Chris Coleman, artistic director for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, has known performance artist Dael Orlandersmith, an Obie winner and Pulitzer finalist, for many years. In 1999 he directed her in The Gimmick, a one-woman piece in which she explored a harsh and bitter childhood. The play, which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop, received positive reviews, including from the New York Times (“scorching...a rhapsodic embrace of language”). So when Coleman heard that the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis had commissioned Orlandersmith to investigate and write about the local response to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, it roused his interest, and he determined to bring the resultant work, Until the Flood, to Denver.
Based on dozens of interviews, Orlandersmith created eight fictional characters for her piece, and in performance, she embodies each of them, from a teenage boy to an elderly schoolteacher. The Denver production was set for March — when, like other theaters, the DCPA was forced to cancel its season. Now, in conjunction with seven regional companies and in partnership with the multimedia platform ALL ARTS, the DCPA Theatre Company is presenting a regional broadcast premiere of Until the Flood.
Westword caught up with Coleman to learn more about the project.
Westword: Tell us about Dael Orlandersmith and her work.
Chris Coleman: Dael started as a poet, grew up in Harlem, discovered this movement, the Nuyorican Poets — Puerto Ricans who’d moved to New York and did standup poetry. Some friends suggested she think about creating longer forms, a narrative. So the language in her work is still poetic and gorgeous even as she’s talking about really harsh things.
She’s an incredible performer, quite unique. When she was commissioned to interview folks, I was intrigued. It was the first time she would be a documentarian, and I was curious what it would lead to. When I read the script, I was really intrigued, because the subject matter is so loaded. I felt she really listened, and she opened up my mind to perspectives I had not considered before on this topic. It’s a broad range of people you meet in the story. This event was written about ad infinitum by journalists, but it’s rare to find a conversation with the people affected that goes beyond the grief and horror of the actual moment.
There’s an older Black schoolteacher in Until the Flood whose voice I really love, because it’s level and nuanced and absolutely in touch with the pain of the situation, and also has a lot of wisdom around it. In most of Dael’s pieces, she transforms and almost always plays multiple characters.
I felt this was a rare opportunity to dig deeper into the current conversations around racial justice and the relationship between police and communities of color, and just to look at the topic from different angles.
Dael had a plane ticket and was ready to come to Denver when the pandemic hit. The play was all set for in the theater. I would hear from Dael related to the play or on an unrelated topic every other week — it could be a recommendation of a piece of music she’s excited by, or news that the show’s going to go to Berlin.
Do you feel video can communicate the quality, power and reality of a live performance?
This is a mysterious question; I have no idea. The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York, where it was filmed, uses multiple cameras, and PBS was involved, which leads me to believe in the quality of the filming. But I don’t really know. I’m really curious.
One thing that is prompting us as an organization in the future is, how do we capture productions in a more sophisticated way? We never invested time into that before; we kept videos for practical reasons. We won’t have that luxury in the future, and I think we will have to be prepared.
Our vice president of marketing worked at the Metropolitan Opera before she came to us. They were very invested in capturing performances for broadcasts. It was a pretty high return. They’re a unique organization, of course, and the demand for that product is unique. But she has a desire to future-proof our work so that if, for whatever reason, we can’t bring people into the theater, we’re ready. Of course, it’s not cheap, and adds to all the other things we have to get done.
You were hired by the DCPA in the fall of 2017 and directed some terrific work, including your all-Black Oklahoma. But you didn’t have much time before the coronavirus hit.
It’s brutal. I feel fortunate in some ways that I had that year and a half to establish that relationship with the audience. I was talking to colleagues around the country in their first year, and they got only the first six months. It’s hard to know what to lead with. Some of them had a rocky start, and then — boom — you’re out of the market. I feel fortunate in that sense. Everybody is reeling. There’s a sense of depression you’re working through. I could list on one hand the number of performances we had to cancel before in my career, so the idea that now we’ve canceled a whole season and don’t know when we can return is heartbreaking.
People are getting furloughed and praying they can hold on by getting a temporary job or the feds getting their act together and extending unemployment.
But it’s also an opportunity to learn, take stock, and know that not only is it a social justice conversation that’s being demanded, but that we as a field need to do better, each of us grappling with what it means for organizations. Beyond that, there’s an opportunity. We have always struggled with the way we make work or load audiences or design subscription models. It’s always been tricky. If there was ever a time to reinvent the business model, this is it. So there’s some real learning coming out of this. There definitely is for me.
Some theaters were hoping to mount live performances this fall. That’s not happening. Many are saying, "We’re going to wait until next fall or next summer." There are some folks on our board who have led large businesses through long downturns before, and their advice is: Prepare for a longer downturn than you can imagine.
A lot of us are experimenting with online content, and the question is, how many people will show up? What’s the appetite for it? There is one, but not nearly the appetite there is to see theater live. I don’t know if we’re going to reach new audiences or primarily the diehards who are hungry.
Do you think work like Until the Flood that deals with hard and important questions can really change anything, have an impact socially or politically?
I do think that a work like this can contribute to the conversation. I think it’s true in Denver and even more true if you’re running a theater in a more purple or red state. People are going to come into that room and see that play with different conceptions in their heads. They’re going to hear a conversation. It may piss them off or get them to consider something new. I once stayed with my dad’s best friend when I was visiting, and he wanted to stay up with me after everyone had gone to bed. We talked about a show I’d been in about Harvey Milk. He said, “We came because you were in it, but that show changed how I thought about gay people. I had no awareness. I was so stupid in my twenties that I literally thought you could get it if you were around them."
Steve is to the right of Attila the Hun. But he also shared with me that he’d been asked to be in a wedding with gay friends and was so touched because they wanted to include him. These kinds of experiences can engage with people and have surprising outcomes.
Thomas Friedman had an interesting article about demographic shifts in America. White men are not going to be the dominant demographic very shortly — even in the next couple of years. I think that’s part of what was being debated in this election. For some, it seems like a huge threat. But the growth in diversity is something to celebrate.
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