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Visiting Playwright Dael Orlandersmith Brings Ferguson’s Plight to the Stage

One might not like all the characters in Dael Orlandersmith’s new play Until the Flood, but that, said the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright, isn’t the point.

“We don’t have to like them,” she said on May 4 after reading excerpts from Flood for Northwestern students and faculty. The work focuses on the social unrest following the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. “We have to understand them.”

Orlandersmith, the 2016 Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist, read in character, giving voice to a middle-aged black teacher, a white police officer, an older black barbershop owner, a young black teenager, and a preacher. The characters, she said, are composites she created after extensively interviewing Ferguson residents. Each was a complex character, she said, not carbon copies of stereotypes. She had no interest, she said, in writing a play that delivered a heavy-handed message.

“I think most of you know where the churches, synagogues, and mosques are if you want to be preached to,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the role of theatre.”

Using a music stand and a chair set up in Harris Hall, she performed the hour-long work that was commissioned by The Repertory Theatre in St. Louis for the fall. The Rep approached her to write the play, and she agreed, but on the condition she could tell it her way. She didn’t want to dramatize the shooting, or put Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot him, on stage as characters.

She didn’t want to get into the question of what happened that particular night, she said. Instead, she wanted to show how those events affected people who never witnessed them.

“I wanted to explore this question of trauma, even if someone has not directly experienced these events,” she said. “I think there’s still trauma, and how does that manifest itself?”

Orlandersmith, a native New Yorker, interviewed Michael Brown’s father and stepmother, as well as dozens of people in Ferguson as research. All of the characters in her play are impacted by the events in some fashion. And no one is immune to scrutiny. A barbershop owner puts liberal-minded college kids in their place by telling them he doesn’t need to be rescued. A middle-aged school teacher who grew up in Ferguson angrily calls her father a “Tom” only to realize she was mistaken in the worst way. A police officer struggles with his own biases, and a teen admits to being fearful, but also wistful about the possibility of courting danger, so that he might escape abuse at home.

A recurring theme in the reading and questions was a notion of how men aren’t encouraged to show their emotions, which can lead to conflict and worse. “Men are not allowed to talk about some of these things,” Orlandersmith said. 

Radio/Television/Film Associate Professor Thomas Bradshaw, who moderated the question-and-answer session following the reading, remarked on Orlandersmith’s acting skills. “I think of you as a writer, but I’m also struck by what an amazing performer you are,” he said.  “These characters just came alive.”

By Cara Lockwood