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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Until The Flood
Traverse Theatre  December 2020

African-American poet Dael Orlandersmith uses the tools of Verbatim Theatre to explore a sadly-too-familiar American story. Her skills as interviewer and assembler of voices are greater than her talent as performer, and the power of the one-hour piece lies in the words she speaks rather than in her speaking of them.

In 2014 a white Missouri policeman fatally shot a black youth after a store robbery. There seems no doubt about the young man's guilt, but the nature of his death angered the community and raised the recurring questions of black crime and white police racism.

Less interested in the two figures at the centre of the story than in the world that created them, Orlandersmith spoke with local people white and black, old and young, male and female, and here presents eight of them in their own words.

What she finds is that, more than fifty years after the civil rights movement removed the excesses of legal and institutional segregation in the American South, race remains the dominant defining force in these people's lives.

An elderly black woman remembers the Jim Crow days but explains how even younger generations who never experienced them remain shaped by the ways of thinking they planted in the culture. A retired white cop tries to verbalise the adversarial thinking that leads each side to feel themselves victims of the other's hatred. A white liberal woman just offers an impotent why-can't-we-all-get-along moan.

Two speakers are particularly moving, in contrasting ways. A working class white man slips almost imperceptibly from a reasonable-sounding 'I managed to make something of myself. Why can't they?' to open and vicious racism, just by being allowed to keep talking. And a cowed black teenager is just trying to keep his head down and survive one more year until he can go off to college.

Orlandersmith deserves credit for finding and presenting these voices, but she adds very little in her performance. She either makes no effort to, or simply can't distinguish among them through voice, accent, speaking style or body language.

Each character is introduced by an offstage voice and onscreen title, and were it not for that aid we might be well into a scene before we found a clue to the age, race or sex of the speaker.

Until The Flood therefore hovers somewhere between the skilled verbatim performances of such practitioners as Anna Deavere Smith and the just-for-reading verbatim interviews of Studs Terkel and others, and might be just as effective read as heard.

Dael Overlandersmith has toured America with this show, and brought it to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2019. This well-produced video is available on the Traverse website.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Until The Flood - Traverse Theatre 2020