Story: Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith was commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to write a play about St. Louis following the fatal shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown Jr., by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson in August 2014, and the resulting events that occurred in the St. Louis suburb in the late summer and autumn of that year.
The shooting put national and international spotlights on the local region and began movements that have grown nationally since the Ferguson event, as well as reactions to similar shootings in numerous cities around the country. Orlandersmith spent a week in the St. Louis area doing research for her one-woman play, interviewing dozens of residents in Ferguson, Crestwood, Tower Grove Park, University City and elsewhere.
The playwright crafted a one-act drama that focuses on eight composite characters from the St. Louis region, examining the issues of race and social unrest from a variety of perspectives.
Highlights: Orlandersmith’s drama is a riveting, thought-provoking production in this world premiere performance by The Rep, first presented last spring as a reading in The Rep’s Ignite! festival of original plays under Rep associate artistic director Seth Gordon.
Even-keeled and balanced in its approach to the nation’s festering problem of race relations that goes back 400 years, Until the Flood is certain to generate conversations about who we’ve been, who we are and who we will become in this unique Heartland city.
Other Info: To keep the focus on the words, scenic designer Takeshi Kata offers a set simple in appearance but profound in scope. Three different areas of the stage are adorned with pieces of furniture, including a chair, lamp and side table at one end, a barber chair at another and a single wooden chair in the middle, that establish backgrounds for various characters brought to life by Orlandersmith.
The stage also is surrounded by candles and other objects reminiscent of the make-shift memorial to Brown in Ferguson, all beautifully illuminated by Mary Louise Geiger at a particularly poignant moment in the show. Each of the characters features subtle changes in the costumes designed by Kaye Voyce that bring telling little elements to their personalities by the clothes they wear.
Nicholas Hussong’s projections add an element of reality with photos of real people or a silhouetted view of the Arch, while Justin Ellington’s sound design and composition is an affecting combination of jazz-infused rhythms and an appropriate tune from the canon of The Rolling Stones.
Orlandersmith moves back and forth between both black and white characters of various ages to accentuate her message, presented in an old-fashioned, neutral, journalistic tone that pre-dates the lack of civility in this era of rude and crude social media. An elderly barber in North St. Louis, e.g., sets a pair of young women reporters, “one black, one white and both green,” back on their heels when he repudiates their theory that he is a victim of society.
A young black student expresses his hope to get through his senior year of high school to better himself with college, while a middle-age white man from a harsh, rural background talks about how he has become a successful, self-made man, albeit one who unknowingly reveals how his father’s ugly, bigoted nature has been passed down to the next generation.
Orlandersmith’s characters are largely optimistic and positive, although often certainly not blind to injustices that can prevail around them. She’s very adept at utilizing different dialects and intonations in delineating her various roles. She also benefits from the sagacious direction of Neel Keller that allows space between each vignette to generate reflection and rumination in the audience.
If Until the Flood eventually is performed elsewhere, the playwright will need to fine-tune her work to make it more accessible in cities that may not realize the demographics of locales such as Crestwood, North St. Louis or University City, something innately understood here. A little refinement in Hussong’s background projections could adequately address that challenge.
Certainly, Until the Flood will have its detractors, people who say it goes too far or doesn’t go far enough in assigning roles of villains and victims. What Orlandersmith has achieved, though, is bringing a community’s raw emotions from the streets onto the stage in thoughtful and reflective fashion.
Play: Until the Flood
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through November 6
Tickets: $18-$81.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak