Single performer shows could gain popularity during pandemic

Considering how eager theaters are to reopen, and how careful their planning is to keep everyone safe, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more one-person dramatic presentations take to the stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood” would be just such a play, although it could be played with more than one actor. The script in paperback form published by Theatre Communications Group proves to be substantial. One can only imagine how powerful this could be live on stage.

A commissioned work, it premiered at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis before moving on to New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, ACT Theatre in Seattle, the Portland Center Stage in Oregon and a European premiere at the Arcola Theatre in Ireland.

Fictional characters based on interviews regarding the death of Michael Brown — a young black man who was shot to death by a white policeman named Darren Wilson — come to life even on the pages of Orlandersmith’s play. The work is a docudrama with poetic sections that read as if they could easily be a rap. Orlandersmith is an actor, poet, playwright. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play “Yellowman.” While this work deals with racism, “Until the Flood” is a vehicle of meaningful insight as to what prompts people to act the way they do. The playwright addresses important issues by introducing and alternating black and white characters, some of whom are composites of the people she interviewed.

What works so well in this play is that she really gets deep into the characters and suggests the underlying meanings behind their behaviors and perspectives. There is a lot of self-hate, learned hate and plain ignorance at the core of most of her characters. One memorable character, a white man who is proud of the fact that he left his drunken abusive father and white trash family to become a hardworking family man, suddenly sees his five-year-old son rush to him for safety. His son had been taunted and punched by a group of seven-year-old black boys. This father pushed his son away and ordered him to: “go over there and beat him ... punch him as hard as you can. And keep punching him. Keep on…” Even though the innocent little boy did not want violence, his father who came from a family of violence, taught his young son an awful lesson.

The characters in this play are of all ages from young to old. Another unforgettable character is a black barber. Two college girls came to interview the barber. One girl was black and the other white. They wanted to write about the Michael Brown case to show the “horrors of racism and poverty.” The black girl was angry and said “All black people are VICTIMS.” The white girl refers to black history.

The barber then explains that he is not a victim. After pointing out how bad it is to judge people, he assumes the two girls are privileged and then explains in a must demeaning way that “I don’t need you to DEFEND me. I don’t need you to SPEAK for me. Strong blood flows in my veins. I want my fair due...” He then tells the young women that they don’t know anything and practically brings them to tears.

Overall, this is a really good play. There is a lot of anger, a lot of hate and bigotry throughout as Orlandersmith shines a spotlight on racism in America. Even though there are two sides to the stories she shares, one tends to have more compassion with the black characters. Her final poem definitely addresses the dead black boy and the young white cop, and perhaps a hint of hope.