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Michigan Family Faces Polluted Water, Politicians In Play ‘cullud wattah’

And those of us who are lucky enough to reside in a highly developed nation tend to take it for granted that when we open our taps, the water that comes out will be fit for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

But then there was everything that happened in Flint, Michigan in 2011, which significantly jeopardized the physical and mental health of many people and took much too long to fix. It was actually one of the most egregious instances of official delay when it was patently obvious that hazardous waste in the city's water system was causing severe harm and was not being addressed in any manner, shape, or form.

Erika Dickerson-expertly Despenza's staged drama, cullud watta, centers on this environmental calamity with significant racial connotations (a winner of the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Award). A paradigm for how to completely humanize a social and political crisis is her compelling tale of three generations of Black women, which is currently enjoying a powerfully emotional regional debut at Victory Gardens Theater.

A brief overview of what occurred in Flint will set the stage before continuing. Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, was a flourishing industrial city in the middle of the 20th century, but it started to decline in the 1980s as the car sector faced more intense international competition. A primarily poor Black community was left to deal with the economic impact as a result of several jobs being destroyed and a significant exodus.

The Flint River had acted as an unofficial waste disposal facility drenched in poisons for years before to the full environmental catastrophe. The city was then placed under state control in 2011 due to a massive deficit, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was named emergency manager.

A few of years later, he made the disastrous but cost-effective choice to stop piping purified water from Detroit to Flint. Instead, years were spent using the heavily contaminated, untreated water from the Flint River, despite the distant promise of a new pipeline. And thousands of families received water with high levels of lead leached from deteriorating pipes since the expense of filters and bottled water was frequently too high.

In Dickerson-drama, Despenza's all five of the female characters reside in the same house. There is Big Ma (Renee Lockett), who clings to her Bible and does her best to keep the family together. The only source of income for the family is her daughter Marion (Brianna Buckley), who, like her predecessors, works for General Motors. Reesee (Ireon Roach), an alienated adolescent drawn to the spiritual world of her African lineage, and 9-year-old Plum (played by a young adult, Demetra Dee), who has recovered from cancer and wears a wig to conceal her hair loss from chemotherapy, are Marion's daughters.

The most disturbed member of the family is Ainee (Sydney Charles), Marion's sister. She is not only pregnant, destitute, and without a boyfriend in sight, but she is also going through a heroin addiction recovery process. Ainee unexpectedly becomes an activist, despite the knowing that doing so could put Marion's job at risk, when Flint residents file a class action lawsuit against the dishonest and careless government and corporate entities responsible for the water crisis. Ainee has nothing to lose, and although there is a lot of conflict between the two sisters, they also share an unbreakable kinship.

Under Lili-Anne Brown's excellent directing, every member of the production's skilled cast perfectly embodies her role. And Sydney Lynne's set, a ranch-style home with scenes performed in its kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room, giant pipes (and/or industrial chimneys) towering in the background, and empty plastic water bottles littering the ground outside, captures the sense of a poisonous environment, with Christine Pacual's costumes suggesting an economically strangled family.

The play's opening music is a deft parody of the African American spiritual "Wade in the Water," which will sound especially familiar to anyone who has seen Alvin Ailey's dance masterpiece "Revelations." This is one particularly creative touch.

Now playing is "Lead in the Water," the song's lyrics. And that tells it all.