Dael Orlandersmith's one-woman show "Until the Flood" is set in and around Ferguson, Missouri. It's 2014, immediately after Michael Brown was shot 6 times by a police officer. Ferguson erupted in protest.
The following year, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Ms. Orlandersmith to write and perform a solo show to give voice to the city's racial divide. "Until the Flood" is based on interviews she did across Ferguson and St. Louis and boiled down to 8 poetic composite characters. We hear from black residents who are scared and angry. We hear from white residents who are angry and scared. Remarkably, Ms. Orlandersmith gives voice to it all.
The form, and maybe even the content, is familiar but essential. Through these eight characters and a final poetic coda of her own, Ms. Orlandersmith is giving voice to the deep historic racism that fuels these tragedies. Her portraits are empathetic and unflinching. We hear from a black barber shop owner who carefully dissects and dismisses two college girls (one white, one black) from up North who want to see him as a victim - he won't be infantilized by these ill-informed saviors. We hear about a friendship between two teachers (one black, one white) that ended when the white woman lamented the impact all of this was having on the white police officer, Darren Wilson.
We hear a heartbreaking plea from a black 17 year-old boy with a passion for Art History - who realizes he could be Michael Brown and he still has one more year in public housing, one more year to get out, to stay alive.
Tragically, the performance at the core of "Until the Flood" feels as vital and necessary today as it must have in St. Louis in 2016. This is a story that still needs to be told; this is a tragedy that keeps repeating itself. But "Until the Flood" sits differently in Los Angeles now than it did four years ago nearly 2000 miles to the east.
You can feel parts of the production that were built for a different time and served a different purpose.
Ms. Orlandersmith's monologues are separated by little video interludes and a composed score. Where her performance has a stripped down, bare stage aesthetic - just a performer and the words - the surrounding production elements have a gauzy feel that almost dissipates the heat generated by each monologue (like lifting a lid off a pot before it boils over).
I can only imagine that in 2016 when the play opened at the St. Louis Rep a mere 14 miles south of Ferguson - this release of pressure was essential and as necessary as the anger and fear Ms. Orlandersmith captured. The audience likely needed these interludes to process and to hear. I wonder if we need them in 2020? I know we need Ms. Orlandersmith's performance but in the 4 years since she first brought this show to life, I wonder if we've seen enough to do without the distraction. I wonder if as an audience, as a country, we can hear what Ms. Orlandersmith's characters are trying to tell us?
You need to - we all do.
"Until the Flood" plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through February 23rd.