FLINT, Mich – It is right and proper that the Flint Repertory Theatre produces a play about the Flint water crisis. It is not the first theatre production around the crisis, but it is the best to date we have seen.
The narrative of the play, written by Josh Wilder, an Atlanta-based playwright, is gritty and moves between reality and fantasy, but in a way that never strays from the seriousness of this very meaningful story.
The play opens with June (Madelyn Porter) on a platform atop the set, barking an anger-laced speech at a Flint Council meeting about the decisions that led to the crisis–when the Snyder Administration in Michigan 2014, during a budget crisis, changed Flint’s water source from the treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the polluted Flint River.
The action of the story takes place in a modest Flint home with June’s daughter Leah (Jade Redford), her husband Vick (Curtis Morlaye), their daughter Dayla (Nikyla Boxley), their friend Dante (Henri Franklin) and sometimes Leah’sister Lisa ( Parris Sarter).
Tensions are flaring as the family tries to cope with the toxic water, which killed their Mother and grandmother on top of living in opportunity-limited Flint. Hot-tempered Vick is working at Walmart. Leah is sick from grief, the water and waning affection for Vick. Eleven-year old Dayla seems bright as a penny, loving, devoted to her family, but so vulnerable from the effects of led-poisoned water on her developing brain and body. Wilder is deft at painting the reality of how different people and generations cope or deal every day; when Vick joins looters at Walmart and steals several cases of Fiji branded water, and when Dayla keeps going to the tap for water because she can’t get the cap off the Fiji bottle simply because of the brittleness of the skin on her hands.
Wilder also cleverly links the drinking of the water with connecting with June, who appears to whoever drinks the Tang-colored tainted water that killed her. It is a device that is effective, if excruciating, to watch as this lovely child fills her glass from the tap and gets rewarded by seeing her beloved grandmother.
Director Jeremiah Davidson does a superb job of leading a superb cast, and no doubt benefits from the collaboration with Artistic Director Michael Lluberes, who has been bringing some the most dynamic productions in the state to life. Scenic designer Marie Laster gives us a perfect reflection of a Flint flat, with great attention to detail. She creates a spot for some of the dream/flashback scenes above the living room and in front of the Flint Water Tower.
Kendra Babcock is costume designer. Mikaela Fraser is sound designer. Jasmine Williams is lighting designer. Alison Dobbins is production designer.
Ms. Porter plays the strong Mother and Grandmother you both love and fear if you are under her watch. Such women are the foundation of every community they are in, buttressing their daughters who frequently have babies before they are ready or economically prepared. Mr. Wilder happily gives Vick and Dante very different personalities and values, allowing both actors the bandwidth to define their characters that definitely have their ups and downs with one another. Ms. Radford is also quite good, making a leap in the play from being sickly, lethargic and grieving to strong, resolute Mother. Ms. Sarter tackles her character as the independent, often bossy, take-no-shit, childless sister and aunt, with total confidence.
Remarkable and worth calling out is the performance of Ms. Boxley, who convinced this reviewer completely that she was between the ages of 11-13, but in reality is a college graduate in her 20s. She so connects with the physicality of a child, helped by smart costuming, that either she has a good memory of her own self as a child, or ready access to adolescent girls to study.
The Wrong River is a definitive, taut, imaginative artistic expression of the tragedy engineered by government officials and foisted upon the already disenfranchised families of Flint. If you think the tragedy is in the past, it is not. There is a long tail of damage, sickness and death connected to the Flint Water crime, and it is deftly expressed in The Wrong River.