The In-Person Off-Broadway Experience: Public Theater’s cullud wattah
The bottles hang like dirty wind chimes signaling, not a gentle breeze, but a devastatingly poisonous storm that is spewing all kinds of trouble in and around this multi-generational story at the heart of cullud wuddah, a strongly framed indictment by the thoughtfully intricate Erika Dickerson-Despenza (shadow/land). The new compelling drama, brought to the stage by The Public Theater, digs its teeth deep into the Flint water crisis that most of us know about, but haven’t really drunk the cullud wattah that sits casually on the edges of this household. It’s a new experience, learning about the tragedy that the esteemed playwright pours out in a seemingly hypnotic and trance-like manner. At first, the drama resonates within a dreamy sleepwalking landscape of white-clad Black women standing tall at the center of this struggle, but as it streams forward, the play retreats into a more standard structure, relating all the cancerous outcomes from being poisoned by your own politicians and leaders. But in that first scenario, the play glistens in the darkness, echoing the Neo-Greek tragedy for all of us who know so little about Flint beyond the obvious. The symbolic trance dissipates quickly though, revealing a more opaque and straightforward drama of real-life situations and utterly heartbreaking complications.
Drawing strikes on the walls as she counts up the days with white chalk, the significance of those lines throughout the theatre doesn’t register, or become clear until later. That is, until the struggling widow and single mother, Marion, played strongly by Crystal A. Dickinson (Broadway’s Clybourne Park) has to stand tall after all she’s done and witnessed. She is, in essence the Greek tragic center; an employee at General Motors, desperate to hold onto her job against all odds and trying with all her might to keep her family from sinking down under the weight of all that dirty water. It ain’t easy, surrounded by reminders of a husband and father who was lost, but she’s doing her best within. She’s focused and determined to raise well her teenage daughter, Reesee. Portrayed magnificently by the compelling Lauren F. Walker (MCC’s Charm), this queer young person of color prays to the Yoruba deity for clean water salvation daily with hopes to help both her own infested body, and her little sister, Plum, portrayed spritely by Alicia Pilgrim (Purchase Rep’s Mr. Burns,…), flourish and survive her battle with leukemia.
Sharing the space and the stage with this tense family is Marion’s bumper sticker spewing firecracker of a mother, Big Ma, played wisely by Lizan Mitchell (Broadway’s Electra), and Marion’s troubled sister, the pregnant and single Ainee, forcibly portrayed by Andrea Patterson (Detroit Public’s Paradise Blue), a recovering addict who is balancing the act of being cautious and optimistic about her seventh pregnancy, as the previous six have not gone to full term. Her storyline crash’s hard, gushing in the most emotionally wrought cascade, showering the play with the complications of both the personal and the political decision making processes.
As directed with a natural and straightforward approach by Candis C. Jones (Detroit Public’s Pipeline), cullud wattah sets forth a strong agenda to unpack and pour out the public health crisis that happened and is still happening in Flint, playing its cards almost too prophetically over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes (with one intermission). The engagements ring too, but the layers sometimes feel as forced as the overly busy uber-symbolic set design by Adam Rigg (NYTW’s The House That Will Not Stand), with solid costuming by Kara Harmon (MTC’s The Niceties), lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden), and sound design and composition by Sinan Refik Zafar (Broadway’s What the Constitution…).
Naming names, and the dangerous act of believing in God is what lies beneath the small splintering floorboards of this upsetting drama. “I don’t want to die in dirty water,” one character exclaims, unearthing the abstract secret of faith and the complications that exist within this family Etched out in poetic ethical debates on top of confessions from the past, the piece finds its way, transcending the difficulty of being an over-the-top issue-play, mainly because of the very lived-in authentic performances of this stellar crew of actors and artists.
It has been 2,784 days (on the day I saw this show) since Flint, Michigan had clean water flow through its taps. And Dickerson-Despenza wants us to know what that means, for this family, and for the world beyond. There are people who knew what was happening and the consequences of their inaction. They must be held accountable, and cullud wattah has no intention of letting us leave the Public not knowing the full details of these illegal acts. For that, I am completely thankful, for this play and this production. It’s a powerful unpacking of a family in turmoil, mainly because of greed, systematic racism, and political corruption, and director Jones wants us to feel the thirst for justice as completely as possible.