A note in the Playbill for Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s powerful new play, “Cullud Wattah,” references Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls…,” which also had its premiere at the Public Theater, in 1976. “Cullud Wattah” opened at the same venue on Wednesday, and, with all due respect to Shange’s “Girls,” this new play also brings to mind a slightly more recent premiere at the Public, from 1985.
As with Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah” addresses a crisis in real time. Kramer covered the AIDS epidemic in New York City from 1980 to 1984; Dickerson-Despenza covers the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, from 2014 to 2016, with a coda that takes this public catastrophe to the present day. Both “Heart” and “Wattah” put forth strong indictments of a government and an economy gone completely awry.
Dickerson-Despenza is as gifted a storyteller as Kramer and Shange, and also a more conventional one. To drop yet another famous name into this review, “Cullud Wattah” is every bit as drum-tight in its plot as Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Dickerson-Despenza tells the story of a three-generational family of five women living and trying to survive in Flint; however, even before toxins made the water unusable for human consumption, two adult sisters were already headed for a showdown. That troubled past erupts when one of them wants to join a class-action suit to sue the government, the other wants to keep her job after being awarded a big promotion. The water crisis makes for effective melodrama; the sibling rivalry emerges as the stuff of tragedy. Playing two very different sisters, Andrea Patterson and Crystal Dickinson draw much more than stage blood in this elemental battle of wills.
Miller’s munitions manufacturer commits suicide at the end of “All My Sons.” Dickerson-Despenza doesn’t give her character any such easy way out. Instead, there’s a whole second act to examine the consequences of her action or, more significantly, her silence.
“Cullud Wattah” is not an easy play to sit through. The effects of the poisoned water are visible in rashes, blisters and hair loss on the characters. Only one of the five women shows no ill effects, and it’s because Big Ma is older, having moved to Flint from the Deep South, where she escaped one kind of racism only to find another. Whenever Lizan Mitchell’s Big Ma appears on stage, it’s a big moment in “Cullud Wattah,” and those scenes run the gamut – from her harsh disapproval of a daughter’s pregnancy, to fond memories of loving another woman, to a deeply sorrowful and unaccepted apology. Mitchell puts before us the entire arc of this complex character’s life.
Beyond the litany of health warnings, there are the nonstop questions these women ask each other regarding how many plastic bottles of water it takes to boil the potatoes, wash the string beans, rinse the silverware. “Cullud Wattah” gives a whole new meaning to the words “kitchen sink drama.” Adding to what that genre typically offers, Dickerson-Despenza adds a couple of didactic but gripping speeches and bookends it all with a lyrical surrealism. Playing the youngest member of this family, Alicia Pilgrim embodies that walking nightmare without ever revealing the exact age of this girl. Lauren F. Walker ably plays her sister, and the physical contrast between her character and Pilgrim’s is just one of many silent but haunting touches that director Candis C. Jones brings to the story.
Another is Adam Rigg’s scenic design of a house floating amid hundreds of plastic bottles filled with brown water.