The Chicago premiere of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah at Victory Gardens Theater is a heartbreaking and compelling play about a family of resilient Black women living in Flint, Michigan. Dickerson-Despenza’s script intertwines slice-of-life scenes between marion (Brianna Buckley), her sister ainee (Sydney Charles), her daughters plum (Demetra Dee) and reesee (Ireon Roach), and her mother big ma (Renée Lockett) with larger discussions and news clips that reflect the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The play takes audiences back to Thanksgiving 2016, at which time Flint had been without clean water for over 900 days. Dickerson-Despenza’s narrative demonstrates the personal, tangible consequences of the water crisis for this family, as the women’s bodies face brutal physical consequences as a result of the lead-contaminated water. While Marion struggles to keep the family afloat through her General Motors assembly line job, she must also contend with the tension between her will to provide for her family—and the fact that the very company at which she works is the source of so much of her family’s pain.
As I often find with new plays, cullud wattah could use some cuts (particularly in the first act, which is far longer than the second), but Dickerson-Despenza’s narrative follows the arc of a frog in slowly warming water: The play starts at a simmer and ends up at a boil with an intense first act conclusion that barrels into a tragic, swift-moving second act. The text also alternates between naturalistic dialogue and passages that have a unique lyricism, imbued with biblical references and water imagery. In an early scene, the pregnant ainee mourns her six previous miscarriages by stating “God opened my womb one last time to see if I’ll send this one down the river or carry her across the water.” Such haunting passages are peppered throughout cullud wattah, but they blend nicely with the more quotidien exchanges between the family members. The centrality of water is also reflected in the design: The play opens with the sound of dripping water (Willow James is the sound designer) and Sydney Lynne’s set is flanked by water bottles in the dirt, which signify both the contaminated water and the immense plastic waste from all the necessary bottled water use. Less successful are some of director Lili-Anne Brown’s dream sequences, in which plum appears in all white (costume designs by Christine Pascual) and seems to float across the stage. I didn’t think these sequences had justification within the story.
Brown leads a stellar cast who mine all the emotional intensity and punctuate each moment in cullud wattah. All of the women have such a natural rapport on stage. Buckley is a brilliant anchor as marion, who feels so much pressure to keep her job at General Motors to provide for the family—even as she’s unwilling to admit to her mistakes. As the pregnant ainee, Charles gives a poignant performance as a recovering addict. Some of the heated exchanges between marion and ainee are particularly powerful, as the sisters go toe-to-toe throwing insults at one another as only family members who know each other deeply can do. Demetra Dee is sweet as plum, who is recovering from her first round of chemotherapy — and the cancer, of course, is a result of lead poisoning. Roach alternates between necessary moments of buoyancy and heartfelt intensity as the teenage reesee. Lockett has a grounded presence as big ma, and she delivers some of her anecdotes to the family with a pleasant wistfulness.
In cullud wattah, Erika Dickerson-Despenza compellingly weaves the personal and political. The play is ultimately a narrative of resilience as the women in the play struggle with environmental racism and to econcile with the tension between their desire for justice (especially in ainee’s case) and the will to survive and make enough money to pay their bills. For marion, that becomes a nearly impossible choice as the play progresses.
cullud wattah runs through July 17, 2022 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $41-$68. Visit VictoryGardens.org for tickets.
Update 7/8/2022: Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza posted on her Facebook page that she has pulled the remainder of the run of cullud wattah from Victory Gardens. It was originally scheduled to run through July 17, 2022.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com