Dael Orlandersmith
Photo: Robert Altman

Dael Orlandersmith is bringing to the Milwaukee Rep Until the Flood — her tour-de-force exploration of the 2014 shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. 

As it is usually performed, the 70-minute drama consists of Orlandersmith playing eight roles — male and female, black and white — to examine the killing, its aftermath and how the community began to heal.

The Rep production runs March 18–April 22 on the Stiemke Studio stage. Orlandersmith then goes to Chicago to stage the show April 26–May 13 at the Goodman Theatre, where she serves as artistic associate and artist-in-residence.

The play was commissioned in 2015 by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to aid in the city’s healing process.

“The city was suffering from a thing they called ‘Ferguson fatigue,’” she says. “People began believing that Ferguson was an extremely violent place and they wanted to use theater as a means to discuss the issues.

“They approached me as both an actor and a writer,” Orlandersmith — a Pulitzer Prize nominee for her 2002 play Yellowman — adds. “I never turn down work. That would be a stupid thing to do.”

The playwright spent three days in 2015 interviewing people on both sides of the color and justice line, including Michael Brown’s father. From those interviews, she compiled composite characters who embodied the various points of view.

What she found opened her eyes to the agony of an entire community.

“No one really knows what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in those minutes just before the shooting,” says Orlandersmith, who was born Donna Brown and combined three of her four middle names as her nom de plume. “Ferguson had no blacks or Jews on its police force, and St. Louis was divided into communities designed to maintain a strong racial divide.”

“I talked to a community of people in pain who were grappling with a multitude of issues,” she says. “Where do we stand, how far have we come, and do we ever go back again?”


‘Beautiful and horrific’

The Brown shooting triggered greater public scrutiny of shootings of unarmed black men because the victim was 18 years old, Orlandersmith says. The same can be said of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, she added, who was killed Feb. 26, 2012.

“I was looking into the lives of people who had never lived any other way,” Orlandersmith explains. “Was I a racist? Am I a sexist? These were questions they asked themselves.

“I found it both beautiful and horrific,” she adds. “It’s beautiful when you question yourself because then you’re in touch with the world.”

By the playwright’s estimation, everyone lives by one or more “-isms” — racism, sexism or something else. 

“Through this project I came to be aware of people’s vulnerability and pain,” she says. “We do reach for those quick assessments largely because we’re suffering.”

She suggests the next generation may be better prepared to deal with these issues.

“The younger generation seems more aware of race and gender issues than my generation was,” says Orlandersmith, 58. “Older people tend to get locked in their time and sometimes romanticize that time. Kids are more politically active and aware than they have been in the past.”

Is there hope that the shootings will stop?

Orlandersmith is careful in her response. 

“There’s always hope — there has to be,” she says. “If we don’t have hope then we don’t have anything, and life is truly an abyss.”

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