Dirty Water and Dirty Secrets Flow In Cullud Wattah

Reyna Janelle, Brenda "BeBe" Wilson and Tyne Jeanae in Cullad Wattah at Stages
Reyna Janelle, Brenda "BeBe" Wilson and Tyne Jeanae in Cullad Wattah at Stages Photo by Melissa Taylor
Nine hundred and thirty-six days. That’s how long Big Ma, her two children and two grandchildren have gone without clean water. Water that won’t harm them. Water they can use to wash dishes, bathe, cook with and drink.

These appalling conditions aren’t in some third-world country or post-war refugee camp. Nor are the circumstances a thing of fiction.

This is the United States. Flint, Michigan to be exact. In 2016.

Cullud Wattah, the two-act play by Erika Dickerson-Despenza presented by Stages theater at The Gordy, examines the personal devastation caused by the Flint city government’s 2014 money-saving decision to switch from water pipelined via Detroit and Lake Huron to water from the Flint River. A decision that would quickly result in boil water notices, lead toxicity and medical disaster for residents.

Especially low-income residents of color. Those without pull. Or the financial means to leave.

Dickerson-Despenza chooses an all-female, Black, three-generational home as her setting. Big Ma (Brenda “Bebe” Wilson) lives with her General Motors factory worker daughter Marion (Jessica Jaye) and her two children, Reese (Tyne Jeanae) and younger daughter Plum (Aryana Green).

Plum is fighting leukemia, forced to wear a wig to school to cover up her treatment baldness, an assumed outgrowth of the poisonous water she was unknowingly drinking. Reese has turned to the Nigerian faith and is faithfully praying, with moving dance offerings, to the Yoruban water goddess, Yeyé Omo Eja, in the hopes of healing the water and her sister as a result.

Also living in the house is Marion’s sister Ainee (Reyna Janelle), pregnant, finally clean after years of crack addiction and hoping this child will make it to term, toxic water be damned.

Tensions arise in the household once the women understand the external and closer-to-home secrets that allowed their taps to run brown – kudos to Scenic and Property Designers Stefan Azizi and Jodi Bobrovsky for giving us running putrid water on stage and hundreds of dated/documented bottles full of the tap sludge strewn all over the women’s handsomely deconstructed house.

Ainee wants to join the burgeoning class action lawsuit against the city, Marion wants to leave things be despite her own physical ailments, Big Ma wants peace in the house and the grandkids just want to live without disease or angst.

Dickerson-Despenza’s script takes us beyond the headlines and beautifully makes personal what most of us only know as a horrific news story. These women, calculating how many bottles of water it takes to wash, cook and clean Thanksgiving dinner makes us all shudder with dread.

No way they can afford to spend $150 a week on bottled water, never mind paying the ongoing water bill for the contaminated flow, or "dirty water" as they call it, that comes out of their taps.

Dear Gawd, the one-day boil water notice in Houston last month had us all up in arms.

That daily life in Flint went on like this for so long, for so many, causing so much pain, is almost too much to bear. Smart then, that we get moments of humor and light hearted-ness in the play to let a little steam out of the kettle. Lovely intimate moments between family members that feel familiar and cheekily universal. Places to laugh.

But then the production gets in the way.

Stages theater in the round setting, here directed by Rachel H. Dickson, is a challenge no matter what the show as it's hard to play equally to everyone at the same time. At some point, the actors will have their backs to you.

Here, however, full scenes play out without seeing an actor’s face or knowing their expressions. Back of the head may be good for posture assessment, but it does nothing to help us feel close or connected to characters/story.

More problematic is the immensely distracting and otherwise clunky sound design (Ricjuane Jenkins). TV’s on the background sounding out a mix of pop culture and relevant news updates usurps the sound onstage, making it impossible to listen to the dialogue between the women.

The metaphoric drip drip drip that thrums between scenes feels punched in momentarily and staccato-like, never lingering long enough to make an impression.

Same for scene changes, which seem to happen every few minutes in the latter half of Dickerson-Despenza's script. With the music not quite complementary to the mood and Dickson's hurried direction, the show takes on a hide-and-seek feeling.

Off goes one scene, in comes another and so on. Cullud Wattah becomes a series of related sketches rather than freely flowing like the dirty water dominating every moment of these women’s lives.

A moving intermission montage is only witnessed by those who chose not to rush out to the lobby and much of the Yoruban dancing that peppers the show's more heightened and Afro-surreal moments are lost to those sitting away from the action.

Even still, we can’t help but ache for the corrosion these women carry. In their pipes, in their struggles and in the choices they make as a result.

“War is money and money is war”, Marion reminds her family over and over again. Both have been used against her and her family. The tainted water is just the latest weapon and the battle strategy is to do the best you can when the fight isn’t close to being fair.

Cullud Wattah continues through March 31 at The Gordy, 800 Rosine. For tickets, call 713-527-0123 or visit $50 - $84.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman