Coping with crisisBurning Coal Theatre Company opened two plays by Dael Orlandersmith this weekend in rotating virtual repertory. Until the Flood, the second play in a program called Conversations I Always Wanted to Have, opened Friday night. This charged program*, performed by Byron Jennings and directed by Renee Nixon, is a dramatization of interviews conducted by Orlandersmith with residents of Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown in August of 2014. (The play discusses the events surrounding Michael Brown’s murder, including graphic violence, strong language, and controversial opinions. This review acknowledges these topics but only in passing description.)

Jennings had the challenging task of portraying eight characters of different ages, sexes, races, and backgrounds, often only changing a hat or hoodie to step into new vignettes. Orlandersmith’s writing has the characters subtly or explicitly introduce their race and sex, but Jennings applied both some affects of speech and body language that usually made it clear from his first line in each character as to what he was trying to convey.

Set designer Nadir Bey‘s stage was cluttered with miniature sets, almost like walking down a city street. There was a bus stop, an open garage, a corporate office, a front porch, and a stoop, all circling around a large memorial plaque modeled after the one placed in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death, leaving the event itself to be the focal point. Jennings would step into a new area for each character after darkness and a short musical pause, then appear as someone totally different in a new corner of the stage. The camera operation was a little ragtag, not always focused clearly on Jennings in his new positions on stage. Similarly, the microphones needed a little work; they seemed to top out and cut off his higher volumes, popping in distortion whenever Jennings raised his voice too much. All that said, this is livestreamed theatre during a global pandemic, and the fact that we are getting to support local theatre from home during such a time is nothing short of miraculous.

The audience first meets an older Black woman who discusses the old days, when there was “quiet, understood racism that did not include violence.” She is reminiscent, both condemning racist sundown laws but also unhappy with the turbulent violence of the present. Later, a retired White policeman comments on the fear and anger present in life-or-death situations, how “a gun is powerful and life is important,” but police are also asked to act on a split second of instinct as they try to carry out the law.

The show continues to illustrate, through different characters’ stories, many moral struggles:  systemic racism, stereotypes, gentrification, homophobia, anger, and even radical love. Nothing is simple or clear-cut and everyone is hurting in their own way. Jennings’ performance was versatile and earnest in just about every moment. Even when portraying a diehard White supremacist (flanked by a telltale red ball cap perched on the corner of his desk), Jennings informed the scene with empathy and understanding of the man’s own struggles with a violent father, poverty, and an environment of drug abuse and suffering.

Neither Jennings nor Orlandersmith ever presented something as right or wrong, but the characters ranged from placid to confrontational, peaceful to angry, and explored a large swath of the human experience. Jennings did a phenomenal job of letting the stories speak, inhabiting these varied experiences with grace and vitality. It was often uncomfortable but almost always real, forcing the audience to consider all perspectives and understand that all these characters were just trying to do their best.

The companion show, Forever, is a “semi-autobiographical work” performed by Emilia “MeMe” Cowans-Taylor and directed by Jordan Lichtenheld. It details a fraught relationship* between a mother and daughter in East Harlem that mourns women who were forced to give up their girlhood, and trauma that curses multiple generations. The two shows will rotate in livestream performances until February 14.  For more specific dates and times, please view the sidebar.

*Until the Flood uses strong language and covers sensitive topics and frank discussions of race and violence. Forever is a story about child abuse, rape, and also contains strong language.