“Good wattah or bad wattah?” It’s not a question a nine-year-old should need to ask as a constant refrain, and yet it runs through Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah, winner of the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. As of November 16, 2021, the night I saw this play, it’s been 2,762 days since the residents of Flint, Michigan, could turn on their tap without asking that question. (The walls of the theater are painted in chalkboard paint and marked with tallies that surround the audience, counting the days; the upstage half of the space is hung with half-empty bottles of discolored water, glowing when the light hits them, each one marking a dashed hope of a return to normalcy.) The play is a shriek of rage about this, a refusal to look away or forget or ignore what has happened and continues to happen in Flint. It’s an act of bearing witness, of acknowledging the horrors that this country is capable of visiting upon its own, especially when those “own” are Black and working-class. It’s a cry of pain, grief–and also guilt–from the American heartland, where a family must face this situation with no recourse and also grapple with their own levels of responsibility, not so much for what’s happening to them as for the compromised choices they are forced to make to deal with it.
Dickerson-Despenza is working both in the realm of painful reality and in a kind of heightened space she calls “jook joint writing”–where the silences and the spaces between lines sometimes carry as much weight as the words, and where sentences overlap and spill into each other. (It rewards seeing on the page, where it has an almost punctuation- and capitalization-less urgency that somehow resembles water overflowing a container.) The diction evokes Suzan-Lori Parks’s early work, almost choral at times, but in the hands of director Candis M. Jones and the actors, especially Crystal Dickinson at the play’s center, the heavy emotional weight beneath the linguistic musicality strikes home, too. The play’s poetics and its polemics work, even when the plot seems like too much to bear.
The Cooper family contains five women from three generations sharing a house in Flint: Marion (Dickinson), the head of the household, who works on the line at GM like her parents and grandparents did; Marion’s two daughters, nine-year-old Plum (Alicia Pilgrim) and seventeen-year-old Reesee (Lauren F. Walker); Marion’s sister Ainee (Andrea Patterson), a recovering addict who’s at the moment very pregnant; and Marion and Ainee’s widowed mother, Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell). The tragedies for the Coopers began to cascade over them before the water crisis and never stopped—Big Ma widowed; Marion’s husband laid off and then lost to war; Big Ma injured in an accident at GM and never fully recovering; Ainee battling drug addiction for most of her adult life and suffering a series of miscarriages. And then the troubles with the water begin, layering additional maladies upon them all: infections and rashes and tremors and abnormal menstrual bleeding and even a leukemia diagnosis for Plum. She’s just finished chemotherapy as the play begins, more than two years into the water crisis.
And on top of it all, they’re spending money they don’t have, trickling it away on jug after jug of bottled water (Thanksgiving dinner alone will require 7 jugs and 144 small bottles) while still being overcharged for the poison coming out of their faucets. Marion is trying to take a principled stand on that–well, part principle, part bill-juggling–but would it be better to have the water turned off completely? They’re barely keeping their heads above water, especially because Marion, the only one with a steady income, lives in constant fear of losing it as wave after wave of layoffs hits the GM plant where she works. (The water metaphors seem to write themselves here; nothing in this play lets you escape its omnipresence.) And when Marion is offered a promotion to management while Ainee is trying to join a class-action suit over the water situation that names GM as one of the defendants, it’s one thing too many in this already overtaxed family.
They’re all trying so desperately to hold it together for one another that when they fail, the explosion–the flood, if we’re sticking with the water theme–is devastating, letting years of long-repressed conflict surge out. Dickinson, Patterson, and Mitchell wonderfully depict the balance of love, fear, historical grievances, and resignation among the two sisters and their mother, as it becomes clear that some long-held secrets and resentments are adding a level of emotional corrosiveness alongside the water that literally corroded machinery at the GM plant. Marion’s daughters are harder characters to play–and, with both parts cast with adult actors here, sometimes it’s not clear whether or not Dickerson-Despenza and director Candis C. Jones want them to seem wise beyond their years.
The play is often uncomfortable to watch because of the relentlessness of the travails suffered by the Coopers, but we should be uncomfortable–we should be outraged–thinking about what’s happening in Flint. The Coopers become an archetype, the survivors of everything terrible that contemporary America can throw at them. They’re the principle of survival and persistence, even when Marion’s instinct to soldier through has arguably made everything worse. They thought they might be allowed to believe in the American Dream, but they’ve lost and lost and lost.
cullud wattah is so generally grim that the few touches of joy and openly expressed emotion stand out. The overall action of the play is a spiral of despair, filled with betrayals both external (government; corporations) and internal (family members not doing right by one another). The water filter long-promised by the government feels almost like Godot–it’s always “sure to come tomorrow” and yet it’s so much too little, so much too late.