‘Until the Flood’ Invites a Reckoning — Will We Heed It?

Until the Flood, Dael Orlandersmith’s interview-based solo show about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, gets a multi-actor staging at Harlequin Productions in Olympia. It runs through December 4. 

 

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time.

— “Mary Don’t You Weep”

 

In 1963, James Baldwin began The Fire Next Time — the book’s title referring to the above line from a Negro spiritual — with a letter to his nephew, advising him about the state of the country and its insistence (both systemic and personal) against Black excellence. “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. … You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.”

Baldwin goes on to predict that White people will accuse him of exaggeration rather than grapple with their history; and are even less likely to take action to change anything. The reason? A monumental, foundational one — losing that privilege means losing what it means to be White. “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”

Some 50 years later, a Midwest town is on fire because the nation still had not parted with the sins of its past. As the whole country was glued to their TV screens that August of 2014, everyone seemed to have an opinion about Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. And not too long after that, Dael Orlandersmith was in that town, conducting interviews that would eventually form the characters of her 2016 play, Until the Flood.

Commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the play debuted as a solo show with Orlandersmith herself playing each of the eight characters — from a White retired cop to a Black teenage art history enthusiast. Though it’s presented in a documentary style, as with most plays the characters on stage are not real people — rather, they’re composite characters Orlandersmith formed based on her many interviews. It was that version, with Orlandersmith as the sole cast member, that I saw back in 2018 when it played at ACT Theatre. (A version of the solo show is available for streaming, here.) 

The version that Harlequin Productions opened this weekend in Olympia is a much different show. Here, a full cast plays the different characters, with their stories delivered one at a time in a simulated interview setting, via monologue to the camera (sometimes seated, sometimes wandering around as if aware of their audience). In this staging, the characters are clear-cut, their visual differences offering clear distinctions.

Credit director Faith Bennett Russell’s vision that the characters’ fundamental divisions are both noticeable and nuanced. What I liked most about this staging — not present in the solo show — were the subtle ways the characters interacted with the space (how comfortably they approached it, how confidently they moved about in it), and the ways they acknowledged (or didn’t acknowledge) the other characters in brief moments of passing.

(L to R) Nikki Visel, Michelle Blackmon*, Kristen Natalia, Vincent Orduña, Brandon JonesMooney, and Gerald B. Browning in ‘Until the Flood’. Photo by Shanna Paxton Photography.

All three of the White characters appear confident entering and taking up the space, comfortable that their stories belong there. One is a flaming racist (played gamely by Gerald B. Browning) who seems a little too comfortable with himself; but when juxtaposed with two more toned-down versions (Browning again as a retired cop, and Nikki Visel as a too-familiar annoying moderate-liberal White woman), what emerges are three different outputs of a shared fear: that all this race stuff will upend their identities.

Among the play’s Black characters, several are parsing out their own identities. It’s nice to see Michelle Blackmon in a meaty role, and she does well as a retired teacher trying to reconcile her parents’ apolitical strength (toeing the line to get the best for their family) with her own desire for more. Two teenagers (both played by Brandon JonesMooney) want to push back against the police targeting them, but they also want to live. A matter-of-fact barber (Vincent Orduña) resists attempts to cast Black people as presumptive victims in need of saving. And a Unitarian minister (Kristen Natalia) bucks familial expectations around race and gender as she embraces a more inclusive vision of deity and humanity alike.

Baldwin’s letter sounds prophetic as Orlandersmith’s characters burn with passion to leave the housing complex that’s built like a prison; observe how quickly police officers presume guilt, and where the smallest infractions (real or imagined) are escalated quickly to lethal force; and clash over whether the law is unjust or the lawless deserved what came to them.

Until the Flood‘s script cleverly weaves thematic flood-like references — “flow” as rap verses, progress, or menstruation; purification (nostalgia for a “pure” White town). But I can’t help but suspect the title is a reminder of what awaits a people who have been too unrepentant, too long.

So here we are, seven years after Ferguson. A country that spent last year reckoning with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor during a pandemic-fueled slowdown now finds itself striving back toward normal. What will we have learned when we emerge?

Until the Flood doesn’t try to prescribe answers, but it does provide insight from places we’ve been before.


Until the Flood runs through 12/4 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $35, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: two pay-what-you-choose performances (11/17 and 11/28), available two hours before showtime (info here); half-price rush tickets available to all for all shows, 30 minutes before showtime, if any unsold seats remain (info here); industry and other discounts (info here).

COVID info: All attendees must be vaccinated, and provide proof with photo ID at the door; see policies here. Masks are required at all times, and no food or drinks in the theatre. **Note: This was my first foray back into live indoor theatre. I sat off to the side, away from most people, and felt comfortable in this arrangement.  

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.