Dael Orlandersmith performs 'Until the Flood' at Festival Hall during Spoleto Festival USA | Photo courtesy the artist

“Black male, white T-shirt,” says the 911 call at the beginning of the show.

A policeman asks if the dispatcher has any additional information. She does not. 

The audience hears gunshots and sees images of a crime scene projected on the curtain that serves as a backdrop. 

And we learn: On Aug. 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

In the one-woman documentary theater play Until the Flood, which plays through June 6 at Festival Hall, Dael Orlandersmith brings to life the thoughts, prejudices and fears of seven different Ferguson residents in the wake of Brown’s death. Until the Flood draws the audience in quickly and never lets go, paving the way for difficult and important conversations long after the show is over.

Orlandersmith and director Neel Keller have toured the show across the country and even to Berlin since its premiere in 2016, and it shows. Until the Flood has no technical mistakes as it conjures memories of Michael Brown but also victims George Floyd and North Charleston’s Walter Scott and too many others. 

Orlandersmith seamlessly switches from character to character, each one more compelling than the last. First comes Louisa Hemphill, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s. Hemphill offers her opinion about the shooting but also provides valuable context to the relationship between the police and Black boys in America. 

The character is like one’s favorite aunt, maternal and caring but also hilariously witty. The audience might well assume that we will hear from Orlandersmith herself, who spent a week conducting interviews in Ferguson a year after Brown’s shooting. But Orlandersmith has many more characters and many different possibilities in store. 

Suddenly the lights change and everyone’s favorite aunt is gone. In her place is Rusty Harden, a white retired policeman. Orlandersmith seems to have a lot of fun playing white men with strong opinions about police and race — her voice grows husky, she moves differently, she even stands differently.

Even though Harden says incredibly problematic things, from his use of the n-word to his belief that the police have the right to use their guns any time they feel uncomfortable and threatened, he isn’t that bad compared with the other white male Orlandersmith embodies shortly thereafter. 

Dougray Smith is an electrician in his late 30s or early 40s with a young son and a love of Ernest Hemingway. The character is also deeply racist as well as homophobic. When a couple of Black kids surrounded his son after Brown’s shooting and the youngest boy in the group hit him, Smith told his son to strike back. 

“Jesse, go over there and beat him,” Smith tells his son. “That boy that hit you, those evil people are [n-word], now go and hit him back now.”

Until the Flood never makes fun of anyone — Orlandersmith never milks a behavior for laughs or uses body language to indicate what she thinks of the characters or their opinions. The words these men and women say already expose them. These characters tell the audience who they are.  

Set designer Takeshi Kata surrounds the set on three sides with the sorts of memorial objects you might spot at a roadside memorial; beyond that, Orlandersmith casts her spell with little more than a few chairs, a broom (for a barber named Reuben) and a wine glass (for a Karen named Connie). These simple items, along with a few costume accessories, serve her well as she switches characters before briefly taking on the role of narrator at the very end, dressed as herself.  

But the two characters who have the greatest impact are a pair of Black 17-year-olds, Hassan and Paul. Paul is preparing to go to college, just as Michael Brown had been, while Hassan is described as a “street kid.” Regardless of their differences, both live in fear.

“Please God, let me get out, let me just get out,” Paul implores. “Please God, don’t let that happen to me.”

Nothing in Until the Flood hits harder than seeing these two young men praying for their lives. Praying that the list of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Walter Scott and George Floyd doesn’t include Hassan and Paul. 

Gabriel Veiga is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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