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Flint, MI– For years, Erika Dickerson-Despenza tracked the Flint water crisis on her bedroom wall.
The poet and playwright wrote down statements she saw Flint residents make on their social media accounts, which she said was the “most viable news source,” because the words were coming straight from the residents being impacted.
She recalled seeing a tweet about how many bottles of water it took to make Thanksgiving dinner. She wrote it down.
She saw a picture of children carrying jugs of water nearly as big as they were. She printed it out and stuck it on the wall.
Dickerson-Despenza, a Chicago native, had just quit her full-time job to lean into playwriting, a decision that led her to being awarded the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, one of the largest and oldest international prizes honoring women’s writing.
The play is titled “cullud wattah.” It is an Afro-surrealist play about three generations of Black women living through the water crisis in Flint, and the effects it had on their relationships as a family.
When she decided to write about the water crisis, playwriting meant more than just writing. It meant a full year of dramaturgical research about piping, lead, water, Flint’s relationship with General Motors since the early 1900s, white flight, and food deserts in the First Ward.
In her research, and the hundreds of stories she read, she found her characters, although they are not based on any specific people. She wanted to write about what she found to be the most vulnerable population in Flint — single mothers, the elderly and disabled, women in recovery, women who lost children and pregnancies, and children who developed illnesses.
The play has five characters: Plum, a nine-year-old African American girl, described as “physically frail” but “arithmetically sharp”; Reesee, 17, a queer, spiritual young woman; Plum and Reesee’s mother, Marion, 34; Marion’s her older sister, Ainee, 37, a recovering addict who is pregnant; and the widowed matriarch of the family, Big Ma.
“I grew up in a family of women, and I think about how crises, natural disasters, and man-made disasters disproportionately affect women and girls, the primary caretakers,” Dickerson-Despenza said.
The characters deal with layoffs from the General Motors engine plant, lead poisoning from the water, and their own family memories and secrets.
“That’s what water does. It spills, it touches everything,” she said. “It affects family dynamics, adds stress, strains already strained relationships. That’s the story I’m telling.”
Dickerson-Despenza said she tends to write about water a lot.
“It’s very spiritual, and Black people’s relationship to water in this country is precarious,” she said. “Water is healing and destructive. It cleanses and moves things out of the way. It’s supposed to be restorative…yet for Black people in this country, it’s a reminder of the transatlantic slave trade, the water crisis, Hurricane Katrina…”
The play includes spiritual allusions, like to Yemoja, the African Goddess of the Ocean. It’s poetic and surreal, breaking the fourth wall, and stopping time in some parts.
Time posed an interesting challenge for Dickerson-Despenza.
“I got situated in 2016, finished the first draft in the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, and so much has even happened since then. Then I workshopped, edited, rewrote,” she said. “And I’m not telling the full timeline because we’re still in it. Writing history as it happens and leaving room for us to be …where we are now…and we’re still not in a place of repair or justice.”
She has been following along with Flint news, and said that even with the recent settlement and criminal charges being brought against Flint officials, the play still leaves off “open enough to be relevant in where we are in that story.”
Her hope with this play is that it will get people to think about where their water is coming from, the impacts of capitalism, the privatization of water, and environmental racism. Flint’s water crisis is the backdrop of the play, but she wants people to recognize it could happen anywhere.
“I want to use theatre as a vehicle to politicize people around water justice, environmental racism, and offer opportunities to actually get involved,” she said. “It’s not art for art’s sake, it’s not exploitation of an issue. How do we invite folks into the work? How do we use theatre to do that?”
The play was meant to debut at The Public Theatre last year. Dickerson-Despenza said the entire cast was going to spend a week in Flint, do a workshop with the University of Michigan-Flint’s theatre faculty, volunteer, visit local churches, and work to amplify the efforts of grassroots organizations. But because of the pandemic, that didn’t happen.
The play is not publicly available now, but will be published soon, Dickerson-Despenza said. Once it’s safe to do so, she hopes to get the play on as many stages as she can.
“We don’t see Flint in headlines. We’ve moved on, we’re not thinking about how with COVID-19, when we say to ‘wash your hands,’ what does that mean for people without clean water?” she said.
“My hope is that this play, wherever it goes, wherever it’s performed, brings attention to local water issues in that city, and keeps Flint lifted.”