Dael Orlandersmith says she does not have the right to speak for the people who were affected when a police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014.
But she can speak about them, and she does want people to think about themselves, their own communities, and the issues that were raised by the Ferguson incident and its powerful aftermath. The St. Louis Repertory Theater invited Orlandersmith, a well-known poet, playwright, and performer from New York City, to create a play focused on Ferguson. That led her to interview dozens of people in Ferguson and to write “Until the Flood,” a play that includes eight characters she sees as composites of people she interviewed.
Orlandersmith is currently performing “Until the Flood” as a one-woman show at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She described her approach to the play – and more broadly, to her artistic work – in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on Thursday.
“It’s about telling a truth – many truths,” she said of the play. She aims to present each of the eight characters as she understood them, without judging them. Overall, she said, people in Ferguson “are all questioning themselves.” She said they wonder, “How do we live on a day to day basis knowing this kind of stuff is going on, how do we look at the racist within ourselves?” She said they are wrestling with the issues raised by the death of Brown.
Orlandersmith said that everyone has some racism as part of who they are. She directly told the audience that all of them were racists in some way.
She said she was struck by how much Wilson, the police officer, and Brown, who was shot, had in common. They both had parents who were troubled and flawed and each had “rootless” backgrounds. “I looked at them as two hurting human beings,” she said.
The way strengths and weaknesses are passed on from parents to their children and then to the children’s children interests Orlandersmith. “Where a person comes from, how are they raised, how do they feel about themselves, how are they made to feel about themselves?” – these are all questions that inform her art.
“The sins of the father, the sins of the mother. . . . We do terrible things to our kids,” she said. “Everybody in this room has been cruel, not just vulnerable, you’ve also been cruel. Everyone in this room has hurt people, we have. And that’s what I mean by the human condition.”
But, she said, overall, she is optimistic that race relations are getting better.
The play has received positive reviews, including in the New York Times.
“Until the Flood” will run through April 22 in the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio. Each performance is followed by a discussion open to audience members and led by a notable Milwaukee community figure.
To watch the one-hour conversation with Orlandersmith, click here.