It was coincidental but fitting that the New England premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood” occurred a little over 24 hours after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in the murder of George Floyd.
A solo drama performed with exceptional force and depth by Maiesha McQueen in an online production by Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, “Until the Flood” is based on interviews Orlandersmith conducted in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015, a year after Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer.
The play lays bare a community — a nation — through which the poison of racism is always coursing, always threatening lethal consequences. Or, as one Black character puts it, hauntingly, “All the things we can’t stop knowing. Can’t stop knowing in our bones.”
McQueen delivers vividly etched portrayals of numerous residents of the Ferguson area — Black, white, young, middle-aged, old — while standing or sitting on a stark stage that features a representation of the memorial to Brown, adorned with flowers, candles, caps, balloons, and a baseball glove. (”Until the Flood’' was recorded without an audience a couple of weeks ago at Merrimack Rep’s Nancy L. Donahue Theatre.)
Like Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” a drama about struggling factory workers that was written after Nottage interviewed residents of Reading, Pa., “Until the Flood” marries a dramatist’s gift for character portraiture with a reporter’s interest in the details of events and in the forces that shape a community.
While Brown’s death is the fulcrum of the play, Orlandersmith aims also to dramatize lived experience, the web of daily interactions in Ferguson that preceded and followed his killing. Toward that end, she deploys her proven knack for making a stage feel fully populated with the smallest of casts. Orlandersmith’s superb memory play, “Yellowman,’' which features two performers who evoke a host of supporting characters, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in drama two decades ago. (The winner that year was Suzan-Lori Parks, for “Topdog/Underdog.”)
McQueen’s individualized portraits include Louisa, a retired Black teacher who describes how she battled expectations when she was young and “refused to ‘keep my place’ “; Rusty, a retired white police officer who says “I’m not going to go against a brother. . . . A cop is a brother”; Edna, a Black Universalist minister; Connie, a white high school teacher whose friendship with a Black woman ruptures after Connie says of Brown and the officer who shot him that “both lives are tragic”; Reuben, a Black barber who pushes back against the condescending assumptions of “white do-gooders,” declaring, “I am not a victim. This shop is mine”; and Dougray, a white electrician and landlord whose racism emerges the more he talks — and who seems determined to pass on that ugliness to his preschool son.
But the most vivid figures in “Until the Flood” are the young Black men for whom the death of Michael Brown, or “Mike-Mike,” at the hands of law enforcement was an all-too-forseeable extension of the treatment they receive on a regular basis.
Seventeen-year-old Hassan describes an episode when a cop pulled a gun on him and his friends after stopping them for speeding, and how the officer, his finger on the trigger, looked at him “like a hungry dog mutt.” Adds Hassan: “I bet Mike Brown saw that too. Saw po-lice looking hungry.” Paul, also 17, recalls when an officer accosted him as he was walking home with an armful of art books and implied he had stolen them. After the teenager tossed off a quip about how absurd it would be to risk jail for a book about Da Vinci, the encounter grew even more charged, driving home to Paul how at risk he was.
“Every day I pass that shrine to Michael Brown . . . And I think, that could be me,” he says. “That really could have been me. That could have been my blood flowing on this street.”
At the end of “Until the Flood,” after taking such pains to capture a medley of other voices, Orlandersmith speaks in her own poetic voice. There is plenty of anger and sorrow in her words, but, movingly, the playwright ultimately refuses to relinquish the right to hope.
UNTIL THE FLOOD
Play by Dael Orlandersmith. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Starring Maiesha McQueen. Presented online by Merrimack Repertory Theatre through May 5. Tickets start at $29 per household, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org/flood