‘Until the Flood” review

Theatre, Fringe
4 out of 5 stars
Until the Flood, Traverse, Arcola, 2019
© Alex Brenner

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Poet, performer and playwright Dael Orlandersmith takes a powerful look at a divided America


This review is from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2019.

US poet and performer Dael Orlandersmith’s quasi docu-play ‘Until the Flood’ is a quietly devastating examination of the fallout from the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man whose fatal shooting by a 28-year-old white police officer triggered the Ferguson riots in 2014.

If you’re expecting a furious polemic – well, this isn’t it. Drawing upon interviews she conducted personally, Orlandersmith has crafted eight diverse characters, usually with an oblique connection or unexpected take on Brown. 

It begins with Alice, an elderly black woman, recounting her haunting childhood memories of ‘sundown towns’, where black people were only tolerated until nightfall. It moves on via a bright young black man whose main dream is to make it to adulthood alive; a white liberal teacher who can’t understand why her sympathy for the cop has cost her a friend; a retired white policeman who tries to make the officer’s case; a grotesque white racist; a wryly capitalist black barber. It’s not a work of verbatim theatre, but the effortless naturalism of her performance makes it feel like one – it feels intensely credible.

The picture Orlandersmith paints isn’t of an isolated eruption following a single tragic incident, but something much more ominous – a society riven by deep, perhaps insurmountable cracks. Here, white characters fundamentally misunderstand or fail to empathise with black characters, frightened by them, or mistrustful of their efforts to change the status quo. Few of them are actively bad people, but none of the white characters seem to really grasp how differently society works for their black peers, and none seem to have any sort of meaningful comprehension of the history of race in America.

It is fascinating, moving, and maybe just a touch dry in its presentation. Orlandersmith and director Neel Keller save the very best stuff for the end – a brief, beautiful poem and a hitherto muted set that lights up in memorial to Brown. Whether or not there is any hope, it is a salve to see that beauty can arise from such tragedy.


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