9/23/2023 CULLUD WATTAH Actor’s Express
LEAD IN THE WATER
It’s so easy to let our outrage fade. After all, disasters (natural and man-made) happen every day. Too often – indeed by definition – we empathize only with whatever victims are grabbing today’s headlines, today’s evening news, today’s Facebook Feed. Then we have our wine, binge our latest streaming obsession, and go back to our lives.
And to be sure, very few (if any) disasters happen in our own backyard, in our own town, within our own circle of friends. Sure, I lived in Harrisburg PA in March of 1979 when Three Mile Island, um, happened. But that’s the exception that proves the rule (a phrase I never really understood). For the record, there is still radioactive waste at the site, I still have family and friends in the area, and it never once crosses my mind or concern.
So, in all honesty, how many of us are still upset about the Flint MI water crisis? Google Maps tells me there are about 760 miles between Actor’s Express and downtown Flint MI. And the water from the fountain by the King Plow Center bathrooms is cool and clear, not an ounce of “cullud wattah” coming from the Lake Lanier reservoir here! I hope. (I have no idea if the Lanier Pipes are lead-free and can find precious little information for quick access.)
We hear stories out of Jackson MI, Baltimore MD and Louisiana, yet, for most of us, this issue is “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” It seems, if we’re not getting sick or SEEING schmutz out of the tap, we have blind faith in our water quality.
The experience of watching this production of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah is a slap in the face (I hesitate to say “a face-slap of cold water”). It is akin to being bussed to Flint, moving in with one particular family, and sharing their experience. Their experiences of official disregard, of economic despair, of lead-based illness and affliction, of loss and pain and hopelessness. Of the micro (and macro) aggressions ONLY practiced by family and loved ones. Of the pure rage that can only be ignited by those who know us the best eclipsing the quick-burning quick-expiring rage ignited by those “in power.”
This is a theatrical work of outrage. It comes by its anger honestly. There are no soapboxes in view, no contrived plotting to “stack the deck” to manipulate us into sharing the playwright’s point of view (oft repeated statistics notwithstanding), nothing that would even pass muster with an op-ed piece from a news-feed or blog.
There are simply five women, living their lives in the face of overwhelming odds, bringing us along for the ride. And it is cruel, devasting, and impossible to disregard.
We are greeted in the lobby with a shelf-full of bottled water, water with a distinct unpleasant hue. We are asked to take a bottle and “put it anywhere on the set.” Once in the playing space, we see the set-up is Actor’s Express oft-used “Alley” configuration – audience on two sides, set (designed by Bailey McClure-Frank) down the middle. The set itself is a multi-level home, the irony apparently intentional that this family could never afford a house of this elegance and size. But there are four distinct rooms – kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom (with working water-filled tub), with ingress and egress all available from any room, any side.
The show begins with a stylized chant/song/dance, the tune the old jubilee song “Wade in the Water” with “Wade” changed to “Lead,” jubilation obviously not included, the choreography (by Jelalani Akil Jones) distinctly Afrofusion. And the irony is that lead is the least of the poisons, the most inorganic.
And then we meet the family.
Big Ma Cooper (Terry Henry) rules the roost, her faith a rock, her control absolute in spite of needing a cane to hobble from one level to the next. Daughter Marion (Marita A. McKee) is the breadwinner, a laborer at one of Flint’s few remaining GM plants. Daughter Ainee (Parris Sarter) is a recovering addict and is too many months pregnant by a man she doesn’t talk about (may not even remember). Marion has two daughters, 9-year-old Plum (an adult Morgan Crumbly) and teenager Reesee (an adult Asha Basha Duniani). Plum has Leukemia and is on a yo-yo cycle of treatments the family cannot afford. Reesee is highly spirited, gay, and is trying to connect with her ethnic Yoruba roots (to Big Ma’s highly judgmental disdain on all three counts).
The water has been “cullud” for hundreds of days, so it is long after 2014. Since the Class Action suit against the city and the engineering companies is just getting underway, we can assume it is approaching Thanksgiving 2016.
All the women are showing the ill effects of the water – Plum’s Leukemia, Ainee’s pre-natal problems, Marion’s rashes, short tempers and long-held resentments flowing freely.
All the women are coping as well as they can. Marion accepts a promotion at the plant even though that means they can’t participate in the Class Action suit without her being fired. Marion and Plum have an early morning ritual in which Plum’s wig is donned and “made pretty.” The exact count of water bottles required for household tasks is known and memorized (26 to wash the Thanksgiving vegetables, more for the turkey or to clean dishes or to bathe). Reesee’s Yoruba deity of choice is the water goddess Yemọja.
Overhanging all are the factors they cannot control – the indifference of G.M., the denial of the local government, the failure to provide required filters to low-income households, the “notices to disconnect” from the Municipal Water Company providing the unhealthy the undrinkable the unusable. And of course, the hundreds of bottles provided by us, the unaffected.
Director Amanda Washington keeps her ensemble tight – these women act like family, fight like family, forgive (if not forget) like family, face the next trial together like family. Especially when experience has shown the next trial will be worse than the last with no bottom in sight. And, eventually, even the adults playing the grandchildren seem like children and not adults wearing masks of pretense. Thankfully, Ms. Washington’s singular achievement preserves a lot of wit and humor in lockstep with desperation and anger.
There is more tragedy along the way, more lies to filter, more reasons to reject Big Ma’s Gospel Jubilee songs, more reasons to reject pie-in-the-sky solace from any (and all) religious traditions. And (spoiler alert), the play ends with the lights blacking out and the houselights coming up on a stunned audience, no curtain call, no note of celebration, no relief from the outrage.
Nothing but a stylized set filled to overflowing with bottled reminders of the “Lead in the Water.”
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #aeCulludWattah )
This was a difficult piece to write. I initially wanted to include the same sorts of statistics Ms. Dickerson-Desperanza includes in her script. Days without clean water. Economic disparities in relief efforts. Individual payouts of the ten related Class Action Lawsuits. Disposition of the (too few) criminal cases against the officials involved in the initial action. Number of victims of Lead Poisoning, Cancer, Legionnaire’s Disease, Skin Rashes, and other water-related dysfunctionality.
But those would be just numbers. Graphs. Statistics. Dry Data. And worse, such information is resistant to quick-and-easy research.
This play is about the faces, the hearts, the lived-in pains. The fictional women a skilled playwright has created to represent a significant portion of the victims. Women behind the numbers. Emotions behind the statistics. Loves lost and loves forever damaged.
What could I possible say? You will either see this show (which I highly recommend) or you won’t. All I ask is that you think of the Cooper family every time you shower without counting the bottles used, wash vegetables without fear of making them more toxic, kill that middle-of-the-night dry mouth with a refreshing swig of night-stand ice water (leaving a condensation ring being the pinnacle of concern).
I for one can’t get them out of my mind.