In Until the Flood, Goodman Artistic Associate and Alice Center Resident Artist Dael Orlandersmith explores the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. Drawing from her extensive interviews with Ferguson residents, Orlandersmith crafts an extraordinary theatrical experience in which she embodies eight residents of the town as they try to come to terms with the complex events that shook the nation. Below, Orlandersmith recalls her artistic process for bringing the voices of Ferguson to life on stage.
This article was originally published by Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Associate Director of Education Sarah Brandt for Until the Flood’s 2016 world premiere in St. Louis.
Sarah Brandt: Why did you want to write this play?
Dael Orlandersmith: Well, actually, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis first came to me [about writing the piece]. I said yes because I think it’s important. I want to tell a story. I want to go beyond what’s right, who’s right, who’s wrong. How does this shooting affect people? In terms of race, how far have we come? Those are the questions that have come to mind. What does it invoke, provoke in you? What kind of thought?
SB: What sort of preparation did you do?
DO: [Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director] Seth Gordon and I met with Michael Brown, Sr. and a few other people, a lot of political activists and people who are just generally in town. I wanted to look at that because, you know, race is obviously a very… it’s high voltage. It’s a high voltage situation. I wanted to see exactly how far we’ve come, which is interesting to me, in terms of, say, from the 1940s on. And also, what does it mean to the individual? What does race mean to an individual? How does it affect individuals, and how far has St. Louis come? What does it mean to be a part of this? And then again, for me as a New Yorker. I find that a lot of people in St. Louis feel this is nothing new to them. A lot of them just want to put this down. And a lot of other people have said it’s just an everyday occurrence. So it’s about showing those perspectives.
SB: The people we meet in the play—are these people you met?
DO: They are composite figures. Because I made it very clear to everyone that I spoke with—I don’t have a right to invade your life that way. I have a right as a playwright to tell a story. But I don’t have a right to dig into someone’s life like that. Because that’s no longer about theater; that’s perverse voyeurism. A word that I use heavily is “boundary.” The role of certain types of theater, we are supposed to be mental and emotional travelers, but having said that, if I write about someone’s life directly, that makes me responsible for them in certain ways that I don’t feel comfortable with. And given where that person is within their life, it can invoke and provoke a lot of stuff that they just won’t be able to deal with. I’m not a therapist. And I actually said that to everyone I spoke with.
SB: You’ve written in many formats— poetry, plays, solo performance—what made you choose the solo performance format for this play?
DO: It’s an interesting format. I want to look at how one person, not just myself—if the play goes on, I want other people to do it—how one person can embody a kind of humanity. Aspects of humanity. I think that’s interesting, because it does start with one person. How does one person take in the world? We always see the collective, but the collective starts with the individual. Individuals form a collective, right? So how does one individual take in the world?
SB: You’re the writer of this play, and you’re also the solo performer, but also are working with a director. Tell us how that works. As you’re the one who’s created this, what does the director give to you?
DO: Neel Keller is a great director. He can tell me what is overwritten, what we can cut, what we can emphasize. It’s a third eye. I find that very few people can direct themselves. What sound bites do we need? How does a character need to be fleshed more? Both on the page and on the stage. In terms of technique—how to bring it alive on the stage. And then we combine these ideas. And as an actor, I can overact, so he’s there to yank me in. We don’t want to beat the audience over the head with this, and I can tend to do that as an actor.
SB: When you’ve finished a performance and the lights go down, is there anything in particular that you’re hoping the audience takes away?
DO: Did I give them permission to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable? That’s what interests me, because I don’t speak for people, I speak to people. Because when you start speaking for people, you get on a political tirade and I know this situation goes beyond the political. It extends itself into personal stories and the emotional and how we live on a day-to-day basis. What are our personal narratives? And how do we feel about this, knowing this could have happened with these young men?