Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Original music by Lindsay Jones
Film by Kathy Wittman
Performed with excellence by Maiesha McQueen
MRT’s Content Alert: Based on real events, Until the Flood includes references to racism, bigotry, prejudice, and off-stage violence. The play contains strong adult content/language, including racial slurs. Recommended for ages 16 and older.
Critique by Kitty Drexel
STREAMING — The US police keep killing Black people. On Wednesday, April 28 a Collin County, Texas medical examiner ruled Marvin Scott III’s death a homicide. That was last night. Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by police on April 22. Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing George Floyd on April 20. Nearly a year after the murder took place. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Aleah Jenkins, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown: I could go on and on. It’s no wonder that human rights lawyers from around the world have called for an investigation of the international criminal court into the systematic murder of Black people in the US.
Until the Flood is a one-woman show about the stories we tell with our lives. On August 9, 2014 Darren Wilson, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to the murder, Dael Orlandersmith interviewed Black and white people, compiled their stories and created this play. We are witness to a spectrum of views. Each monologue takes the viewer closer to Michael Brown and the events that formed the Black Lives Movement.
Orlandersmith is fair to the composite persons she chronicles in Until the Flood. She’s a journalist collecting truth. We can see that she is attempting to withhold judgement on her interviewees. Her script is carefully worded to show us that she is quoting her research. It could not have been easy, knowing what we know about the Michael Brown trial, for her to have done this. This alone is awe-inspiring.
That the truth is different for each person is universally known. Truth is subjective. It does not pass through the human mind without being tainted by our experiences. Orlandersmith’s play can’t promise us objectivity but it can and does offer us a spectrum of perspectives. These eight monologues are as close to the truth as Orlandersmith can bring us. A journalist’s raw, private notes make for terrible theatre without the creative soul to interpret them.
Maiesha McQueen is fair to the people they represent in her telling of these stories. She has every reason to hate some of them. It is clear that McQueen made conscious efforts not to. By focusing on her portrayal, letting the characters tell their stories through her but not by her, she allows us to make up our own minds as to how we feel. McQueen isn’t impartial; she’s methodical.
She plays Rusty, a white, retired policeman, as a rational, concerned citizen. Rusty just so happens to be wholly unaware of his violent racism. Connie Hamm is a Karen. Hassan is a Black teenager with indelicate but understandable rage. This young man is pulsing with hate for the injustice done to Michael Brown, for what could happen to him. Reuben Little refuses to be a victim. McQueen graces them all with respect (some of it undeserved) because maybe, just maybe, if you recognize yourself in these characters, you can change before another Black person dies.
Until the Flood isn’t long. It passes quickly but the last 30 minutes or so seem to drag because the lighting design and the film editing indicate that the movie has ended when it actually hasn’t. The lights dim after the Doug-Ray Smith monologue and each subsequent monologue. In the theater, this indicates a scene change. On film, as supported by McQueen’s performance, it meant that I was waiting for the credits to roll. I was surprised that McQueen had additional monologues.
When McQueen’s performance was over, McQueen wasn’t given the chance to bow. She deserves a damn bow for all her hard work! And because a bow, even in an empty theatre, tells the audience/viewer that the show is over. A prolonged spotlight held over the actor is confusing. Either let McQueen bow or hold the spotlight until there is no question that she doesn’t have more to offer us.
I’ve read arts journalism that compares Dael Orlandersmith to playwright Anna Deavere Smith. This comparison is not incorrect. Those who enjoy ADS will also enjoy Until the Flood. But, because the theatre is… the theatre, one should be careful to recognize that they are excellent writers and performers with unique voices. Their voices matter independently. It’s like how the lives of all Black people matter while they are still alive, not just after the media has propagandized their deaths.
There is a panel with Arts Educators and an Interview with the Playwright following the performance.
Snippets of McQueen’s performance are included in the below video from Theatre Communications Group, “TCG Books presents First Fridays: Until the Flood.” It is an in-depth conversation with playwright Orlandersmith about her play.