The Public Theater has returned to the Vineyard Arts Project for its annual residency. During the week, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza and director Candis Jones have been rehearsing the Public’s upcoming season’s production of “cullud wattah,” and will present a reading on Saturday, August 24, at 6 pm.
Set in Flint, Mich., the script explores the emotional reactions, realities, traumas, and secrets of five black women from three generations as they grapple with the water crisis. Referring to the narrative, both artists stress, “romance is not the goal.”
Dickerson-Despenza says her work “resists Blk feminine erasure and examines the intersections of race, gender, sex(uality), imperialism and spirituality, offering a kaleidoscope of Blk womanhood.” Jones is interested in a “heightened theatrical style that can be both naturalist and surreal.”
Dickerson-Despenza describes herself as a Blk feminist poet-playwright, cultural worker, educator, and grassroots organizer from Chicago. Among her awards are the 2019 Princess Grace Award in Playwriting/Fellowship at New Dramatists and the 2019-2020 Tow Playwright-in-Residence at the Public Theater. The play “cullud wattah” is one-fourth of the “water tetralogy” she is developing, including “ocean’s lip/heaven’s shore” (the Middle Passage), “took/tied hung/split” (Jim Crow), and “shadow/land” (Hurricane Katrina).
Jones has an extensive background in developing new plays, abstract musicals, adaptations, African American classics, and poetic texts. She has directed work nationally and internationally, including at prestigious venues such as Public Theater, National black Theater, Kennedy Center, and Zanzibar International Film Festival, and is the recipient of the inaugural Lilly Award for Emerging Directors.
Dickerson-Despenza came to this work organically, with news reports on the Flint water crisis sparking her sense of outrage. “I had been tracking the Flint water crisis since 2014, for two years, without any particular artistic agenda,” she says. “I printed out related photos that were both stunning and heartbreaking. I copied quotes from news outlets and Twitter feeds onto Post-its, plastering them around my apartment. I was struck by facts, seemingly mundane, but actually outrageous, like the story that included how many bottles of clean water it takes for a family of four’s Thanksgiving dinner.”
Eventually she began to consider the crisis’ inherent theatricality, and took action, spending another year doing intentional dramaturgical, scientific, and historical research before putting pen to paper.
Jones, after receiving a draft of the script in 2017, says, “I was annoyed with myself that I didn’t know more about the situation, but was drawn to the play’s heart and politics.” Jones continues, “Cullud wattah is an urgent Afro-futurist drama centering on a family of black women living through the Flint water crisis. We’re exploring how this family is affected by the water crisis physically, mentally, and spiritually. Black people’s relationship to water has been unjustly tangled with capitalism dating back to the Middle Passage. This play calls us to express the emotional toll of that relationship both historically and ironically in the present.”
The director’s job when working on a new play is quite different than when directing a previously published, under-copyright script, where the director commits to staging the words as written — no text changes allowed.
When collaborating on a new work, the playwright and director work as a team; trust and communication are key. A week at VAP will allow Dickerson-Despenza to “hear” and “see” her text lifted off the page, as Jones devises the pacing, rhythms, and characterizations with the actors. Written edits from page to page are important, but the ability of the author to listen to the words, to discuss what’s there and what might be missing with another invested professional, is enormously helpful. Especially when the process is taking place at a creative cocoon like VAP.
While “cullud wattah” is not a musical, music, sound, and movement are part of the design. Movement will be created by actor, singer, and choreographer Adesola Osakalumi, inspired by characters’ emotions, not so much “steps” as physical manifestations. Dickerson-Despenza says, “I knew the sound of the play before I had the plot or the words.” She was influenced by polyphony, Sweet Honey in the Rock, black chants, spirituals, and the Bayaka tribe’s women’s drumming, emanating from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I was curious about Congo. I know enough about African music to know what I don’t know. I do know there are hundreds of distinct forms of music and dance, and suspected I was missing something in translation. Why music from a tribe in Congo, as opposed to music of other tribes? Sure enough. Bayaka women play the “water,” making percussive sounds with complex hand techniques while standing in water. Water is the drum. Water. Women. Africa. Part of the artistic matrix of “cullud wattah.”
An important political stance doesn’t guarantee good theater, but it shapes the narrative, characters, and resolution the playwright creates. This team is well-positioned to bring us a theatrically vibrant, significant challenge to instances of environmental racism, of which the Flint crisis is only one.
A showing of excerpts from “cullud wattah” takes place Saturday, August 24, at 6 pm at VAP, 215 Upper Main St., Edgartown. Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis Jones, movement directed by Adesola Osakalmi, starring Stori Ayers, Alana Raquel Bowers, Nikiya Mathis, Lizan Mitchell, and Renika Williams. To reserve tickets, call 508-413-2104 or visit ticketsmv.com or vineyardarts.org. All tickets are donation-based; pay what you wish.