If you are like me, you have some vague notion that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—you remember: lead pipes, poisoned water, people getting very sick, governments (right up to the State House) trying to pawn off the blame or address it by appointing “crisis managers” who never did a thing—is a horrible memory of the past. After all, it must be over by now, right?
If you are like me, you’d be wrong.
Eight-plus years into the crisis with no end in sight, the (mostly Black, mostly poor) people of Flint are still stuck in their omnipresent nightmare, many of them unable to leave because their homes have been devalued to pennies on the dollar. For them, the nightmare might as well be permanent.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s painful, beautiful, horrifying, personal new play cullud wattah, now receiving a regional premiere at Victory Gardens, focuses on one (fictional) family and how they attempt to navigate these troubled waters without drowning. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown, the play reveals the reserves of faith needed just to keep going from day to day. It also shows what happens when those reserves are not strong enough.
Told mostly in an episodic structure though it opens and closes with choral monologues, cullud wattuh provides an up-close-and-way-too-personal view of the ways in which this catastrophe breaks even the strongest people, who find themselves making decisions that, in any other moment in their lives, would mortify them. Dickerson-Despenza, whose copious research is visible in every moment of her play, doesn’t hold anything back. She opens the play with a leukemia-riddled little girl sleepwalking as she marks the days on the floor and then lowers herself into a bathtub full of filthy water while the rest of the ensemble sings a bespoke version of “Wade in the Water” that ends with a reference to the man in charge, the state’s governor: “Snyder’s playing God with the water.”
The little girl here is Plum, played charmingly by Demetra Dee, the youngest child of the three generations of women who share this house—a set designed by Sydney Lynne. It’s a stunning hybrid of realism and representationalism: four clearly defined rooms plus hallways, all of which are open and visible to everything, including the ancient water facility that looms threateningly over the entire stage. Wonderfully lit by Jason Lynch, this is a cozy representation of a small but comfortable house fueled by love, which is practically palpable among these women and girls (even if, like all families, they are prone to sometimes serious internal disputes).
Generally at the center of these disputes is Ainee (Sydney Charles), one of the two daughters of Big Ma (Renée Lockett), the daughter who has, due to a lengthy addiction to crack cocaine, given her mother as much trouble as she can possibly handle and then some. It takes hardly any time at all for Charles and Lockett to establish their characters’ dynamic: each one’s very presence, by this point, antagonizes the other one, yet neither has anywhere else she can go. Ainee is visibly pregnant as the play opens (we learn that she’s in her eighth month…and that she has lost six other babies). Unwilling to jinx anything (as if their current lives need any more jinxing), Ainee refuses to give the fetus—which she strongly believes to be a girl—a name, no matter how the younger girls beg her to.
The younger girls, Plum and her high school-age sister Reesee (Ireon Roach), are the daughters of Ainee’s more responsible sister, Marion (Brianna Buckley), whose General Motors job is the only thing keeping all of them from losing everything and who, for most of the play, is the rock at the center of the storm. (Her inhuman composure is, of course, a front, as Buckley later lets us know in an emotional and powerful monologue.) Though Marion and Big Ma more or less assume the worst when it comes to Ainee, the girls love her unconditionally. Little Plum is too young and has been too sick to understand the problems Ainee causes, and Reesee, who has doffed Big Ma’s Christian beliefs in the hope that worshiping an African water goddess might bring better results, sees a kindred soul in someone who does things in her own way. (Reesee has also come out as gay, which doesn’t breed even a whiff of turbulence here…as should always be the case.)
At one point, we (and Plum…and even Marion) watch Reesee performing her own version of a ceremonial dance to her goddess dressed in an eye-catching and beautiful white dress trimmed with blue; costume designer Christine Pascual, here and everywhere, has done wonderful work. But even as we watch it in all of its energetic beauty, we know what Reesee isn’t allowing herself to know: it won’t and can’t change a thing.
This is not to say that there is no hope at all: Ainee has gotten wind of an incipient class-action suit that could result in “reparations” for all of the residents of Flint. It will, of course, take years to wind its way through the courts, but it is something to hold onto; it is a possibility…until Marion shoots it down, refusing to sign. Her employer, General Motors, which just gave her a promotion to management, is a named defendant: signing is just too risky.
Dickerson-Despenza’s script uses every trick it can, even opening the second act with a projection of the court plea which, though it is outrageously redacted before our eyes, still paints a compelling picture of where blame should be placed. Director Brown—who I am pretty sure was sitting right behind me—plays some powerful cards of her own, from Plum’s initial sleepwalking to several wonderfully revelatory bathroom scenes to allowing us to see what characters are doing in other parts of the house: this is especially powerful with the two girls, who are (of course) not necessarily doing what their mother thinks they are. The play also makes liberal use of sound bites from news reports about the crisis; Willow James’ work here is excellent.
Another provocative directorial statement arrives at the very end of the play. In the last of those choral monologues, we discover that, after all of this time, Flint still has no clean water. With no end in sight to its subject matter, Brown denies closure to the play itself by having no curtain call for the actors. (Behind me, I heard her—or whoever—tell a friend, while the long applause was echoing around us, that Actors Equity would have something to say about that. I hope not: leaving it suspended in the air was a brilliant touch, reflecting the ongoing crisis itself.)
cullud wattuh is easily one of the finest plays I have seen since the pandemic—which also still has not ended—abated enough to allow us back into the theatres. Just the set, this home embedded with hundreds of empty plastic water bottles, makes an indelible statement. Dickerson-Despenza has written an instant classic.
Tickets are available at victorygardens.org through July 17.