Fluids drip everywhere in “cullud wattah,” the potent new drama by Erika Dickerson-Despenza about the contamination crisis of Flint, Michigan, now at the Victory Gardens Theater. And not just liquid flowing from a faucet into a soothing bath tub or a kitchen sink where people wash their food.
Human bodies, after all, are more than 50% made up of water. And thus on the stage at Victory Gardens, we also see the water that accompanies pregnancy, the water of urination, indeed, the crucial water that flows through most all of the canals of life.
Or, in this case, of disease.
In 2014, seeking to save money, a fiscally strapped Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron (via the City of Detroit) to the nearby Flint River, without applying any kind of corrosion remediation on a creaking infrastructure. The water ran through old lead pipes and, along with bacteria problems that may well have caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, the result was a tainted water supply pumped directly to those citizens, exposing some 10,000 people to elevated levels of lead and other contaminants. This was especially dangerous for the city’s children.
The public-health crisis resulted in resignations and both felony and misdemeanor charges, not to mention a federal state of emergency. It was revealed that records were falsified and, as has been widely reported, state officials revealed themselves to be utterly dismissive of the concerns of the actual residents. There were prosecutions for involuntary manslaughter although few convictions of any kind. And although many families eventually received a share of an $800 million settlement, the health damage was already done. And prosecutions are ongoing.
Two other things, relevant to this play, are worth noting. One is that General Motors was an early reporter of the water issue after finding that the water from the river corroded car parts. Few citizens of Flint knew of this. The other is that Flint is about 55% Black with many families still struggling from the collapse of the auto industry in the city, as famous documented by Michael Moore.
“Cullud wattah,” which was first produced at New York’s Public Theater and is directed in Chicago by Lilli-Anne Brown, is not a traditional docudrama but looks at the Flint crisis through the eye of one five-person household made up of mothers, sisters and daughters (played by Renée Lockett, Brianna Buckley, Sydney Charles, Demetra Dee and Ireon Roach).
All three generations of women are being devastated by the situation: One is struggling to maintain a pregnancy, one has cancer, one is trying to justify still working for GM, a company the play blames for not sounding a more humanistic alarm. The work, which has a strong spiritual and socialist underpinning, sees the public officials’ failure to take care of the people of Flint as emblematic of systemic racism, of the long American history of variance in the purity of its water supplies at the expense of the poor, of a perversion of the life-giving force of water itself.
The play does not countenance for a moment the possibility of an honest mistake. Nor should it. After all, had Flint been better fiscal shape, it would not have made such a decision. If a wealthy country cannot provide clean water to all its people, the play charges, then what can it really say it has achieved?
I’ve been to Flint a few times, as it happens, and the appearance of the city at first seems mostly typical of other Midwestern towns in postindustrial decay. And it’s hardly the only place with lead-pipe issues, as we well know in Chicago.
But this was a heinous sequence of events and inarguably represents one of the worst disasters in the history of so-called “Pure Michigan.” Only for some, apparently.
By focusing only on this one family, “cullud wattah” sometimes struggles to introduce enough of the basic information for those who don’t know the details and it relies on media snippets, which rarely works that well. I found myself wanting to see some dramatic confrontation with officialdom but, in fairness, the piece made different and perfectly valid choices. It’s a piece about the impact of the crisis and it has made up its mind about the causes from the beginning.
Brown’s new production is powerfully acted in many scenes, especially in the blistering confrontations between two interdependent sisters, as grippingly played by Charles and Buckley, who are really fired up here and who are part of a very strong cast.
I thought Sydney Lynne’s set to be compelling as an emblematic sculpture of the play’s themes but also less than practical in places, filling the stage with props and constraining some of the actors’ movements and the overall narrative drive of the play. I think “cullud wattah,” which is deeply expressionistic in style, could be staged more simply and perhaps would be all the more potent and fluid for that.
Both the production and the writing, which is rich indeed, are massively ambitious and, of course, driven by the same fight against injustice, wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Even today.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “cullud wattah” (3 stars)
When: Through July 17
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave,
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $29-$62 at 773-871-3000 and www.victorygardens.org