Water can make a difference in your life. That the municipal supply of Flint, Mich., is slowly killing three generations of Black women living under one roof isn’t a dramatic revelation, but the grim, yearslong reality embodied in Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah.”
Candis Jones directed this haunting and eye-opening production that opened Wednesday at the Public Theater. It explores the human costs of familiar headlines and their devastating consequences.
“Lead in thuh wattah,” five actors sing as the show opens. A riff on the spiritual “Wade in the Water” aligns present-day woes with Black traditions of perseverance. With jugs in hands, they describe the events of the crisis as morbid poetry.
Urgency in the face of deadliness, “Cullud Wattah” points out, is not afforded to Black communities on the margins. It is now November 2016, 939 days after Flint was given clean water. The repercussions are still being felt.
Marion (Crystal Dickinson) is a third-generation union assembly worker at General Motors, the city’s flagship employer. Ainee, her sister pregnant, is recovering from crack addiction. The slight but indomitable Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell) keeps everyone in line, including Marion’s daughters, Reesee (Lauren F. Walker), a queer freethinking teenager with spiritual ties to the continent, and a sly 9-year-old named Plum (played by the adult actress Alicia Pilgrim), who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia.
The women support and care each other out of love and necessity. Marion adjusts Plum’s wig before her first day back at school. Ainee applies lip liner to her sister when tremors in Marion’s hands flare up, from illness or nerves about dating again after her husband’s death.
Adam Rigg’s set design suggests a house stripped down to its foundations. There are hundreds of bottles of murky drinking water suspended in the air, one for every day it flows from the tap. Atop the refrigerator are bottles of clean water. (The city promised a filter that would arrive within the next day. The lighting design, by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, is anxious and spectral, while Kara Harmon’s costumes lend the women an everyday earthiness.
How many bottles of water are needed to do things that most people take for granted — washing Thanksgiving vegetables, for example (26) — is the kind of granular detail the play brings into focus.
The plot revolves around the effects that toxins have had on the families, both internally as well as externally. “We all marked,” says Ainee, who walks in the house one day with a flier containing information about a class-action suit. Marion’s job at GM, and a potential promotion to management, means she would risk their livelihood if she were to get involved — the moral compromise of capitalism and the weight of personal responsibility coming to a head.
Dickerson-Despenza’s lyrical prose is laced with humor, and she creates lively and warmhearted characters. It is a harrowing experience to see them fight against constant poisoning. Her narrative mode is one that questions the past, not so much as to expose new facts, but to ensure what should already know is also deeply felt.
Although the playwright is able to generate affecting emotions throughout, some dialogue is used to give exposition and passionate proclamations about the effects of contaminated water. This happens even when characters are talking to one another. Jones’ fluid and intimate direction mostly keeps the text from feeling too bogged down in these details.
“Cullud Wattah” excels most when generating heat from familial conflict. The ensemble members who won are very adept at adapting to the language and needs of their sisters and mothers, from sideways glances and knowing shrugs to the direct-on withering gazes. Dickinson & Patterson bring out the fireworks when long-held resentments are finally released in the kind of fire that can only be created by love.
Inseparable as real-world calamity has become from the realm of art, Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah” is especially suited to a moment of environmental unrest. The play abruptly ends and the cast is left standing in silence before they leave the stage. They don’t return for a bow, as if this had not been a performance but a call to account.
Through December 12 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; www.publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Source: NY Times