Lead in the waterKerry Reidon June 23, 2022 at 9:20 pm

I hardly ever start reviews this way, but trust me: stop reading this and hop online to get tickets for Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah, now in its local premiere at Victory Gardens under Lili-Anne Brown’s direction. It’s a profound, poetic, scabrous (and beautifully acted) piece of theater that hits at so many levels that I found myself walking in a daze of wonderment, anger, and grief after emerging from the Biograph.

cullud wattah
Through 7/17: Tue-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; Sat 6/25 and 7/16 3 PM only; Wed 6/29 2 PM only; word for word captioning Wed 6/29 2 PM, Fri 7/1 and Sat 7/2 7:30 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 7/1 7:30 PM; audio description/touch tour Fri 7/1 7:30 PM, and Sun 7/10 3 PM (tour begins 90 minutes before show); Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, victorygardens.org, $29-$62.

Dickerson-Despenza’s family drama (though it’s much more than that) examines the effect of the Flint water crisis on three generations of Black women. Like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (or more recently, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat), Dickerson-Despenza’s story is in part about how the twin evils of racism (environmental racism especially) and capitalist exploitation drive wedges between those who want to fight for justice and those willing to compromise themselves and their communities to keep their own families from going under, their own dreams from withering away. 

Big Ma (Renée Lockett) is the matriarch of the home, though Brianna Buckley’s Marion, widowed by the Afghanistan war and struggling to keep her job at GM, is the actual owner. Marion’s little sister, Ainee (Sydney Charles), pregnant and struggling to stay sober, watches over Marion’s girls: Reesee (Ireon Roach), who, like Beneatha in Raisin, finds comfort in Yoruba rituals (particularly those involving Yemoja, the water deity), and Plum (Demetra Dee), whose chemo for leukemia (caused by the lead poisoning) causes her to sleepwalk.

Sydney Lynne’s set places large metal pipes that look like a mythic Rust Belt version of a ruined temple behind the small but cozy home where the women try to deal with the lack of clean water—that most basic of human requirements and rights. (How many bottles of water do they need to cook? To clean? Will the lesions on their skin ever heal?) It’s an apt metaphor for this heartbreaking wonder of a play that overflows with history and mystery, love and anguish, small telling details about how these women hold each other up and big-picture truths about how little their lives matter to the People in Charge.

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