All of us are probably aware of the problems of polluted water in Flint, Michigan, owing to civic neglect. However, it might shock you to know that it is still going on. Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winning play Cullud Wattah takes on this crisis through the prism of one family of three generations of Black women living in the same house. The material is powerful and explosive. We learn a great deal about the crisis as well as see how it personally affects all five of these women in one family. Director Candis C. Jones has obtained the kind of performances from her ensemble cast that makes you feel that these actresses have lived and worked together for years when they may have never met before now.
The most startling thing about the production is the set by Adam Rigg: hung from the walls of the stage on three sides are strings of bottles of discolored water with dated labels which also line the four rooms of the Cooper house depicted on stage. On the black painted walls surrounding the audience down to the near wall of stage left is a running tally in chalk of the number of days without clean water in Flint, Michigan which total 937 when the play begins in November 16, 2016. At times the bottles are lit by designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew so that they give off an eerie amber glow. The bathroom with a prominent tub (used repeatedly) is down stage right in front of a living room, kitchen, and the one bedroom we are able to see. Bottles of clean water also line both kitchen and bathroom.
Breadwinner and single parent Marion, a third generation employee, works at the General Motors plant and worries about losing her job due to recent downsizing. (Her husband Eddie died as a soldier in Afghanistan seven years earlier – he had enlisted because the salary was higher than he was getting in Flint.) Her nine-year-old daughter Plum is being treated for leukemia with chemotherapy which has kept her out of school. Her 17-year-old daughter Reesee (short for Clarise which she hates) is a queer questioning high school student who is exploring the spiritual healing of Yoruba and has unaccountable bleeding. Marion’s 37-year-old sister Ainee is a recovering drug addict who has lost six fetuses due to miscarriages and is pregnant with a seventh child for whom she doesn’t appear to know the father. Marion and Ainee’s mother, Big Ma, has been out of work since an accident at the plant and credits everything to the will of God. The family has been waiting for a promised water filter for more than two years.
We follow their daily lives starting with Plum’s first day back to school where she will have to wear a wig to disguise her loss of hair from the chemotherapy and deal with her poor treatment by her classmates who want to know if her leukemia is catching. And then Ainee receives a flyer for the class action suit by neighbors against the government and General Motors officials who knew that the water was toxic and did nothing to help the residents besides suggesting that they drink and bathe in bottled water which is proving quite costly. But Marion can’t afford to be involved with the class action as she is afraid she will lose her job if she puts her name on the petition and asks Ainee not to put their only income in jeopardy. In a later explosive scene we find out that she has a deep dark secret that she has known for years from her work at the plant.
The play is the author’s first to reach New York after development by several foundations, and has some problems of early plays in a writer’s career. The dialogue is written in what the author describes as “upsouth blaccent” specific to the Black Midwest which will be difficult for some theatergoers whose ears are not attuned to it. This ultimately dysfunctional family drama piles on the social problems (unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, deadly illness, single-parent home, one-income family, generation gap, fear of losing a needed job, etc.) that it seems a bit clichéd, covering territory we have traveled many times before. While the topic and the material are explosive, nothing much happens dramatically aside from revelations and the play seems too talky for its own good. However, the play’s ending is theatrical dynamite as is the end of the first act. This author knows how to bring down a curtain.
Under Candis C. Jones’ direction, the acting is extraordinary: Crystal Dickinson as Marion who is holding the family together by the sweat of her brow; Andrea Patterson as her older sister Ainee who has been clean now for almost a year and continues to go to group therapy while having pains that could come from her pregnancy or the toxic water; Lizan Mitchell as their wise mother has a story for everything and a placid disposition in the face of adversity; Lauren F. Walker as Marion’s older daughter Reesee who is rebelling against a great many things and seeking her place in the world. The only problem with the casting is that playwright and director have chosen an adult actress to play the nine-year-old Plum. While Alicia Pilgrim is fine, we do not see an elementary school child which would add to the problems of the play, thereby diluting her role in the family.
The production team is all on the same wavelength which helps propel the play. Kara Harmon’s lived-in looking costumes could be from the actresses’ own wardrobes, so well do they fit the characters they are playing. She also places them in white robes or dresses periodically that give the play a spiritual/poetic quality. Composer Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design includes well-known songs that comment ironically on the action. The essential and varied wig, hair and makeup design is by Earon Chew Nealey. Adesola Osakalumi is credited with movement direction for this play which has a good deal of ritual.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah should make its audiences very angry that after all this time the problem continues to plague our fellow citizens. It is the sort of play that should help lead to legislation that would make this never possible again. It has a superlative cast who appear to be living their roles. It also has some of the dramatic problems of early plays in writers’ careers. However, I look forward with bated breath to this author’s very next work for the stage. I predict it will blow us away.
Cullud Wattah (extended through December 12, 2021)
The Public Theater
Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission