2020 is certainly going to be a year that we will remember and mostly not for good reasons. Quite apart from the horror show that Covid has provided it’s the year when, finally, Brexit and the Donald got done and the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained worldwide traction following the death of George Floyd. The event that actually sparked that particular flame, however, was back in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Another similar incident (unfortunately not the only example) which sits between these two is that of Michael Brown an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a young white police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. It is this incident that forms the background to Until The Flood written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith.
The piece is a near relative of verbatim theatre; it is based on interviews carried out by the author/actor in St Louis following the incident. The play doesn’t so such examine the story itself as the effects of the shooting and the underlying racial tension on a local community trying to come to terms with what has happened. Performed as a series of monologues in a sparse setting it is hauntingly effective. Orlandersmith gives a series of nine linked and carefully orchestrated speeches in which she morphs from young to old, from male to female and from black to white.
One moment she is a 35-year-old white teacher trying to understand both sides of the argument; then, suddenly, she is a black barber in his late 60s explaining why poverty is not the same as ignorance. She also plays a couple of disaffected teenagers, a minister trying to make sense of it all and a retired police officer seeking to justify what has happened. In perhaps the most telling episode she is Dougray, a white electrician in his 30s/40s who tells us of the abuse he suffered as a child and how that has led him to take a particular and unfortunate view of the world. And then there’s Louisa, a retired teacher who bookends the sequence and who seems to provide a summary of the townspeople’s collective experience.
Orlandersmith’s grasp of characterisation is extraordinary and her delivery assured and powerful. She accomplishes all the changes by a simple swop of one item of clothing for another and a subtle alteration in her physicality. We never doubt for a moment that she is the characters she claims to be. And she presents them for our consideration not approbation or condemnation. They are testifiers to their own characters, and it is left to the audience to judge the merits of what each has to say. What is certain is that all of the witnesses speak their own truths. At the end the actor becomes herself reciting a poem which removes all the previous subtle artifice, and we are left to reflect on the situation and its ramifications and resolve to try and live better lives ourselves.
The piece is simply staged with evocative use of lighting and videos between the sections showing photographs of the real participants in the drama. There is a one line introduction to each character; these social markers are a convenient labelling device for society but time and again the actor suggests that the individuals are so much more than the summary that precedes them. At one side sits an unreferenced but constant shared reminder of the tragedy in the shape of the victim’s roadside shrine – other than that the setting is suitably sparse as emotions are laid bare.
This is an undoubtedly powerful piece which I had the privilege of seeing at the Arcola back in 2019 when theatres were still allowed to operate and nobody had heard or experienced the ravages of Covid 19. Watching it again brought back powerful memories of the shared experience which we can only hope will return soon. In the meantime, try to catch this video version as it will undoubtedly invite you to reflect on another significant aspect of this annus horribilis.