By Mary Boyle
Dael Orlandersmith is no stranger to hardship. Growing up in Harlem, she escaped the drugs and violence of her neighborhood by reading, writing, and acting; using these arts to tell her story through various plays. In 2002, Orlandersmith wrote Yellowman, a play about a black couple in South Carolina, which ended up being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. After the shooting in Ferguson, Orlandersmith was commissioned to write a play; after all, who knew better than her about the power of theatre to heal? What she created is, perhaps, what live theatre is truly made for: to speak aloud the thoughts and ideas of an entire community; forcing the audience to bear witness to all sides of the story. This is Until the Flood.
Directed by Neel Keller, Until the Flood documents the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014. A recent high school graduate, Brown was leaving a local market with a friend where serveilance footage shows he stole cigarillos. The theft was reported to police, and officer Wilson confronted Brown just 5 minutes later, asking him and his friend to move to the sidewalk from the window of his cruiser. Just a minute later, Officer Wilson fired two shots from inside his cruiser, and Brown ran, but then stopped and moved back towards Officer Wilson. Although Brown was unarmed, Officer Wilson shot Brown, and just 10 minutes after Brown had left the market, he was dead.
The following day, the St. Louis County Police held a press conference and reported that Brown was shot because he reached for an unnamed officer's gun. Demonstrators gathered close to where Brown was shot, and looting, violence, and rioting erupted, with police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. In the following days, as surveillance footage was released and two reporters were arrested, the Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was deployed as the protests continued. After 100 days, with still no word about whether Wilson would be charged in Brown's death, protesters staged a "die in." Finally, on November 25th, the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, which caused another round of rioting across Ferguson.
It's no accident that The Rep's Artistic Director, Mark Clements, brought this play to Milwaukee now. Milwaukee had its own version of Ferguson in April of 2014 when Dontre Hamilton was shot 14 times by Officer Christopher Manney at Red Arrow Park, and again in August of 2016, when Sylville Smith was shot twice in Sherman Park, causing a riot. Until the Flood is part of The Neighborhood Series this season at The Rep: three plays about community that began with One House Over, and will end with Thornton Wilder's classic, Our Town. In conjunction with the series, The Rep will host over 80 engagement events to spark dialogue about the issues facing the Milwaukee community, including Act II Dialoges following every performance of Until the Flood, in which the audience will hear a five-minute response from a community leader, and then join fellow audience members in small group conversations facilitated by the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion.
While Orlandersmith interviewed a wide variety of residents in Ferguson in order to create her play, the various characters she plays, from a middle-aged white woman, to a black teenager, to an elderly black man, are not real people, and their words are not direct quotes, but composites of the people she interviewed. In this way, the play is not truly a documentary, and the artistic license this provides allows Orlandersmith to tell the story in a way that is still truthful, but arranged for maximum impact. The stories of her characters tell "many truths," some of which are difficult to hear, but essential to understanding the full scope of the story, and how we might go about making changes to ensure that the next young black man's story will have a different ending. Powerful and thought-provoking, Until the Flood is truly a conversation every community should have.
Until the Flood runs through April 22nd at the Stiemke Studio, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
The Milwaukee Rep recently announced its 65th Season, which will be the largest season in over a decade, featuring 15 productions across four venues with nearly 700 performances, including expanded programming in the Stiemke Studio. The lineup includes Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical, In the Heights; the World Premier of Mark Twain's River of Song and, back by popular demand, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, at the Stackner Cabaret; August Wilson's Two Trains Running; and, Milwaukee's favorite holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol. Subscription packages are on sale now!
About The Rep
In its 64th Season, Milwaukee Repertory Theater is dedicated to providing the highest level of professional theater to Milwaukee and Wisconsin, in addition to offering a wide range of educational and community programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director, Mark Clements, and Managing Director, Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.