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cullud wattah

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 17, 2021

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
At the start of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's devastating new play cullud wattah, opening tonight at the Public Theater, the cast members face the audience and start singing the spiritual "Wade in the Water." But adjust your ears for a moment, and you will understand that the words have been altered. It's not "Wade in the Water" they are singing, but "Lead in the Water." We are being brought squarely into the midst of the water contamination calamity that first hit Flint, Michigan, in 2014 and which, despite a very recent court-approved settlement, has not been finally resolved even as of today.

The play opens on day 936 of the crisis in the home of three generations of Black women. It is a place where God is called upon with great frequency by the family matriarch, Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell), but neither her grown daughters Marion (Crystal Dickinson) and Aimee (Andrea Patterson), nor her grandchildren, Marion's daughters, 9-year-old Plum (Alicia Pilgrim) and 17-year-old Reesee (Lauren F. Walker), have much truck with the Lord these days. There is too much suffering going on, and there has been nothing but silence from God or from Yemòja, the Yoruba Queen of Water whom Reesee offers up her prayers to.

During the first act, and despite the fact that the house and the theater itself are littered with plastic bottles filled with dirty-brown water, the catastrophic situation (dangerously polluted water running into homes through corroded lead pipes) is largely a subtext. Against practical references as to how much clean bottled water provided by the Michigan government would be needed for the day's cooking and drinking, the family is more focused on its personal crises. Plum is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia and fears she will die; Aimee, a recovering crack addict, is going through a difficult pregnancy, having suffered six previous miscarriages; and Marion, who brings in most of the family's income, is afraid of losing her job at the General Motors plant, where layoffs are occurring at a fast and furious rate.

By the end of Act I, by which point the family is enmeshed in a tangle of accusations and recriminations, you may wonder if your expectations about the play have been upturned by the focus on domestic strife. But come Act II, hold on to your seats, as all the pain and rage, the sadness and fury, turn on the real culprit here: the corruption, the lies, the cover-ups and collusion that for years have dragged out the nightmare of the public water supply in Flint, where structural racism gives a more profound meaning to the play's title, cullud wattah, i. e. the water provided to persons of color.

The family we have been watching may be fictionalized representatives, but harsh reality is very much a feature of the play's traumatic second half. Amid the increasingly unbearable suffering that is visited upon Big Ma's family, there is no hesitation to rising up and naming names of those who are responsible, a modern "J'accuse" demanding justice for those who have been living through the nightmare for years. The full power of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's writing comes bursting through here. There are no holds barred; she is out for blood.

It comes as no surprise that the playwright draws her inspiration from other Black women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, and Suzan-Lori Parks. That's some mighty company to aspire to. But if cullud wattah, directed by Candis C. Jones with a close eye on the way the play builds its tension, is any indication of what's to come, make way. This is a writer who can shake you to the core.

cullud wattah
Through December 12, 2021
The Public Theater, Martinson Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: