The Ghosts of Michael Brown, in ‘Until the Flood’

Posted January 18, 2018 11:51 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — With so many details of his death in doubt, we may never really know what happened to Michael Brown and why. Incontestably, the 18-year-old was unarmed when a police officer fired 12 shots at him on Canfield Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, two days before he was to enroll in a technical college. The officer, Darren Wilson, was white. Brown, it almost goes without saying, was black.

What the younger man had done earlier that evening, or not done; what racist thoughts Wilson harbored, or didn’t; whether Brown was surrendering, with his arms up, or threatening Wilson through the patrol car’s window: The answers to all these questions seem irretrievably lost in a cloud of contention. What we can say is that one man, having avoided indictment, is free three years later and the other is still dead.

Neither that conclusion nor the uncertainty of what came before it releases us, though, from the burden of trying to understand the meaning of the killing, and in that sense Dael Orlandersmith does a great public service in her new play “Until the Flood,” which opened on Thursday at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Portraying only eight people — nine if you include her own alter ego — she nevertheless brings the questions, the pain and even the unspeakable thoughts of hundreds, if not millions, to life. “Until the Flood” is an urgent moral inquest.

Its technique will be familiar to those who have followed the genre of quasi-documentary, monologue-based theater, particularly as honed by Anna Deavere Smith and, in some of her earlier plays, Orlandersmith herself. To research “Until the Flood,” whose title ties together the many images of flow and overflow in the script, she conducted a series of interviews in and around Ferguson. (The play was commissioned by the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, some 15 miles away.) From the interviews she fashioned the local characters — black, white, male, female, young, old — she inhabits here.

In their ticktock alternation, they could easily have seemed predictable. Rusty, a white retired Ferguson police officer predisposed to justify Wilson’s use of his gun, is immediately followed by Hassan, a 17-year-old black “street kid” who freestyles his fury about the daily harassment the police inflict on people like him:

He looked back at me

his finger on the trigger


Like a dog mutt

Just like a hungry dog mutt

I bet Mike Brown saw that too.

Then we move on to Connie, a well-meaning white teacher in a wine bar. Connie can’t understand why her feelings about the case — she describes it as a tragedy for both Brown and Wilson — have alienated a black friend.

But Orlandersmith digs deep enough into each character, and with such decency, that no segment seems obligatory. Even the worst human among them — a vile racist (and homophobe) called Dougray — is allowed his backstory, which helps explain, if in no way excuse, him.

Still, Dougray, who fantasizes about lining up Ferguson’s black males and gunning them down in order to make the town “clean/white/purified/like it must have been once,” threw me out of the play for a moment. Orlandersmith is so skilled at disappearing into her characters that I had forgotten until then what her process involved. Theoretically, this was a man she had interviewed, stood near, faced. The psychological violence of that encounter seemed almost like a replay of the literal violence it was meant to investigate.

Later, I learned that many of the characters Orlandersmith portrays are fictional composites. I’m not sure whether that makes Dougray more bearable, or less: The idea that there are many Dougrays available for compositing seems terrible, if all too believable. Still, I think that if the play informed audiences about Orlandersmith’s methods, it might help them better understand her aims. Some of her earlier works, like the autobiographical “Forever,” are clearly factual, however poetically the facts are rendered. Others, like the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Yellowman,” are clearly fiction.

Or perhaps “Until the Flood” is more effective for leaving you uncertain about which genre it falls into. The production, directed by Neel Keller, carefully splits the difference between documentary objectivity and poetic license. On a set (by Takeshi Kata) replicating the impromptu memorial of candles and stuffed animals that lined Canfield Avenue in the weeks after Brown’s death, Orlandersmith moves from character to character with minimal fuss, adding or subtracting a simple costume piece (by Kaye Voyce) but otherwise not attempting anything but verbal verisimilitude. Moody projections (by Nicholas Hussong) establish the locations, just as the lovely interstitial music by Justin Ellington establishes the elegiac tone.

Despite this evenhanded treatment, I found myself crediting the black characters more than the white ones. No doubt this was in part because white racism, however outright or covert, is a familiar gargoyle, stuck with its one leer. Orlandersmith’s black characters are much more nuanced, and able to explore themes that, coming from whites, would seem taboo.

One of those is raised right from the start by a black retired schoolteacher named Louisa Hemphill. Acknowledging the damage done by racism — she grew up heeding signs that said “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town” if you’re black — she nevertheless concludes that Brown was not only set up to be a victim but also “set himself up.”

Several other characters echo this thought. Hassan, describing the routine threat of death from police violence, says there is a part of him that “wants to stand before a gun” knowing that the “redneck” holding it “would aim to shoot and not miss.” And when Paul, a 17-year-old who lives, as Brown did, in the “defeated” Canfield Green apartments, cries, “Please God let me get out,” he means get out alive.

Those are two of the saddest lines you are likely to hear from a stage today, and therefore two of the most important. Composite or not, they ring damningly true.

Production Notes:

‘Until the Flood’

Through Feb. 18 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; 212-627-2556, rattlestick.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

By Dael Orlandersmith; directed by Neel Keller; sets by Takeshi Kata; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Mary Louise Geiger; sound and music by Justin Ellington; projections by Nicholas Hussong; production manager, Ana Mari de Quesada; production stage manager, Laura Wilson; deck stage manager, Debora Porazzi. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Cast: Dael Orlandersmith.