I keep a list of names hanging in my room — a hastily ripped-out sheet of yellow legal pad paper on which “Michael Brown,” written in permanent marker, sits at the top. I tacked this sheet to my wall a few years ago after speaking to a friend about the teenager who had been shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer. As we were talking, I realized I couldn’t remember the slain boy’s name. “Not Tamir Rice,” I said. “The other one. Not Philando, not Freddie, not Eric, not Alton. The other one.” I felt ashamed of my carelessness while simultaneously exhausted by the sea of names that spilled from my lips. Now, I keep their names tucked just behind my teeth, because I see them each morning when I wake.
In the one-woman show Until the Flood (at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), it seems that the writer and performer Dael Orlandersmith is doing something similar: Resurrecting the name of Michael Brown so that we do not forget him as we wade through the ever-growing list. The gesture reminds us that racism and injustice and the attacking of Black bodies are deeply rooted in the American fabric; President Trump’s bigotry, seen by some as an unusually emboldened display of public hatred, is simply a harvesting of what the country has sown. Orlandersmith’s piece is an explicit and necessary depiction of this condition, illuminating how racism is not just Black people’s problem — it is an American problem. In 2014, the effects of racism ravaged the streets of Ferguson; today, the same forces spring turmoil elsewhere.
I recently met with Orlandersmith — whose previous works include the semi-autobiographical Forever and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Yellowman — in a coffee shop in the East Village, where she resides. She explained to me her view, based on her own conversations with the Brown family, that Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the officer involved in the Ferguson shooting, are two sides of the same coin: Both young men under thirty; both over two hundred pounds, with towering heights; both born to teenage mothers with vices. Brown’s mom was into drugs; Wilson’s was a drunk and a scammer who ran credit-card and identity-fraud schemes. “One goes straight-edge and becomes a cop, and the other makes reckless decisions out of fear,” Orlandersmith says. “They are both deeply impacted.”
On opening night in mid-January, the theater is filled with mostly white faces, seemingly liberal people and, in some cases, likely owners of pussy hats. The stage design of Until the Flood (by Takeshi Kata) is a replica of the memorial that was erected on Canfield Drive, the very street where Michael Brown lay soaked in his own blood for over four hours in the summer heat. The set is covered with prayer candles, carnations housed in empty Blue Moon bottles, and protest posters declaring recognizable pronouncements from the time (“Hands Up”). The menial pre-performance chatter dispersed throughout the crowd comes to an abrupt end as the show commences with six gun shots — the same number of bullets that Darren Wilson unloaded into Michael Brown, wounds that spanned from the teenager’s thumb to the crown of his head, on August 9, 2014.
Until the Flood, originally produced in 2016 for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, involves eight composite characters created by Orlandersmith; their personalities are based on days of interviews the artist conducted in a Ferguson soul food restaurant less than a year after Brown’s murder, when Ferguson fatigue was at its peak. Of the number, four are Black, four are white; five are men, three are women; ages range from seventeen to seventy-five. Their life experiences clearly run the gamut, and yet Orlandersmith is able to transmit to the audience how similar they are in their fears of erasure and their yearning to simply be seen.
When I ask Orlandersmith why she decided not to include other racial groups, she says that she only encountered Blacks and whites. Ferguson is a town in which the Black population was nonexistent four decades ago, but now makes up 67 percent of the demographic. This transformation of the populace may help explain why Orlandersmith’s most impactful and disturbing character, a gun-toting, camouflage-wearing landlord named Dougray, fantasizes about re-creating the extermination scenes of Schindler’s List — except, instead of eliminating Jews, he wants to line up all the Blacks and shoot them down, with Darren Wilson at his side. This, in Dougray’s estimation, would wipe Ferguson clean:
After all their blood has been spilled/there will be a great storm
A great rain storm making it all clean
Making the town Clean /Making Ferguson clean like it must have been once
Like it must have been once
Will be again
Orlandersmith vanishes into each character just as completely, discarding her raspy Harlem voice and adjusting it to befit all her personalities. In seeming direct contrast to Dougray is Connie, a white academic and liberal who, in her own way, is equally dangerous, presenting herself as an all-knowing “ally” capable of discussing racial politics over a glass of Sangiovese. There is also Hassan, a Black boy aware that he never really gets to be a boy, having learned quite early on from his experiences with whiteness that he’s seen as a threat and his fate is predetermined. Then there is seventy-year-old barber Reuben, who is endlessly infantilized, whether by outright bigots or by liberals that he refers to as “white-green” and “black-green.” Orlandersmith shifts between these characters seamlessly in denim and T-shirt, only adjusting minor accessories. Cotton: the all-American uniform.
Across her work, Orlandersmith exhibits a profound understanding of the complexities of human beings and the ways that trauma is internalized and manifested in daily encounters. “I speak to, not for,” Orlandersmith insists. She creates and performs her characters with a deep compassion that is neither patronizing nor mocking. When Orlandersmith went to Brown’s home and sat across from Mike Brown Sr., the man said that he was mad at Mike — which she knew meant that he was mad at himself. His guilt was palpable.
When I left the theater, I couldn’t stop thinking of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine also went to Ferguson for research after the death of Michael Brown. There, she, too, absorbed and retained the voices of the people. A poet and documentarian, like Orlandersmith, she concluded:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
The first page of Citizen reads: “In memory of John Crawford, In memory of Eric Garner, In memory of Michael Brown.” All Black men, all murdered by police. The list continues to swell with each printing. The act of listing serves as an acknowledgment and a visual mourning that insists the work is not done. Until the Flood is a mourning that contends that death is still among us. Both Hassan and Paul, the young Black males of the play, face this reminder every time they are pulled over by police: They are disposable. There is an urgency being relayed by Orlandersmith in this American drama, one that declares, “We are all responsible.”