But Ms. Orlandersmith digs deep enough into each character, and with such decency, that no segment seems obligatory. Even the worst human among them — a vile racist (and homophobe) called Dougray — is allowed his back story, which helps explain, if in no way excuse, him.
Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Still, Dougray, who fantasizes about lining up Ferguson’s black males and gunning them down in order to make the town “clean/white/purified/like it must have been once,” threw me out of the play for a moment. Ms. Orlandersmith is so skilled at disappearing into her characters that I had forgotten until then what her process involved. Theoretically, this was a man she had interviewed, stood near, faced. The psychological violence of that encounter seemed almost like a replay of the literal violence it was meant to investigate.
Later, I learned that many of the characters Ms. Orlandersmith portrays are fictional composites. I’m not sure whether that makes Dougray more bearable, or less: The idea that there are many Dougrays available for compositing seems terrible, if all too believable. Still, I think that if the play informed audiences about Ms. Orlandersmith’s methods, it might help them better understand her aims. Some of her earlier works, like the autobiographical “Forever,” are clearly factual, however poetically the facts are rendered. Others, like the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Yellowman,” are clearly fiction.
Or perhaps “Until the Flood” is more effective for leaving you uncertain about which genre it falls into. The production, directed by Neel Keller, carefully splits the difference between documentary objectivity and poetic license. On a set (by Takeshi Kata) replicating the impromptu memorial of candles and stuffed animals that lined Canfield Avenue in the weeks after Mr. Brown’s death, Ms. Orlandersmith moves from character to character with minimal fuss, adding or subtracting a simple costume piece (by Kaye Voyce) but otherwise not attempting anything but verbal verisimilitude. Moody projections (by Nicholas Hussong) establish the locations, just as the lovely interstitial music by Justin Ellington establishes the elegiac tone.
Despite this evenhanded treatment, I found myself crediting the black characters more than the white ones. No doubt this was in part because white racism, however outright or covert, is a familiar gargoyle, stuck with its one leer. Ms. Orlandersmith’s black characters are much more nuanced, and able to explore themes that, coming from whites, would seem taboo.
One of those is raised right from the start by a black retired schoolteacher named Louisa Hemphill. Acknowledging the damage done by racism — she grew up heeding signs that said “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town” if you’re black — she nevertheless concludes that Mr. Brown was not only set up to be a victim but also “set himself up.”
Several other characters echo this thought. Hassan, describing the routine threat of death from police violence, says there is a part of him that “wants to stand before a gun” knowing that the “redneck” holding it “would aim to shoot and not miss.” And when Paul, a 17-year-old who lives, as Mr. Brown did, in the “defeated” Canfield Green apartments, cries, “Please God let me get out,” he means get out alive.
Those are two of the saddest lines you are likely to hear from a stage today, and therefore two of the most important. Composite or not, they ring damningly true.