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Public Theater’s cullud wattah of Flint Unpacks and Informs

Public Theater’s cullud wattah of Flint Unpacks and Informs

The bottles hang like dirty wind chimes signaling, not a gentle breeze, but a devastatingly poisonous storm that is spewing all kinds of trouble in and around this multi-generational story at the heart of cullud wuddah, a strongly framed indictment by the thoughtfully intricate Erika Dickerson-Despenza (shadow/land). The new compelling drama, brought to the stage by The Public Theater, digs its teeth deep into the Flint water crisis that most of us know about, but haven’t really drunk the cullud wattah that sits casually on the edges of this household. It’s a new experience, learning about the tragedy that the esteemed playwright pours out in a seemingly hypnotic and trance-like manner. At first, the drama resonates within a dreamy sleepwalking landscape of white-clad Black women standing tall at the center of this struggle, but as it streams forward, the play retreats into a more standard structure, relating all the cancerous outcomes from being poisoned by your own politicians and leaders. But in that first scenario, the play glistens in the darkness, echoing the Neo-Greek tragedy for all of us who know so little about Flint beyond the obvious. The symbolic trance dissipates quickly though, revealing a more opaque and straightforward drama of real-life situations and utterly heartbreaking complications.

The company of cullud wattah at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Drawing strikes on the walls as she counts up the days with white chalk, the significance of those lines throughout the theatre doesn’t register, or become clear until later. That is, until the struggling widow and single mother, Marion, played strongly by Crystal A. Dickinson (Broadway’s Clybourne Park) has to stand tall after all she’s done and witnessed. She is, in essence the Greek tragic center; an employee at General Motors, desperate to hold onto her job against all odds and trying with all her might to keep her family from sinking down under the weight of all that dirty water. It ain’t easy, surrounded by reminders of a husband and father who was lost, but she’s doing her best within. She’s focused and determined to raise well her teenage daughter, Reesee. Portrayed magnificently by the compelling Lauren F. Walker (MCC’s Charm), this queer young person of color prays to the Yoruba deity for clean water salvation daily with hopes to help both her own infested body, and her little sister, Plum, portrayed spritely by Alicia Pilgrim (Purchase Rep’s Mr. Burns,…), flourish and survive her battle with leukemia. 

Alicia Pilgrim and Lauren F. Walker in cullud wattah at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Sharing the space and the stage with this tense family is Marion’s bumper sticker spewing firecracker of a mother, Big Ma, played wisely by Lizan Mitchell (Broadway’s Electra), and Marion’s troubled sister, the pregnant and single Ainee, forcibly portrayed by Andrea Patterson (Detroit Public’s Paradise Blue), a recovering addict who is balancing the act of being cautious and optimistic about her seventh pregnancy, as the previous six have not gone to full term. Her storyline crash’s hard, gushing in the most emotionally wrought cascade, showering the play with the complications of both the personal and the political decision making processes. 

As directed with a natural and straightforward approach by Candis C. Jones (Detroit Public’s Pipeline), cullud wattah sets forth a strong agenda to unpack and pour out the public health crisis that happened and is still happening in Flint, playing its cards almost too prophetically over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes (with one intermission). The engagements ring too, but the layers sometimes feel as forced as the overly busy uber-symbolic set design by Adam Rigg (NYTW’s The House That Will Not Stand), with solid costuming by Kara Harmon (MTC’s The Niceties), lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden), and sound design and composition by Sinan Refik Zafar (Broadway’s What the Constitution…). 

Naming names, and the dangerous act of believing in God is what lies beneath the small splintering floorboards of this upsetting drama. “I don’t want to die in dirty water,” one character exclaims, unearthing the abstract secret of faith and the complications that exist within this family Etched out in poetic ethical debates on top of confessions from the past, the piece finds its way, transcending the difficulty of being an over-the-top issue-play, mainly because of the very lived-in authentic performances of this stellar crew of actors and artists.

Lizan Mitchell and Lauren F. Walker in cullud wattah at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

It has been 2,784 days (on the day I saw this show) since Flint, Michigan had clean water flow through its taps. And Dickerson-Despenza wants us to know what that means, for this family, and for the world beyond. There are people who knew what was happening and the consequences of their inaction. They must be held accountable, and cullud wattah has no intention of letting us leave the Public not knowing the full details of these illegal acts. For that, I am completely thankful, for this play and this production. It’s a powerful unpacking of a family in turmoil, mainly because of greed, systematic racism, and political corruption, and director Jones wants us to feel the thirst for justice as completely as possible. 

Andrea Patterson, Lizan Mitchell, and Crystal Dickinson in cullud wattah at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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