Theater Reviews: Cullud Wattah and In The Southern Breeze

Two plays are opening Off-Broadway tonight, one featuring a cast of five Black women, the other a cast of five Black men. Both are about Black people struggling to survive in the face of deliberately or negligently inflicted pain, throughout history and at this very moment.

At the end of “Cullud Wattah,” the houselights go up, the five cast members stand at the lip of the stage, and one by one they say: “It’s been 2,762 days since Flint, Michigan had clean water.” 

As this play by Erika Dickerson-Despenza opens at the Public Theater tonight, the poisoning of the citizens of Flint by its government is back in the news. A week ago, according to the Associated Press, a judge “approved a $626 million deal to settle lawsuits filed by Flint residents who found their tap water contaminated by lead following disastrous decisions to switch the city’s water source and a failure to swiftly acknowledge the problem. Most of the money…is coming from the state of Michigan.”

Parts of that lawsuit are read verbatim in “Cullud Wattah,” which won the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, but the play is not conventional documentary theater. It tells the story of the Flint water scandal through its impact on a fictional family of five Black women. The play’s title is the way the women, Midwesterners with roots in the South, would pronounce “colored water.” This is an artful pun, which suggests both the language and the themes in the play.

Marion (Crystal Dickinson),  who for sixteen years has worked the engine assembly line at General Motors, is the widowed mother of two daughters, teenager Reesee and nine-year-old Plum (Lauren F. Walker and Alicia Pilgrim), and shares their house with her mother Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell) and her sister Ainee (Andrea Patterson.)  In one of the most dramatic moments of the play, we see Marion and Ainee argue over the class action lawsuit. Ainee wants the family to be part of it; Marion, who has just been promised a promotion, is afraid their participation will cause her to lose her job.  But most of the references in the play to the water crisis are the horrific adjustments they have had to make in their day-to-day lives. Although they are still billed for the water that comes out of their faucets, it’s unusable.  Marion has searched everywhere for a water filter. “I done went to six fire stations, three churches, city hall and both community action resource department office. All of em outta filters.” The family spends $150 each week for bottled water, and carefully rations it to fit their needs – six bottles to wash vegetables, eight to make spaghetti. They allow Plum to take a shower, but for no longer than five minutes, and they warn her to keep her mouth shut tight for the entire time. 

Despite the precautions, all members of the family suffer some physical ailments. Marion has ugly rashes over her body. Big Ma walks with a cane. Ainee, who is pregnant as the play begins, has had six miscarriages. Plum is getting chemotherapy for leukemia. 

We learn that at least one of these conditions was definitely not caused by the water, although the source is no less infuriating: Big Ma also once worked at General Motors; but when “plantation working conditions” forced her and thousands of others to go on strike “thuh day she returned to work, a stack of sheet metal ‘just happens’ to fall on her leg.”  

The official running time for “Cullud Wattah” is two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission, but the performance I saw ran long. It also felt long. Dickerson-Despenza has a lot to say. She wants us to get to know her characters at leisure, in some depth, and in their uncompromising diction. We learn that Reesee wants to be a doula, that she prayed to Jesus for clean water, but, frustrated that things just got worse, switched to conducting rituals honoring the Yoruba goddess of water, some of which we see. We learn she is queer. We learn that Big Ma, in her youth, was in love with a woman; so she too is queer, but it was a different time, when such love was forbidden. We learn that Ainee was a crack addict, but has been clean for a year.   One subplot, which I shouldn’t spoil, feels similar in some respects to the plot of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” – the unethical action (or in this case unthinking inaction) by an individual member of the family having  consequences for everybody else. But that story is the main focus of Miller’s play; it’s just one strand in “Cullud Wattah.” 

 This is the fourth piece I’ve seen by Dickerson-Despenza, who wrote about Hurricane Katrina in “Shadow/Land” (an audio play) and its aftermath in “[hieroglyph]” , and contributed to the “A Dozen Dreams” theatrical installation. She demonstrated in these works — as she has in this play — a feel for the poetry of the Black vernacular, its “weight and rhythm,” an understanding of trauma, and a love of her characters, that makes it feel worth having the patience to stick with her.

Director Candis C. Jones (who also directed Shadow/Land) has assembled a committed cast,  and ably translated the playwright’s verbal poetry into a visual style that – with the colored (contaminate) water lining the stage, and hanging from the ceiling like a nighttime sky full of stars – helps drive home both the ugliness of the story, and the beauty of its telling.

