A shooting that changed Ferguson forever

Maiesha McQueen in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s “Until The Flood.” Photo: Kathy Wittman

A small city in Missouri became the center of the universe in 2014 when a teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darrell Wilson.

The incident sparked weeks of protest and riots and in many ways is still being felt today after further encounters between police and unarmed black males have sparked similar tragedies, and ensuing protests and riots.

Playwright Dael Orlandersmith interviewed a wide range of residents of the Ferguson, Mo. area to create eight composite characters for her play, “Until The Flood.” The Merrimack Repertory   Theatre is streaming on its website a filmed production of “Until The Flood” through May 5.

The MRT production is directed by Anthony Douglas, with all of the roles performed by Maiesha McQueen.

The characters are unremarkable, the type of people you could find in almost any small town or city: a retired schoolteacher, a barber, two Black 17-year-old Black high school students, a landlord and electrician, and a minister.

The death of Brown is filtered through the characters’ own life experiences. Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, takes a pass on rehashing the exact details of the incident to instead present a buffet of different perspectives of how the shooting affected each character individually and the area as a whole.

Their testimonies are raw, emotional, and in many cases show how far we are from achieving a society in which all are treated equally.

An older Black woman named Luisa Hemphill, a retired educator, opens and closes the piece, and she describes in detail the particulars of Ferguson , the attitudes and prejudices, the “quiet racism”  she herself felt growing up in the town.

Luisa left Ferguson as a young woman to attend City College of New York and upon her return runs afoul of a formerly friendly white shopkeeper for “not keeping her place” and leaving the area to better herself.

When she was younger, Luisa had seen how his father acquiesced to the white police and accused her father of being a “Tom,” a charge she lives to regret when her mother details what the family went through simply in trying to survive in a racist white world.

Maiesha McQueen in “Until The Flood.” Photo: Kathy Wittman.

Luisa laments the fact that Michael Brown came so close to escaping the fate of many young Blacks his age.

A retired white cop named Rusty Hardin says that he always knew that some residents regarded him simply as “white trash,” or a “honky” but that he always tried “to use a gun as a last resort” and that when it came to working with Black cops, he saw no difference in the color of their skin. “A cop is a brother.”

There are portraits that are both poignant and powerful, including a young Black high school art student named Paul who lives in the same apartment complex where Brown lived. He doesn’t get high or live to play ball but still has a harrowing encounter with a white cop that makes him realize that he could have been the next Michael Brown. He makes a heartfelt plea to the heavens to help him survive for one more year until he makes his “escape” to a California college.

An older Black barber named Reuben Little says he won’t be stereotyped resists the attempts by two upper-class young women to label all Blacks – including himself — as victims in the wake of the Brown shooting, “I don’t need you to speak for me,” he says.  “it’s not about appearances. It’s about fairness.”

A middle-aged white electrician names Dougray Smith details his climb from a home with abusive, drunken parents in Charleston, West Virginia, where he loved books and refused to run moonshine or drop out of school like many others had.

He spent time in shelters but worked his way up to a job, family and home, and  finally owning two rental properties in the Black section of Ferguson, where he admits to arming himself when he goes to collect the rent.

He and makes no bones about his feelings when he describes in harrowing detail a racial confrontation involving some young Blacks and his young son that brings out feelings of unvarnished racism. He admits he has fantasies about lining up all the “black bastards” and shooting them.

Perhaps the most poignant portrait is that of a Black female minister named Edna Lewis, who describes attending a protest where instead of protesting, she asks a white police officer and a Black National Guard soldier if she can pray for them.

They are all witnesses in their own way to what the Brown shooting wrought and Orlandersmith takes pains not to get in the way of her characters as they explain themselves.

Orlandersmith said an in interview that she wanted to get beyond the question of right or wrong in the Brown case to reveal some larger truths.  “How does this shooting affect people? In terms of race, how far have we come? Those are the questions that have come to mind. What does it invoke, provoke in you? I know 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 Timothy Douglas employs skillful pacing, and McQueen doesn’t attempt to stray too far from the characters’ own words in portraying them. The words – powerful, poetic, often profane — speak for themselves.

Since 2014, other Michael Browns have come along, and with each of the killings has come the aftershocks that shake a town or city to its core. The kind of aftershocks that a city such as Minneapolis will continue to feel for years to come.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production includes not only the play, but greetings from MRT Artistic Director Courtney Sale and Executive Director Bonnie J. Butkas, as well as a panel discussion with arts educators and an interview with the playwright.

“Until The Flood.” Written by Dael Orlandersmith. Performed by Maiesha McQueen. Directed by Anthony Douglas.  Scenic design by Bill Clarke. Costume design by Yao Chen. Lighting design by Carolina Ortiz Herrera. Original music/sound design by Lindsay Jones. Filmmaker Kathy Wittman. Stage manager Maegan A. Conroy. Bring streamed through May 5.  For further information, visit www.mrt.org/flood or the Enterprise Bank Box Office at box_office@mrt.org or 978-654-4678.