Theater Review: UNTIL THE FLOOD (Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 1, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


Until the Flood lasts only 70 minutes. But its concentrated running time delivers a devastating drama. A ton of truth-telling now on tour at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, this 2016 one-act is the creation of actor, poet and oral historian Dael Orlandersmith. She becomes the partisans, witnesses, survivors and, above all, inhabitants of a town that epitomizes America’s divides: Ferguson, Missouri.

Based on well-targeted, in-depth interviews with its residents, this piece — commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis — creates a collage and context for a brutal watershed and defining event. The dark matter at its heart is the 2014 execution of 18-year-old Michael Brown, black, unarmed and shot six times (purportedly in a struggle over a gun) for stealing cigars, by 28-year-old white cop Darren Wilson. Nightly riots followed Brown’s death. The national press gave this St. Louis suburb unforgiving scrutiny. Three months after, Wilson quit the force.

Neither in Missouri nor in the painfully similar case of Eric Garner, who died that year in New York of a police choke hold, did a grand jury indict the white cops who killed them. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department cleared Wilson of willfully violating Brown’s civil rights, and concluded that his use of force was defensible. But the report also made a scathing conclusion that the town was characterized by deep-seated racism; Wilson had violated no protocol in his deadly interaction with Brown, yet he was part of a corrupt, white-dominated, antebellum throwback. For decades, Ferguson was a hate-filled hamlet where black citizens were nickel-and-dimed to death by voter suppression, arbitrary fines, inexcusable bonds set for minor offenses, and a diabolically busy school-to-prison pipeline.

As with her Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men (reviewed at The Goodman in Chicago), Orlandersmith’s device is that of the inventor of “documentary theater,” Anna Deavere Smith, whose Notes from the Field (reviewed at the ZACH in Austin) also came from interviews, but that show centered on the possibility of keeping our youth from becoming doomed drop-outs and getting sucked into the pipeline.

But something has changed for Orlandersmith with Flood: her acting is profoundly deeper than in the past, which is mandatory to offer a truer and more compassionate verdict of the Ferguson flash-point. It’s performed on scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s unadorned raised stage surrounded by candles, and other memorabilia honoring Michael Brown (lit beautifully by Mary Louise Geiger). Upstage, Nicholas Hussong’s projections display photos on a sheet not unlike a Klansman’s cloak. In this unsafe zone where fear clashes with broken trust, Orlandersmith transforms herself into a telling cross-section of townsfolk caught in the troubles.

We meet characters whose diversity transcends contradictions: A black teenager more interested in art history than rap and mocked by white cops who assumed he stole a book on Leonardo da Vinci; a barber who resents liberals for reducing African-Americans to “victims” until proven otherwise; a 17-year-old black rapper who’s into his own “flow” and can’t waste time on hate; a white racist, spitting out the “N-word” and sicking his kindly kid on blacks who supposedly disrespected him; a black minister who refuses to discriminate any more than did the Creator; and, at the beginning and end, a black septuagenarian who patiently explains the “sundown laws” that made outsiders illegal after dark and decries the legacy of self-hate that becomes bigotry’s unwitting enforcer.

The quick ending is Orlandersmith’s own contribution; it’s a short poem that deliberately conjoins Missouri’s broken men of either race, rich or poor, loved or not, as simultaneous perpetrators and sufferers. Our sheer humanity, Orlandersmith implies, subsumes the petty differences that mean folks use to false ends. Unfortunately, this emotionless denouement, placed center stage in soft light by director Neel Keller, fails to take our numbness caused by the constant bombardment of bad news and transfer that into an urgent call for action — and it looked like that’s where the show was headed. Besides, hadn’t we already gleaned that from the spectacular monologues?

Still, I bet you will learn something about Ferguson you never knew, and in such a balanced way. These confessions imply but never impose indictments on a town that now has a black police chief and city council members pledged to end racial profiling, police brutality, and debtors’ prisons. Yes, Orlandersmith incarnates both the self-hate and ignorant hate that killed Brown, among many black boys, but she also embodies the bridge-builders who refuse to give Jim Crow a second life.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Until the Flood
Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd in Culver City
ends on February 23, 2020
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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