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A Portrait of a Black Family Amid a Health Crisis in Cullud Wattah

Erika Dickerson-Despenza's new play makes its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater.

Alicia Pilgrim and Lauren F. Walker in the world premiere production of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's Cullud Wattah, directed by Candis C. Jones, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Erika Dickerson-Despenza's sprawling new play Cullud Wattah, finally making its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater, couldn't be more timely. On April 25, 2014, Flint officially started drawing its water from the Flint River — water that turned out to contain dangerously high levels of lead, despite state officials' insistence to the contrary. But while anger at government malfeasance and the senseless tragedies that resulted is a driving force of the play, Dickerson-Despenza couches it in the context of a portrait of a five-member family of Black women, all of whom have been marked by the water crisis in some way.

The 9-year-old Plum (Alicia Pilgrim) and 17-year-old Reesee (Lauren F. Walker) are the youngest of the five; Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell) is the oldest. Dickerson-Despenza gives all of them distinctive characteristics, scenes, and dramatic arcs. Plum figures into a handful of dream sequences in which she sleepwalks toward a bathtub. The spiritually yearning Reesee begins the play embracing a belief in Yemoja, the Yoruba water deity, but eventually finds her beliefs challenged by the events around her. As for Big Ma, though she's presented as a tough-talking voice of reason throughout much of the play, Dickerson-Despenza has written her a showstopping monologue at the beginning of Act 2 that not only fills in some of her personal history, but also offers a perspective on religious faith that inspires Reesee.

But the central conflict in Cullud Wattah is between Marion (Crystal Dickinson) and her older sister, Ainee (Andrea Patterson). An assembly-line worker at General Motors on the verge of a promotion, Marion, widowed mother of Plum and Reesee, has the closest proximity to one of the forces behind the water contamination, but feels she needs to stay in their good graces in order to provide for her family. By contrast, Ainee, a former drug addict who is about to become a mother herself, signs up to be a part of a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan, setting up a tension between Ainee's activist idealism and Marion's no-nonsense practicality. Though Marion and Ainee face off in a couple of electrifying arguments in the first act, Dickerson-Despenza gives each character's motivations their due, refusing to break them down into simplistic good-versus-evil binaries.

Andrea Patterson, Lizan Mitchell, and Crystal Dickinson in Cullud Wattah. Set design by Adam Rigg.
(© Joan Marcus)

That empathy extends to the play's fairly loose structure. Dickerson-Despenza isn't afraid to include scenes that don't necessarily further the plot, but develop character and add texture to her patchwork quilt of Black life. Though naturalistic drama dominates, Cullud Wattah also includes elements of surrealism, music, and dance. It is, in short, a very ambitious work in story and style. Some of those ambitions are better realized than others: The characters, for one thing don't always escape the feeling of being mere mouthpieces for the playwright's themes rather than being fully realized people. Even at its shaggiest, though, there is a generosity of spirit to Dickerson-Dispenza's writing that is powerful enough to transcend its shortcomings.

Director Candis C. Jones furthers that wide-ranging spirit with an imaginative production. Most impressive of all is Adam Rigg's elaborate set, which surrounds a cross-section of the family home with myriad bottles of water lining the floors and hanging from the ceiling, while the black walls of the Martinson Theater are filled with chalk lines marking the days that the Flint water crisis has been going on. In some of the dream sequences, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew lights the hanging water bottles in shades of green and brown, adding a surrealistic touch, while appropriately evoking times of day with spotlights on the house set during the dramatic scenes.

None of these striking visual elements, however, get in the way of the performances, with no weak links in the ensemble. Pilgrim and Walker fully embody adolescent innocence and curiosity as the two daughters. As Big Ma, Mitchell skillfully exudes motherly affection even at her most tough-talking. And Dickinson's world-weariness as Marion plays beautifully off Patterson's passionate stridency as Ainee.

As full of intimate detail and stylistic variety as Cullud Wattah is, you're likely to come away from the play feeling angry at how it is that Flint, more than seven years since the crisis began, still doesn't have fully clean water. Dickerson-Despenza drives this point home with a bold concluding flourish that refuses to let even us audience members off the hook. Even if the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill helps resolve the immediate issues the Flint water crisis laid bare, Cullud Wattah shows how the disturbing larger structural and social implications of the crisis will still be with us long after we walk out of the theater.

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