Just in time to join the vigorous national conversation about police killing Black people, Studio Theatre presents a nimble, penetrating production of Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood (★★★☆☆). Orlandersmith based the 2016 commission, described as “quasi-documentary theater,” on interviews she conducted with residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and surrounding areas of St. Louis County, after the 2014 death of teenager Michael Brown, shot by police officer Darren Wilson.
Reimagining Orlandersmith’s solo play as a chamber piece for three actors, Studio associate artistic director Reginald L. Douglas, making his company directorial debut, casts Felicia Curry, Ora Jones, and Billie Krishawn as eight composite characters who animate this insightful snapshot of a citizenry divided. It’s common to say, but utterly true, that beneath the surface there’s more that connects these people than they either realize or admit.
While some of the characters ask whether we all can look beyond surface appearances, the casting demands we try as Jones, Curry, and Krishawn — Black women of varying ages — portray the first-person accounts of men and women, young and old, white and Black. Curry registers her strongest impression as a wide-eyed young white university professor who dearly wants to believe she’s more than an ally to minority communities but a true friend. Then she tells a story about her one Black friend Margaret (Jones) that we expect won’t end well.
In fact, after she expresses her controversial opinion to Margaret that Michael Brown shouldn’t have been shoplifting, among other incendiary observations, things are never again the same between the two friends. The rejection she feels stings us too, in part, because rather than simply going for an easy joke about woke white liberalism, the episode illustrates her sad realization that sometimes we really can’t talk about race. Completely heartfelt, honest discussion might lie beyond our individual sensibilities.
Douglas forgoes any easy jokes interpreting the material. The experience is drained of the natural humor that inserts itself, as defense or comfort, into serious situations, especially in first-person storytelling. So, while the mood varies, it never lifts, certainly a valid rendering of the perpetual knife-edge tension this nation can’t seem to ease.
That tension cuts deepest in Krishawn’s scene as a working-class white man recalling the abusive childhood he had to overcome to make something of himself. Leaning into his self-assured stance, Krishawn reveals his “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophizing as a thin cloak, nearly transparent, disguising his racist views. He starts out sounding reasonable and ends raving about a great storm that will wash away blood that was spilt until the city is once again “clean and pure.” Douglas matches the crescendo of rage with score on the soundtrack to bolster the searing emotion.
Such musical accompaniment is sparing. Studio’s second digital theater experience of five planned for this season, Until the Flood doesn’t complicate the show’s sound design. The camerawork, on the other hand, could stand for a bit of simplification. The camera roams fitfully around the actors, often helpful in opening up the empty theater space to suggest imagined locations, like a store or classroom. But just as often, the direction works too busily, juicing up the visual presentation, rather than trusting the words and performances.
They’re thought-provoking words, and moving performances, pouring body and tears into personifying the humanity of strangers we know all too well.
Until the Flood is available for streaming on-demand through May 9. Tickets are $37 to $65. Visit www.studiotheatre.org.
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