It’s a powerfully well-balanced examination of race relations in the United States with hopeless conclusions. Everyone’s outlook is based on such firmly entrenched views that resolution seems impossible. “Race affects everything,” “A legacy of self-hate” and “The police looking like a hungry dog” are some of the fierce observations.
Framed by the testimony of a wise African-American former school teacher in her 70’s, a gallery of other people is represented. These include an initially sympathetic retired white policeman who is revealed to be intractably authoritarian and two 17-year- old male African American high school students, one fiery and one bookish, who have each had clashes with police. There’s a pragmatic entrepreneurial African American barber. Most chilling is a white electrician and property owner in his 40’s who admirably overcame a horrendous and dysfunctional upbringing but whose sensibility is in the realm of white supremacism. He grew up reading Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald yet refers to Al Sharpton as an ape.
Ms. Orlandersmith skillfully organizes the material into short monologues that are revelatory, insightful and often tinged with humor. Visually striking with her animated facial features and flowing dreadlocks, Orlandersmith subtly yet forcefully offers a series of rich characterizations. Varying her vocal inflections and altering her physiognomy she conveys the essence of each individual. It’s a riveting performance of range and depth.
Costume designer Kaye Voyce’s perfect selections include a colorful scarf, a sweatshirt and a military fatigue jacket that enable Orlandersmith to seamlessly transform from one character to the next.
With creative simplicity director Neel Keller’s staging adds vigor and scope to the production. Orlandersmith is center stage in a chair and settles into differing positions on the small playing area with precision. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata has it strewn with beer bottles, protest signs, candles and stuffed animals that connote a lugubrious landscape.
Mary Louise Geiger’s stark lighting and varying design is a steady visual accompaniment. Sound designer Justin Ellington’s atmospheric effects, bold original incidental music and clips of pop tunes are all well-modulated. Grainy color images of the locales and of the area’s inhabitants are the features of Nick Hussong’s moody projection design.
On August 9, 2014, 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson shot 12 times and killed 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was a suspect in a convenience store robbery. This event incited peaceful and violent protests that led to a nightly curfew. Subsequently, a grand jury did not indict Wilson and a year later the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of civil rights violations.
Was is a case of police brutality or a justifiable action? This play doesn’t try to answer that question, it dramatizes the racial divide over it.
Presenting the forthright views of everyday people combined with Dael Orlandersmith’s earthy majesty, Until the Flood is theatrical, gripping and pessimistic.
Until the Flood (through February 18, 2018)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.rattlestick.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission