Theater review by Raven Snook
In a program note for cullud wattah, Erika Dickerson-Despenza's devastating new drama about the impact of the Flint water crisis on an intergenerational household of Black women, the playwright welcomes audiences to "participate both physically and audibly." At this neo-Greek tragedy about an American travesty, gasps and tears complete the experience.
General Motors employee, breadwinner and widowed single mom Marion (Crystal A. Dickinson, heartbreaking) is desperately trying to keep her family's heads above dirty water. Her queer teenage daughter Reesee (a winning Lauren F. Walker) prays to a Yoruba deity to help her little sister, Plum (Alicia Pilgrim), who has leukemia, and their pregnant aunt, Ainee (Andrea Patterson), a recovering addict who's had six previous miscarriages. Meanwhile, matriarch Big Ma (a commanding Lizan Mitchell) continually invokes the will of God even as politicians and corporations spread poison to a trapped population.
Though billed as an Afro-surrealist piece, cullud wattah is dramatically straightforward and, despite moments of joy, predictably sad. Yet it transcends its issue-play roots. Dickerson-Despenza and director Candis C. Jones personalize Flint’s public-health crisis with poetry and feeling; familiar ethical debates and secret confessions—like Big Ma's story of forbidden love—seem fresh thanks to lived-in performances, exhilarating language and stunning aesthetics. The characters haunt scenic designer Adam Rigg's dreamscape of a home, which features hundreds of plastic bottles filled with discolored liquid suspended from the ceiling, chalkboard walls covered in tally marks and a clawfoot tub that's akin to Chekhov's gun. Zoom out and you realize this isn't just Flint, Michigan; it's anywhere people lack access to clean water and equity.
The production isn't perfect: The first act feels long, there are awkward scene transitions and Pilgrim is not quite convincing as a nine-year-old child, though she gives a glimpse of the grown woman Plum could be. But cullud wattah offers a powerful depiction of the toll that climate change, systemic racism and greed take on ordinary people. Its discomfiting truths leave you thirsty for justice.
cullud wattah. Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Erika Dickerson-Despenza. Directed by Candis C. Jones. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hr 15mins. One intermission.