Off-Broadway Review: “Until the Flood”

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic / Outer Critics Circle

“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” – Matthew 34:28-29

“Soon and very soon,/We are going to see the King. No more crying there,/We are going to see the King. No more dying there,/We are going to see the King.” - Andrae' Crouch

Humankind’s pan-cultural flood (or deluge) myth motifs – including the Genesis flood narrative (Noah), the Mesopotamian flood stories (Gilgamesh), and the Sumerian flood myth – all reinforce humanity’s penchant for hubris and willingness to continue to “miss the mark.”

Evidence of the results of the correlative “Fall” myth motif is the contemporary chorus of continued denials of systemic racism in America – and indeed amidst the resurgence of white separatist ideologies. In “After the Flood,” currently running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Dale Orlandersmith allows the events of Ferguson specifically to speak for themselves through the eyes of nine fictional characters she created from her interviews with residents if St. Louis in 2015.

These believable and authentic characters – five white and four black – all portrayed by Ms. Orlandersmith in powerful performances, share their “spin” on the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. In the poet/playwright’s narratives, she succeeds in presenting a deep and rich exploration of the vicissitudes of racism: this exploration uncovers an underbelly of “conventional” racist views in addition to a complex matrix of conflicting and “unconventional” aspects of racism. The strength of the piece lies in this honesty and authenticity. Just when an audience member thinks she or he has identified what racism is, Ms. Orlandersmith presents another side – sometimes an unexpected one – of the insidious scourge.

Seventy-year-old black retired teacher Louisa Hemphill, through the lens of Ferguson and her own family experience – has confronted racism from without and from within her own family. After attending City College and becoming involved in student protest movements, Louisa returns home to a surprising encounter with her parents. Seventy-five-year-old white retired police officer Rusty White makes it clear in a none too subtle racist rant that sometimes cops need to use their guns, “goin’ with the tide, goin’ with the flow.” Two young black high school students – Hassan a seventeen-year-old “street kid” and Paul a seventeen-year-old high school student – share their fear and mistrust of the police. Hassan longs for a safe place to live and Paul, when he passes the shrine dedicated to Michael Brown, thinks “it could be me.” Both boys are trapped in a matrix of fear, defeat, and mistrust.

The narratives need to be seen and heard – to reveal the remaining stories would detract from their persuasive rhetoric. Ms. Olandersmith employs riveting rhetorical devices to bring her characters to life and share their cathartic confessions.

With the addition of a scarf or a sweatshirt, Ms. Orlandersmith creates nine distinctive characters with subtle vocal inflections and brilliantly crafted expressions and body movements. The changes occur as the actor moves deliberately from one part of the stage to another, perhaps taking the chair with her or remaining in the same stage location. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata, costume designer Kaye Voyce, and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger create a space and time and mood that counterpoints precisely the content of each narrative. Neel Keller’s direction is unobtrusive and gently allows the poet to work her magic.

Like the words of most (if not all) traditional and contemporary “spiritual” hymns, phrases like “Soon and very soon,/We are going to see the King” are not references to some heavenly rest; rather they continue to be clarion calls for justice and powerful strains of resistance. Ms. Orlandersmith’s enduring question remains: has America heard the wakeup call – or has it been answered and deleted.

 

UNTIL THE FLOOD

“Until the Flood” features set design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, sound design by Justin Ellington, and projection design by Nick Hussong. Production photos by Robert Altman.

“Until the Flood” runs at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place) through Sunday February 18, 2018 in repertory with “Draw the Circle” written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.rattlestick.org/. Running time is 1 hour and 10 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Credit: Robert Altman.