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Theatre in Review: Cullud Wattah (The Public Theater)

Crystal Dickinson. Photo: Joan Marcus

In her two most recent works, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza functions as a kind of alchemist, transmuting water into theatre that is both magical and disturbing. Given an audio production by the Public last April, shadow/land traps a mother and daughter in a New Orleans dance hall as floods from Hurricane Katrina engulf the city; it weaves family drama, the city's storied musical history, and the scandal of the government's inept disaster response into a powerful dramatic statement. Cullud Wattah focuses on another, possibly even more egregious failure: the poisoning of the Flint, Michigan water supply. It, too, combines a multigenerational domestic conflict with a scathing examination of institutional failure. It's not perfectly polished, but it's the work of a writer with a knack for blistering, truth-telling confrontations. Dickerson-Despenza is easily one of the most promising talents to come out of the Public in many seasons.

In Candis C. Jones' production, the horrible evidence of the Flint crisis is all over the Martinson Hall stage. Adam Rigg's strikingly original set design presents a multilevel household interior (kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom) surrounded by a curtain of plastic bottles filled with brown water. (These are given an eerie radiance by the superb lighting of Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.) The cast is heard singing, "Lead in de Wattah: A Revisited Negro Spiritual for Flint," by avery r. young, which reframes the lyrics of the spiritual "Wade in the Water" as a baleful prophecy. The final line of each verse is "snyder playing god/with wattuh," a reference to Rick Snyder, the Michigan governor who was indicted over his mishandling of the affair. Like another Public Theater classic, The Normal Heart, Cullud Wattah is not afraid to name names.

The interior of Rigg's set is also filled with bottles of discolored water, a reminder that the lives of Dickerson-Despenza's characters are controlled by an ongoing emergency that no one in power seems willing or able to fix. The play focuses on the all-female Cooper household. Marion, a widow in her thirties, works on the assembly line for General Motors, hanging onto the promise of a secure, middle-class existence even as her union is marginalized and workers are, increasingly, let go. Her mother, Big Ma, a long-ago emigrant from Mississippi, is a Southern woman at heart, a convinced Christian handing down judgments with biblical certainty. On her receiving end are Reesee, Marion's seventeen-year-old daughter, a queer devotee of Yoruba spiritual practices who plans to become a doula, and Ainee, Big Ma's other daughter, a recovering drug addict who is a few weeks away from giving birth. All are concerned with the fate of Plum, Marion's, nine-year-old, who is struggling with leukemia.

They're a lively, funny, feisty bunch, given to quarreling and loving in equal measures, but, whatever their dreams or fears, the water problem dominates their days. News reports announce the delivery of government filters that never arrive. Bills appear in the mail, charging extortionate rates by the city for the brown sludge coming out of faucets. Each meal requires an advance calculation of how many bottles of water will be needed. The evidence of desolation includes Plum's illness, the rashes on Marion's body, and Reesee's eczema-like condition, which causes her to scratch until she bleeds. It's putting it mildly to say that this is a worrisome environment in which to give birth, especially since Ainee has experienced multiple miscarriages.

Even more devastating is the internal rupture that occurs when Ainee, who is involved in social protest, gets involved in a class action lawsuit that could result in substantial financial relief. At the same time, Marion, who has long feared the loss of her job, is offered a middle-management position with a significant pay increase. But the lawsuit implicates General Motors and Marion is terrified that having an activist sister will destroy her chances for advancement. This sets the stage for a savagely candid set-to between the sisters, one that lays bare years of fraught family history, including the deaths of their father, killed for union organizing, and Marion's husband, a casualty of war in Afghanistan. Also bared, in no uncertain terms, are Marion's long-running resentment of Ainee's addiction and Ainee's fury at being forced to live under Marion's rules. The conflict builds to a fever pitch, stunningly sustained by Andrea Patterson as Ainee and, especially, Crystal Dickinson, in what may be her career-best performance, as Marion. As the scene reaches a searing climax, one feels certain that the first act is over. But Dickerson-Despenza tops herself, detonating an additional bombshell -- one that would have been appreciated by Henrik Ibsen and the young Arthur Miller -- that casts Marion in an entirely new light and has the power to blow the family apart.

In truth, nothing in the second act quite reaches this level of engagement. It begins with a confusingly staged bit of business featuring a blown-up replica of the class action lawsuit that is redacted by Ainee; also, the tragic finale, rooted in Plum's sleepwalking habit, doesn't entirely satisfy. It is linked to the play's invocation of Yemoja, the African goddess of the ocean and pregnant women, who serves as a kind of organizing principle here, and it feels a little bit too much like a playwright's invention rather than the inevitable result of what has come before. Still, the play continuously fascinates, and the cast delivers first-class ensemble work. Lizan Mitchell applies her powerful presence and superb diction to Big Ma, giving her a Jeremiah-like stature even when admitting to a surprising past indiscretion. As Reesee, Lauren F. Walker engages in lively verbal sparring with her relatives while effectively introducing the play's spiritual element. The casting of the adult Alicia Pilgrim as Plum is confusing at first; it was some time before I realized the character is still in grade school. Nevertheless, she makes an immensely touching figure. Jones' production also benefits from Kara Harmon's costumes (in tandem with Earon Chew Nealey's hair, wigs, and makeup), as well as Sinan Refik Zafar's sound design and compositions.

And if Cullud Wattah suffers from certain structural weaknesses, including a slightly pokey first act, any playwright who can write such unbridled scenes, sparing none of her characters, is someone to watch. Her work is filled with a controlled indignation that commands one's attention; as the finale indicates, the fallout from Flint continues. This is the first major play we've seen focusing on the burning issue of environmental racism. Sadly, I doubt it will be the last. --David Barbour

(18 November 2021)

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