Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Dael Orlandersmith Aims for Truth Not Truth about Ferguson

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Dael Orlandersmith Aims for Truth Not Truth about Ferguson

Article excerpt

Please, Dael Orlandersmith asks: Do not mix her up with Anna Deavere Smith.

She understands how it happens. They are both tall, stately, African-American playwright/performers, women who have often appeared in work that they wrote themselves.

"Anna Deavere Smith is wonderful," Orlandersmith says of the creator of "Fires in the Mirror," Smith's famed stage piece about the 1991 conflict between black and Hasidic residents of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. Smith interviewed many people who lived there, incorporating their exact words into a play in which she portrayed them all (a genre known as verbatim theater).

"That's not what I do," Orlandersmith says. "I am not a spokesperson for anyone. I am not a message-giver.

"I am a storyteller. I tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.

"I am interested in how events (in Ferguson) affected people, but 'Until the Flood' is a story, not the story, of what happened."

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis where Orlandersmith's drama "Yellowman" received a fine production 10 years ago commissioned her to write a play after Michael Brown was shot by a Ferguson police officer in 2014. His death inspired a wave of protests.

Orlandersmith is a lifelong New Yorker, something anyone can tell the minute she opens her mouth. She came here, however, and interviewed a number of people about what happened. In her play, "Until the Flood," she portrays composite characters drawn from those conversations an elderly woman, a teacher, a young man who lives in Canfield Green Apartments (where Brown was shot) and others.

Under the direction of Neel Keller at the Rep, she plays them all young and old, male and female. In future productions, however, she imagines that each character could be portrayed by a different actor (the way "Fires in the Mirror" is often staged now).

Unlike other one-actor plays "The Syringa Tree," "Buyer and Cellar" that have played in the Rep's Studio Theatre, "Until the Flood" will play on the Browning Mainstage. That's where it belongs, Orlandsmith thinks. "I wrote these characters to breathe, to be fully realized," she says. "They can't be fully realized unless the stage can breathe, too."


Writing for herself is nothing new. Orlandersmith started writing monologues for herself years ago. Roles that suited her were just too hard to find.

Enthralled by the artistry of Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier, she was in her early teens when she fell in love with acting. After a teacher told Orlandersmith's mother that her daughter had talent, she got to enter a theater program on Manhattan's Lower East Side. She went on to appear in plays and work with artists at the multicultural Nuyorican Poets Cafe, all before she entered Hunter College.

Along the way, the tall, broad-shouldered Orlandersmith developed a dramatic personal style. …

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