When Reginald L. Douglas, the associate artistic director of D.C.’s Studio Theatre, read “Until the Flood,” the relevance of Orlandersmith’s humanistic take on police violence and systemic racism stirred his creative impulses — as did the text’s inherent malleability.
“I knew,” he says, “I wanted to ‘un-solo-show’ the solo show.”
Now starring three actresses — Ora Jones, Felicia Curry and Billie Krishawn — and filmed in March at Studio Theatre under coronavirus safety protocols, the Douglas-directed production of “Until the Flood” begins streaming April 16 as part of the theater’s all-digital 2020-2021 season. Set following the shooting of Brown, an unarmed teenager, by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and based on interviews Orlandersmith conducted with members of the St. Louis community, the play fashions its eight monologues into an empathetic exploration of how people of varying ethnicities, genders, ages and socioeconomic circumstances processed that tipping-point event.
Explaining his vision for “Until the Flood,” Douglas says he begins each venture onstage with a perpetual principle: “I direct every play for my family.” Knowing this was to be a filmed production, he also wanted to preserve a sense of theatricality by casting each performer in multiple roles. With his baby boomer mother, Gen X sister and teenage niece on his mind, Douglas decided to let Orlandersmith’s words flow through not one voice or eight, but a cross-generational ensemble of three Black women.
“I really believe that Black women are the keepers and bearers of history and life, and that their stories often get ignored and erased,” Douglas says. “I was interested in letting the power of our theater be one where we put those stories center stage. And I was really struck by the idea that the voices of a community — of different races, different ages, different backgrounds — could all be connected and lived through these women.”
In previous iterations of the play, starting with the St. Louis premiere, Orlandersmith inhabited every character in what was called a “tour de force” performance. Although those personas were derived from 60-plus interviews she conducted in the spring of 2015, as she asked Missourians what Brown’s death meant to them and their day-to-day lives, no real people appear in “Until the Flood” — just composite characters.
“I made it very clear when I sat down with people that I may use something that you’ve said, but not necessarily verbatim,” Orlandersmith recalls. “I said, ‘It certainly is based upon this event, and maybe something you say may flash into my mind, but to actually play you, per se, is not what I’m going to do.’ ”
Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2002 play “Yellowman,” then molded those interactions into a considered kaleidoscope of perspectives. Through those characters, acts of unconscious bias, generational prejudice, misguided liberalism, microaggression and overt bigotry wash over “Until the Flood’s” audience.
“[Theater] is the thing that you do to hold up a mirror to your society so that your society can engage, so that it can see itself and it can speak with itself,” says Jones, a stage veteran with decades of experience in the Chicago theater scene. “It is your town square, it is your soapbox, and there are so many opportunities for us to see that and experience it and learn about ourselves and one another, which is what this play really does with these series of interviews.”
All three actresses reveled in “Until the Flood’s” depth. In playing an elderly Black barbershop owner, who resents the idea that he’s a victim of his surroundings, Jones particularly appreciated the opportunity to subvert tired misconceptions about residents of lower-income neighborhoods.
“He stays where he is not because he can’t get out,” Jones says, “but because this is his home. I was really grateful to get to do that.”
D.C. theater stalwart Curry, who portrays a 75-year-old White man, a 35-year-old White woman and a 17-year-old Black boy, says she relishes “being able to embody folks that people think I can’t or shouldn’t embody.” Still, as she considers the conversations this production could spark, it’s her relatable final line as the teenager — who considers Brown’s fate and can only plead, “Please God, don’t let that happen to me” — that most resonates.
“I know that if you’re a person of color walking around in America, at some point you probably thought that,” Curry says. “Whether you voiced it or not, you probably thought it. So I do hope that people will watch this and say: ‘I’m not by myself. I’m not the only person that feels like this.’ ”
Douglas singles out Krishawn as tackling the most daunting acting feat, as her characters run the gamut from a Black teenager, threatened by the scrutiny of White police, to an unabashed white supremacist. The fact that Krishawn, a D.C. native who has emerged as one of the area’s most entrancing young stage talents, was six months pregnant during filming only heightened her connection to Orlandersmith’s storytelling.
“I feel the responsibility that a parent has bringing a child into the world, and knowing I want to raise my child to know that it’s okay to be darker skinned, something that I grappled with a lot when I was younger,” Krishawn says. “I want to raise them to know that they can speak up if they feel like they’re not being represented. I want to raise them to know their culture, aside from the fact that it’s a skin color.
“But also, it’s the responsibility of all of us just to be aware, to communicate the stories, to tell the tough stories,” she adds. “I know that sometimes as Black people, a lot of our work is revolving around our pain. But it’s important because people live through that pain and they didn’t have the option to press the pause button.”
When Douglas reimagined “Until the Flood” for three actresses, he didn’t just divvy up the monologues — he turned his ensemble into a chorus of sorts. If a monologue calls for a character to recount both sides of a conversation, Douglas seizes that opportunity to bring another actress into the scene. In a flourish Douglas settled on shortly before filming, the final sequence — a poem uttered by the play’s narrator — is recited by all three actresses.
By turning the solo show into a dialogue, Douglas and his cast hope homebound audiences will pick up that discussion and carry it into their community. With Studio Theatre located less than a mile from Black Lives Matter Plaza, in a city that became a hub for social justice protests over the summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, this production was completed with a poignant understanding of its enduring urgency. That relevance was underscored as Douglas wrapped up postproduction on “Until the Flood” while processing the fatal shootings of Daunte Wright by a police officer in Minnesota, and Dominique Williams and James Lionel Johnson by an off-duty Pentagon police officer in Takoma Park.
“It’s a very sad serendipity that we are releasing a story inspired by a 2014 incident that could have happened — a version of which did happen — just this week,” Douglas says. “But the conversation that the play starts and the hope that the play is rooted in — that we as a country and as a greater American community can change this fight — is also still true.
“It is an honest reflection of the reality of Black life in this country and the injustice that is often shown toward it,” Douglas adds. “And it is also an inspiring call to action for us to uplift one another and hold one another and fight for justice for each other.”
Until the Flood
Studio Theatre. studiotheatre.org.
Dates: Streaming April 16 through May 9.