Michael Brown was killed the morning of August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, shot by police officer Darren Wilson. In the days and months that followed, thousands of protests worldwide grieved the death of the Black teenager at the hands of a white police officer and called for justice for Michael Brown and for Black people in Ferguson and beyond. With the rallying cry that Black Lives Matter, the uprising following Brown’s death changed the national conversation about police violence, structural racism, and public safety.
In 2015, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis commissioned playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith to create a play about the people of St. Louis county in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. In her research, Orlandersmith spoke with dozens of people about the death of Michael Brown, and the ways his death and subsequent outcry affected their understanding of race in the United States. From these conversations, Orlandersmith created eight composite characters, all of whom she played. Sharp, compassionate, and moving, Until the Flood premiered in 2016 at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
“I would sit down with people,” Orlandersmith says, “and just ask: How does this shooting affect you? What does race mean in this particular time? How far have we come, racially? How does this affect your day to day? I would throw these questions out and just let them talk.”
Ultimately, she wasn’t interested in exploring the specifics of the moments leading up to Michael Brown’s death: “None of us was there,” as one of her characters says. Rather than focus on a literal truth, Orlandersmith wanted to trace the ways Brown’s death resonated with—and changed—people in the communities where it happened.
“I hope people leave talking about different kinds of truth,” Orlandersmith told The Interval in a 2018 interview. “Not necessarily what applies to them, but [what] opens their minds in terms of them thinking about the way other people see the world—and not be locked in their little cocoon. That’s what’s interesting to me. When you start speaking for people, you get on a political tirade and this situation goes beyond the political. It extends itself into personal stories and the emotional and how we live on a day-to-day basis.”
Director Reginald L. Douglas cast the play with three Black women from different generations, emphasizing these multiple truths, and underlining the communal aspect of telling and witnessing the stories of Ferguson. As each actor embodies a voice of St. Louis county—young or old, Black or white, rural or urban—Orlandersmith’s writing invites each audience member to locate themselves in relationship to the events of the summer of 2014, of summer 2020, and in relationship to a future where deep listening invites everyone into the work of creating a truly just world.