The first thing audience members need to know before attending Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio is that playwright Dael Orlandersmith is a tour de force writer and performer. (Those of us who saw her in her memoir play Forever on the same stage a couple years ago already know that.)
In Until the Flood, commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Orlandersmith has created a play that explores the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown and the riots that resulted from that horrific event. To do this, she interviewed people in the area, listened to countless stories, and created eight different characters from composites of the people she met.
Her characters range in age from a 17-year-old boy to a very old woman. There’s a slumlord, a policeman, a barber who lives in Ferguson. There’s Edna Lewis, the Unitarian pastor, and Connie Hamm, a high school teacher. Each has their point of view. Together they offer us a perspective of sorts.
Understandably, people were affected in different ways. Says the playwright, “How does one person take in the world? We always see the collective, but the collectives starts with the individual.” Voices are clear and distinct. They paint a picture of how it was and what it’s like now. It’s a picture that won’t be forgotten easily.
Director Neel Keller leads a team that includes Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata, Costume Designer Kaye Voyce, Lighting Designer Mary Louise Geiger, Sound Designer Justin Ellington, Video Designer Nicholas Hussong, Stage Manager Kristen Mun, and Production Assistant Molly Shevaun Reed.
Says Keller of the play’s characters, “…their words underscore a great irony of our social, religious, political, and historical discourse.” Yes, there is more irony than solutions in this moving production. But it gives us new insights into our collective culture as it tries to unravel the bigger problem of racism in America.
Until the Flood runs through April 21 in the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage.
Theatre Reviews inset: Dael Orlandersmith, photo by Chris Bennion.