In August 2014, an 18-year-old African-American man named Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri, by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson. The aftermath of this shooting saw an eruption of protests, national conversations about race and the police, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith conducted interviews with residents of Ferguson, St. Louis and other areas in order to better understand and give voice to the community in which Brown lived and was surrounded by. These interviews gave birth to "Until the Flood," a one-woman show in which an actress (originally Orlandersmith herself) takes on eight individual characters, each of whom is a composite based on those interviews. In Theatre en Bloc’s regional premiere of the work, playing at the Vortex, Florinda Bryant shows the depth of her talents as an actress in portraying these unique perspectives on Ferguson and the events surrounding Brown’s death.
Director Jenny Lavery knows that this production is entirely dominated by its powerhouse performer and complex, emotional text, and thus she keeps the focus squarely on Bryant, who spends the majority of the play on a giant altar/memorial to Brown (designed by Blake Addyson and gorgeously lit by Rachel Atkinson). With just a bare minimum of costume changes designed by Jenny Hanna-Chambers — a hat here, a scarf there — Bryant transforms herself from retired police officer to high school student to Universalist minister and more.
In these short monologues, Orlandersmith explores a variety of vital issues for our time, focusing especially on how racial dynamics are shaped by class and the unconscious ways that liberal, “do-gooder” white people can become guilty of racist tropes. The text (and Bryant’s performance) approaches even some of the racist characters with sympathy, which in the case of one character becomes a bit of a narrative trap, leading us through the awful, hateful thoughts of a Nazi sympathizer. This moment shows the true depths of Bryant’s skill as she convincingly gives voice to such an explicit monster without resorting to parody or direct judgement.
Despite its surface-level simplicity, "Until the Flood" is one of the most complex new works to grace the stage. While Orlandersmith’s text raises innumerable crucial questions about our relationships to race, power, and state violence, Bryant’s performance gives those questions the emotional pathos necessary to truly make those questions personal. It is an important production that is not to be missed.