Photo by Nicholas Hussong

Earlier this spring, Dael Orlandersmith was in Berlin performing her one-woman documentary theater show Until the Flood, which she wrote in the aftermath of the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the eight characters she plays, who are amalgamations of locals Orlandersmith spoke to in St. Louis, Missouri, mentions Schindler’s List and Nazi concentration camp commander Amon Göth. In that moment, Orlandersmith could feel a new chord being struck. On a Zoom call in late April, she described one particular audience member’s reaction, imitating the woman’s sharp intake of breath, her eyes wide like saucers. 

“I was just watching her face at one point,” said Orlandersmith.

Neel Keller, who has worked with Orlandersmith for nearly 30 years and is currently directing Until the Flood (as he has every time she has performed the piece), also described the singular atmosphere of that theater. 

“Suddenly, the spotlight was shining very brightly on historical events in Germany,” he said. “And you realize that much of this piece, what the piece is reckoning with at a fundamental level, is close to universal, and that everywhere we go, there are moments in the play where people tap into the whole underlying, very sad state of the play, and this idea of racism that they can connect to in their culture.”

Until the Flood was initially commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2015 to recount the reverberations throughout the community after police officer Darren Wilson shot Black teenager Michael Brown. Steven Woolf, the artistic director of the theater at the time, approached Orlandersmith about creating a piece that would spark conversations and hopefully bring people together. 

Set designer Takeshi Kata, who has worked with Orlandersmith throughout the production, shares that vision.

“We were hoping that this project would be somewhere where the healing can begin,” he said. “It felt like this was maybe a ritualistic space where people can come together, hear all the different points of view and start a conversation so that it can start to heal.”

St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in America. Sliced up into dozens of microtowns — some with populations of less than one hundred people — division is inherently designed into the city’s geography. When Orlandersmith and Keller were there working on the play in the run-up to the 2016 election, they described a palpable patina of polarization. One block of lawns featured Hillary Clinton signs, while across the street was a thicket of Donald Trump signs.

In order to create the characters and write the play, Orlandersmith spent several days interviewing locals. Her main question centered on how the shooting affected each of them personally. 

“I made it very clear that I am not playing [them], I just wanted to get a sense of the terrain,” she said. “And I let them talk.” 

Most of the people she spoke to did not have a direct relationship to the shooting; the one exception was Michael Brown Sr. 

“To this day,” Orlandersmith said, “I’ve never seen such contained, quiet rage and pain in my life.” 

She said she encountered a variety of reactions among the locals she interviewed — some responded with surprise and disconcertment, while others conveyed weary resignation.

“There were people who said, ‘I thought I got over this,’ ” said Orlandersmith. “What they meant was, ‘I thought I was quote-unquote no longer racist. I didn’t think I thought this way.’ Whereas we do, whether we care to admit it or not.”

She added, “For certain people, or certain people of color, they said it was no shock to them. Some of them said that. ‘It’s the same old, same old.’ ”

The play has now been performed about a dozen times, in some of the most segregated cities in America. Keller noted that because police shootings happen so frequently, it’s not uncommon for them to perform the piece in close proximity to the site of one. 

The set designer Kata uses language that evokes the supernatural when describing the experience of the play. 

Of Orlandersmith’s performance, he said, “It’s so in her body, the characters, and it just feels so magical. It’s almost as though she’s conjuring these people instead of performing them.”

Orlandersmith keeps returning to the woman’s face in Berlin, and how this play summons uncomfortable truths about our histories.

“It’s almost as if they think, ‘We’re beyond that,’ ” said Orlandersmith. “And then within that moment, looking in her eyes, it’s like, ‘No, you’re not beyond it. It’s alive and powerful and still here.’ ” 

Keller is aware too, that the history of racial violence will be close at hand in Charleston, a town that saw the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church and shaped by hundreds of years of slavery. 

“No matter where that theater is, in downtown Charleston, you’re only a couple blocks away from what was a slave market,” he said. “We went to the Capitol Building in St. Louis, where the Dred Scott decision was first decided, and the steps of that building was a slave market. So the history of America is never far from the theater.”

For Keller and Orlandersmith, the trip to Charleston has an added dimension. Both of their families lived in South Carolina for many generations, and Orlandersmith will be visiting her mother’s grave for the first time in 30 years. 

“I think the ghosts will be more present for both of us than they ever have been when we do this piece,” Keller said. 

Until the Flood runs June 3 through June 6 at Festival Hall. For times and tickets, visit spoletousa.org.

Ellen E. Mintzer is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.


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