Theatre en Bloc’s latest offering, “Until the Flood” by Dael Orlandersmith, re-examines the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
The story of a community divided along fault lines of race is numbingly familiar to anybody paying attention to the news in America, but this one-woman play has taken a different tack: rather than using Ferguson to emblematize a host of nationally divisive topics, “Until the Flood” peers into the community itself.
Jenny Lavery directs this regional premiere of the play, the original production of which was performed by the playwright herself. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (“Yellowman,” 2002) to write about the anguish the region had endured following Michael Brown’s death, and she chose to do so through interviews. The result is a 90-minute meeting of documentary theater and a vigil.
Florinda Bryant acts as both storyteller and avatar, embodying eight characters with complex perspectives. She zigzags from white to black and young to old, pingponging around the various parts of greater St. Louis.
With so many characters and so little narrative, though, the play invites us get to know neighborhoods rather than people. Performing with a single chair and limited costume changes, Bryant pays respect to each of these characters by offering them the dignity of being human. They flatter, doubt, push, and contradict themselves. In short, they feel — in most cases — quite real.
In transitions, however, Bryant and Lavery remind the audience again and again just how non-real this all is. A festive scarf quickly becomes a clergywoman’s stole, for instance. We watch her drink water, shake the former character from her body, and adopt the new one. We can even clock the passage of time in the play as Bryant methodically works her way through a stack of colorful notebooks — halfway keeping herself on the text, halfway insisting the play is itself a kind of trauma archive.
Most strikingly, though, Bryant steps outside of all eight personas in order to silently regard the tragedy in its fullness. Blake Addyson’s scenic design, after all, presents a small platform raised in the middle of a glowing roadside memorial. Teddy bears, candles, posters, beer bottles, balloons, and other signs of communal mourning indicate that we are witnessing (or perhaps participating in) a ritual.
For all of Bryant’s efforts to portray each character honestly, the play’s dramatic fiber unravels in the monologue of an unabashed white supremacist. While disturbing, the moment feels unsatisfyingly inevitable. Of course he is horrible, and of course we detest him, so nothing is gained or learned from his acrimony.
Bryant performs the monologue with complete sincerity, asking the audience to sit with futility — which may very well be the point. The playwright’s decision to include this extreme perspective grows more complicated knowing that these sketches are not drawn from specific interviews but are rather composite representations. It’s a technique that works quite well in certain more nuanced characters (disaffected teens, wisened barbers) but in this context leaves the actor nowhere to go.
On the whole, Bryant’s powerful performance consecrates the ceremony of community remembrance. She exudes the energy of a person who has attended too many funerals, too many vigils. The eight separate identities that she embodies lend life to the many ways a group of people can experience and interpret events that devastate them.
It’s as if you were to pick up eight of the candles left for Mike Brown and ask each one why it’s burning. Fear, rage, wearisomeness, hope. Each one would answer differently but go on burning together.
“Until the Flood” continues through Nov. 11 at the Vortex, vortexrep.org/31_untiltheflood