By JK Clarke

Corruption takes many forms, but one of the most horrifying is when government officials join forces with corporations (in either cost-cutting or money-grab scenarios) and endanger the lives and well-being of the citizens they are tasked with protecting. Examples abound—from Love Canal to Chernobyl to Bohpal. One of the latest, and most distressing in recent memory, is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which the Town of Flint, at the behest of its mayor, deliberately changed the town’s water supply as a cost-cutting measure. The water that instead flowed into Flint was horribly polluted, exposing tens of thousands of residents to dangerously high levels of lead, and contaminated with carcinogenic trihalomethanes among other things, forcing residents to resort to using bottled water for drinking, cooking and cleaning for the next several years (too long!). Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s new play, Cullud Wattah, in its world premier at the Public Theater through December 12, takes a close, gripping examination of an African-American family of five women (and three generations) coping with the horror of the ongoing crisis.

Andrea Patterson, Lizan Mitchell, and Crystal Dickinson

On Adam Rigg’s dramatic and impressive set (that may have worked better as a three-quarter thrust or in the round rather than a standard proscencium), the exposed family home is adorned with hundreds (if not thousands) of backlit water bottles filled with murky yellow liquid hanging in strings and surrounding the entire set. It’s a reminder both of the countless gallons of filthy tap water that could not be consumed, as well as the degradation of having to rely on donated bottled water. The curtains of beautifully ugly bottles are the perfect illustration of the gothic horror facing the family and community. In a full tub, downstage and center, nine-year-old Plum (Alicia Pilgrim)—whose name is cleverly derived from the Latin word for lead—immerses herself, still dressed in her nightgown, in a nightmare bath from which she can’t distinguish “good wattah or bad wattah?” Ordinarily she might know, but she is enmeshed in the family’s terrible dream. “E-coli,” she is told.

The rest of the family is held afloat by the strength of Big Ma (terrific Lizan Mitchell) wielding a jabbing cane and sharp tongue. She is a quintessential matriarch who seems at times to feel like the situation is beyond hope. Yet she relies on an improbable Faith, rooted in her life long religious values, and even if her progeny aren’t believers, they seem to have faith in her Faith. Marion (Crystal Dickinson), a stoic widow is a Company woman, and family breadwinner, having worked at General Motors for nearly two decades. Her faith in the Company and family friends who work there could prove to be her downfall, but she has no choice because her daughters Plum and Reesee (Lauren F. Walker)—a 17-year-old who has come to rely on her faith in “yemoja” and spiritual healing—depend on her. As does her sister Ainee, who’s 37 years old, nearly nine months pregnant (having had six miscarriages previously) and a recurring addict in recovery, clean for only a year this time. The family’s already almost-impossible circumstance certainly doesn’t need poisoned water on top of everything else. 

Lizan Mitchell and Lauren F. Walker

Anchored by powerful performances from the entire cast and strong direction by Candis C. Jones (shadow/land), Cullud Wattah is billed as an “Afro-surrealist” play. What that implies is unclear, as the crisis was (and still is) very real. Surrealism generally addresses problems through an ambiguous lens, but the family in Cullud Wattah is confronting a very real problem that actually took place. Although scientific determination of all the maladies actually caused by the water is still (technically) inconclusive, here family members suffer skin rashes, hair loss, unusual menstrual bleeding, a miscarriage and even cancer.   

No embellishment is necessary to illustrate the horror of a community—largely African-American (50%) and entirely poor and working class (40% below the poverty line)—being exposed to elevated levels of lead in the water. It is well documented that mental and intellectual development in children is significantly impeded by exposure to even low levels of lead. As a result, the lives of children in these communities are destroyed long before they’ve had a chance to develop naturally. 

Alicia Pilgrim

The play (which runs two hours, fifteen minutes and could comfortably be pared down by at least 45 minutes) ends tragically, but with a suggestion that local government officials and General Motors might end up being held accountable through a series of class action lawsuits (and probably general outrage from across the country), but it really is too little, too late, and not worth the toll the unnecessary catastrophe has already taken.

Cullud Wattah. Through December 12 at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette at Astor Place). 

Photos: Joan Marcus