Cullud Wattah
Public Theater through December 5.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza 
Directed by Candis C. Jones 
Scenic design by Adam Rigg; costume design by Kara Harmon; lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound design and composition by Sinan Refik Zafar; hair, wigs, and makeup design by Earon Chew Nealey; prop management by Corinne Golorgursky; vocal arrangements by Justin Hicks; and movement direction by Adesola Osakalumi.
Cast: Crystal Dickinson (Marion), Jennean Farmer (Marion/Ainee Understudy), Lizan Mitchell (Big Ma), Ta’Neesha Murphy (Plum/Reesee Understudy), Andrea Patterson (Ainee), Alicia Pilgrim (Plum), Chavez Ravine (Big Ma Understudy), and Lauren F. Walker (Reesee). 

Travis Raeburn, Charles Browning, Victor Wiliams, and (in shadow) Biko Eisen-Martin. Photo by David Rauch

“In The Southern Breeze,” an hour-long play at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater written by Mansa Ra, begins with a man standing in silhouette, isolated, anxious, and depressed. “Everybody was freaking out about quarantine, cooped with nowhere to go,” says the man, never named (portrayed by Allan K. Washington.) “But I was glad. I finally had a real excuse for not leaving my apartment.” He makes sure the extra deadbolts are locked.

In the monologue that follows, he talks about many things, although it all feels as if it might be his personal filibuster to delay the action he’s obviously contemplating. He talks about his “Obama Deluxe” smile (which he wears to appear unthreatening and educated so white people will leave him alone.) He talks about stars, and about the possibility of life on Venus. He talks about holes: The holes in his memory, assholes, bullet holes, the hole in hope. “The hole in hope is less poetic than it sounds,” he says. (Actually, his riffs on stars and holes pays homage to Amiri Baraka’s first book of poems,  the 1961“Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.”) “Which leads me to one last hole,” he says – a noose. “Has there ever been a happy place for Black men in America?”

Suddenly the scene goes to black, and we have apparently traveled through a hole in time, where eventually four Black men gather.  Slowly we learn that they are from four different eras. Madison (Charles Browning) is an escaping slave in 1780, Lazarus (Victor Williams) a sharecropper and a union activist in 1892, Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin) a member of the Black Panther Party in 1971, Tony (Travis Raeburn), a gay AIDS activist in 1993. Tony turns out to be Lazarus’ great grandson. Presumably (although it’s not explicitly revealed for each of them) all four died violently, and all four are related to the suicidal man of 2021.That man reappears, and he is now imbued with the hard-earned optimism gained from seeing how better off he is than  his ancestors.  “But,” he says, “the noose is still there. Why is that noose still there? It gets prettier and smarter and more complicated and more camouflaged. But it’s hasn’t gone away.”

The second half of “In The Southern Breeze”  is a common dramatic device. Plays that put historical figures together (usually, famous figures) in order to make history come alive are normally geared to schoolchildren. Indeed, listed among the play’s “community partners” are the Boys Club of New York. But this play may not be  suitable for young children, given its occasional foul language and downbeat intensity (it comes with a trigger warning, and the theater has even hired a “wellness consultant” to guard against such triggering in the cast and crew.)

I wish the playwright had gone further with his premise. What little interaction the characters have with one another that reflects their different eras and perspectives (humorously, Madison baffled by talk about trains and phones; seriously, Hue’s homophobia towards Tony, and the characters’ differing definitions of freedom) made me hunger for more of this. 

Under Christopher D Betts’ direction, the production is smooth, with highlights including Emma Deane’s dramatic lighting, and some fine performances, especially Travis Raeburn, who seemed to get a big laugh at every line, and Allan K. Washington. The play is subtitled “An auto-biographical fever dream,” but Washington’s clear rich voice and distinctive delivery make the words (which may have been created inside one man’s locked apartment) belong out in the world.

The play is being presented both in person and online, the latest example of the ways Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has continued to step up to the moment.

In The Southern Breeze
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through December 12, 2021
Written by Mansa Ra
Directed by Christopher D. Betts
Running time: 65 minutes
Tickets: $40
Set Designer – Emmie Finckel
Costume Designer – Jahise Lebouef
Lighting Designer – Emma Deane
Music Director- Allen René Louis
Sound Designer – Kathy Ruvuna
Prop Designer:  Patrícia Marjorie
Fight Choreographer: Kelsey Rainwater
Dramaturg – Ashley M. Thomas, Faith Zamblé
Casting Director – Victor Vazquez
Wellness Consultant – Kevin Gillette
Cast: Charles Browning as Madison, Biko Eisen-Martin as Hue, Travis Raeburn as Tony, Allan K. Washington as Man, Victor Williams as Lazarus

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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