that fateful day.
There is, for example, a telling portrait from a retired policeman, Rusty Harden who describes the complex split-second psychology behind an officer carrying a gun and the one facing him: `that is the look on their faces…Not caring about living. Not CARING…it’s like THEY WANT to die…’
Reuben Little, a 60 year old barber from North City – the areas in Ferguson seem to be deeply segregated – meanwhile takes to task a couple of well-meaning young women journalists, one black, one white, who see things only in clear-cut terms of African-Americans as `victims’.
Reuben is having none of it. His `lecture’ to them is an eloquent rebuttal of pre-conceptions and the lumping together of one group of people into a single box. `I don’t need you to DEFEND ME. I don’t need you to SPEAK for me. Strong blood flows in my veins. I want MY FAIR due.’
© Alex Brenner, Dael Orlandersmith, an iconic performer…
As a performer, Orlandersmith cuts a dazzlingly impressive figure. Tall and commanding, she nonetheless appears to shrivel into the hunched shoulders of Louisa, the older woman recalling her political awakening, her critical response to what she comes to see as her father’s `passive’ racism and his seemingly all too willing acceptance of his `place’.
In another moment, she transforms herself into the rapping teenager, Hassan Black, furious with frustrated anger and the role society is forcing upon him of impoverished black street kid.
By contrast, there is Paul Thompson, yet another black teenager, but a young man breaking the stereotype, with a penchant for reading especially about the history of Art. In his confrontation by a white policeman, he realises that in a split second, should he wish to do so, he could be shot dead.
What all three characters show us that they share is the urge to `get out’, in Louisa’s words, `to cross the river’.
She grieves for Michael: `You could have gotten out, Michael. Crossed the Mississippi River. Gone. Up to. Chicago. Gone. East. Maybe New York…’ caught in that moment of confrontation. And she grieves even for Darren Wilson: `why did you have to SHOOT TO KILL’.
© Alex Brenner, the anger is sometimes hard to bear…Dael Orlandersmith as young black street teenager, Hassan Black…
Though Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood in Neel Keller’s measured, haunting production with its video clips and candle and teddy-bear `memorial’ never crudely alludes to it, racism and slavery lie at the root of it all. Louisa probably comes nearest to pinpointing it in her use of the word `legacy’.
There is the universalist, bi-sexual preacher, Edna giving us an example of all-redeeming, unconditional love. But the final words, spoken by Orlandersmith, as poet, indicate a reckoning that must come, `SOON, VERY SOON.’
A great memorial, an unforgettable, nuanced testimony, we have to pay attention Until the Flood tells us. Listen, feel, and learn. Do see.
Until the Flood
Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith
Director: Neel Keller
Designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Video Designer: Nicholas Hussong
Production Co-Ordinator: Geoff Hense
Stage Manager: Kenzie Murray
First perf of Until the Flood at Arcola Theatre, London, Sept 4, 2019.
Runs to Sept 28, 2019.
European premiere: Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 1-25, 2019
First performed in 2016 at the Repertory Theatre, St Louis, USA
Review published on this site, Sept 22, 2019
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