Playwright: Dael Orlandersmith
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $10-$29; Goodmantheatre.org . Runs through: May 12
Roughly midway through her riveting one-woman show Until the Flood, writer/performer Dael Orlandersmith slips into the character of a white woman in a Ferguson, Missouri, wine bar.
The character is talking about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Wilson, a Ferguson cop, gunned down Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014. The murder sparked riots across the country. After Ferguson burned, Orlandersmith interviewed dozens of people about the killing and racism, and the impact of both on their lives.
In the wine bar scene, the white woman earnestly informs her Black friend that she "feels bad for both" Brown and Wilson. To which the friend angrily points out that there can be no comparison between the two. Darren Wilson is alive. Michael Brown is dead. The tragedy of an 18-year-old shot in the back and the cop who lives free after firing the gun are incomparable.
The wine-bar white woman is caught up short. In Orlandersmith's endlessly expressive face, you see the alarm and shock of someone who has just seen their world view shift on its axis.
It's one of roughly eight enthralling and essential scenes in the 70-minute Until the Flood. Based on interviews Orlandersmith conducted with dozens of people about the Ferguson murder, Until the Flood is a vivid collage that has the power to evoke despair and hope and rage in equal measure.
From the white supremacist who has poisons his seven-year-old son against people of color to the neighborhood elders who chillingly recall the era of "sundown laws," the people of The Flood are impossible to forget. Director Neel Keller makes sure that Michael Brown's presence informs all of them. So does Takeshi Sati's seta glowing memorial of balloons, flowers, stuffed animals and candles.
Orlandersmith has long been a maestro of chameleonic shifts. If you've seen her earlier docudrams ( Black and Blue Boys/Broken Men, Stoop Stories ) you know that she creates worlds within worlds with no more than words and a chair. Until the Flood is immensely compelling, but it also has a sense of world-weariness to it. Brown is one among many Black people murdered by white cops. We may never know the precise circumstances, but there's no arguing with the fact that white people usually walk away from these extrajudicial killings. The Black people are forever gone.
The spectrum of charactersmany composites crafted from the interviews Orlandersmit conductedis wide: From a retired Black schoolteacher whose words frame the piece to teenagers who rap about harassment and despair. The latter imagines one of the last things Brown sawan angry white man and the barrel of a gun.
Orlandersmith doesn't make it entirely easy to parse Mike Brown's murder in terms of victims and villains. You may hate the white man who advocates lining up black people and executing them, but he's painted with such nuance that he's impossible to just dismiss as a cartoon cutout. Nothing is excused or forgiven in Until the Flood. But it is all so heartbreakingly recognizable.