How does one recount the full measure of an unmeasurable crime? In Cullud Wattah, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s reflection on the Flint water crisis, a disaster-scale tragedy is made achingly real through a human-scale story. Actor’s Express’ production, running now through October 15, does powerful justice to both script and history, illuminating the true consequences of Flint’s poisoned water through the lives of a single family unraveled by an unforgivable miscarriage of justice.
The play opens in 2016, 936 days since the city of Flint, Michigan, last had clean water. The details of the disaster — familiar to audiences from headline reports going back to 2014, when news of Flint’s lead-poisoned water and government inaction first broke — have become a grinding fact of life for the Cooper family, three generations of Black women enduring the aftermath amid an anemic government response.
Marion (Marita A. McKee) is the household’s sole breadwinner; her auto manufacturing job at General Motors is keeping them afloat, but her loyalty to the company, which was complicit in the disaster’s coverup, puts her at odds with the rest of the family. Marion’s 9-year-old daughter Plum (Morgan Crumbly) is battling leukemia, while the teenage Reesee (Asha Basha Duniani) has a menstrual period that never ends and a skin rash that won’t heal. Meanwhile, Marion’s sister Ainee (Parris Sarter) dares to hope that her pregnancy will finally result in a healthy baby after years of miscarriages, and the Cooper matriarch, Big Ma (Terry Henry), desperately tries to keep her family together with prayer, wisdom and the occasional rap of her stick.
There’s no one else in this story, and no one else is needed; through the tender dynamics of a single family, abstract reports of “elevated lead levels,” “parts per billion” and “boil water advisories” become vivid human dramas. Meanwhile, the official major players in the disaster, like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, appear only as disembodied voices on TV, as peripheral to this family’s experience of the crisis as their lives are for the people who caused it. The Coopers both consume bottled water — an emergency solution that lapsed into a years-long way of life — and are consumed by it, endlessly tallying how many bottles are needed for rinsing, cooking and cleaning.
The urgent arithmetic of clean is multiplied by the threat of dirty: The set, smartly designed by Bailey McClure-Frank with decoration by Nick Battaglia, is littered with bottles full of tainted pipe water in garish shades of amber and copper, each one labeled with a date. Bottles crowd the floors and surfaces, inconvenient reminders of how many days have passed since Flint’s terrible secret was revealed. (In one spontaneous moment, Big Ma knocked one out of the way with her cane, a physical clash between people and water I found thrilling; I would have liked more such moments.)
For all its political punch, Dickerson-Despenza’s whip-smart script never loses sight of its human heart. The Coopers bicker and banter with infectious warmth, making each other laugh, cry and scream like any family in a crowded home. Though a true ensemble show, most scenes are played in couplets so that relationships between characters burn as brightly as the characters themselves. It’s a tall order for a cast, one well-met here. McKee is equal parts stoic and vulnerable as Marion, the weight of this endless trial threatening to split her open at any turn. Henry plays Big Ma with irascible elegance; her love for her children and grandchildren is almost unbearably huge, and Henry unspools Big Ma’s secrets with masterful precision. Crumbly, as Plum, has no trouble endowing her child role with the weight and complexity she deserves, while delivering big on the magical realism that punctuates Plum’s story.
Duniani, whose performance as Reesee is a whirling fractal of raw adolescent emotion, is a true standout. Desperate to help, Reesee commits herself to the Yoruba water goddess Yemoja, only to abandon her in a rage when the crisis continues and the long-promised government-issue water filter fails to arrive. But Duniani executes her rituals with earnest commitment, making the play’s surreal elements feel instinctive and necessary.
Most jaw-dropping of all is Sarter, who takes what might have been a secondary character and makes her utterly undeniable. Ainee is Marion’s troubled younger sister with a long history of drug addiction; it is her bitter fate to have gotten her life together just as the poisoned water seeped into it. Sarter delivers Dickerson-Despenza’s dialogue like it was written for her, and Ainee’s rocky relationship with her sister gives her plenty of emotional runway to play. It’s a rich role for a superlative performer, and, while the fare is heartbreaking, the performance is triumphant.
This stellar cast is well-directed by Amanda Washington, who never lets the tragedy leash the humor that bursts through irreverently at every turn, keeping the pacing fresh and the emotions vivid. The nimble set is complemented by excellent lighting by Toni Sterling and sound by Mikaela Fraser; several otherworldly interludes hum with quixotic tension, plunging the Coopers’ grinding reality into a strange and spectral nightmare.
Cullud Wattah is not the final word on the Flint water crisis, which has not been fully resolved, but it is something equally vital. In a world where statistics and technocratic government language often cloud the true human toll of disaster, Cullud Watah reminds us that art can offer us the clearest picture of what we’ve lost.
Rachel Garbus is a writer, editor and oral history maker in Atlanta. She’s a contributor at Atlanta magazine and the editor-in-chief of print for WUSSY Mag, which covers queer culture with a Southern lens. She performs improv and sketch comedy around town and has been known to pen the odd satire. She lives in North Druid Hills with her wife and her anxious dog.