Kia Corthron on the politics of H2O

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick asks who drinks and who goes thirsty.

“America is not saving me, I am here to save America,” says Abebe, an Ethiopian student preacher turned ecologist who’s the protagonist of Kia Corthron’s new play, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, currently at Playwrights Horizons. Corthron, a writer known for tackling tough issues (environmental racism in Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, police brutality in Force Continuum), asks her audiences to stop sipping bottled water long enough to consider the consequences of their beverage choice.

Cool Dip presents slices of the life of a young African preacher-in-training, who brings his missionary zeal for both Christianity and water conservation to a drought-stricken Appalachian town. Abebe (William Jackson Harper) stays with African-American mother Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and her daughter, H.J. (Kiann Muschett); they relocated after the male family members died in Hurricane Katrina. Abebe lost some of his own family back in Ethiopia due to lack of drinking water and faulty corporate dams. “This play is about water,” says Corthron, “who has access and who doesn’t.” That dichotomy is deftly handled with smart staging by Obie Award-winning director Chay Yew, who was drawn to the project because of the question it raises: “Can we change our ways so that we don’t have any loss,” the director asks, “or is loss inevitable, because of the human condition?”

Corthron was inspired to write Cool Dip when she attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, three years ago. “We went to Kibera, a large slum,” the writer remembers, “and I was struck by the difference between water for people who live there permanently and the clean water in a hotel. Clean shower water. That’s where it all started.” International news sources have reported on stinking latrines, open sewers, a lack of proper drains and no garbage collection in Kibera, one of the largest and most densely populated settlements in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria and typhoid outbreaks are common. During Corthron’s trip, the director of a local community center spent a night at her hotel. “In the morning, he twisted the shower handle, awed by the confidence that water would invariably flow from the spigot,” Corthon recalls.

Though acclaimed for her highly poetic writing style and social awareness, Corthron has also been criticized for creating overly dense dialogue and melding disparate themes. “There is much more theater that is easy,” the playwright counters. “I think there is a place for that, and a place for theater that is challenging.”

Perhaps to soften its tough message, most of Cool Dip’s action takes place in a family home—but don’t expect your standard kitchen-sink drama. Corthron mixes realistic and fantastical elements: Abebe visits his drowned brother in a vivid dream sequence, and Pickle conjures the bodies of her dead son, husband and father. It’s a double-pronged tactic: The heightened theatricality evokes social injustices on a global scale, while the realism examines the rich emotional life of characters coping with traumatic loss. “Kia’s characters are all driven by a consistent and compelling life force,” notes Playwrights Horizons head Tim Sanford. “I love Abebe. He is one of my favorite characters ever, such a prototypical Kia Corthron character—indomitable, driven, full of life and love.”

Director Yew hopes audiences will leave the theater and be moved to make real change (several ways to donate and help are listed on Playwrights Horizons’ website). As Yew warns: “If we don’t think about environment, how to make drinking water available to every human being, there are going to be some problems for us in the near future.”

A conservationist ethos trickles through this world premiere’s production too, from the contracts to the concessions. Cool Dip’s producers will not sell bottled water in the lobby during the performance, but staff members will fill a bottle brought from home or offer water in cups (biodegradable and made of corn, naturally). In addition, this production represents a major collaboration by three organizations: Playwrights Horizons supports new-play development, the Play Company stages international work, and Culture Project is known for plays dealing with human-rights issues. Sanford says these sorts of joint efforts—pooling budget money and marketing strategies—are becoming more common in the theater world. “Since the bottom dropped out of the economy,” he says, “a lot of us are banding together, and banding our audiences together.”

Such multiplatform approaches to activism are the ideal in Corthron’s world. Even Abebe doesn’t limit himself to one narrow mission: He came here to save American souls with his Bible and to save lives with his water research. Maybe Corthron’s audience, Nalgene bottles in hand, will find such connections inspiring enough to take to heart one of Abebe’s maxims: “Water is a right, not a commodity.”

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is at Playwrights Horizons through Apr 11. BYOBW (bring your own bottled water).

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