A “bold and urgent” play about the Flint water crisis, seen through the eyes of an all-female Michigan family, has won this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn prize for female, transgender and non-binary playwrights. The award went to Erika Dickerson-Despenza for cullud wattah, part of a tetralogy about water which the playwright hopes will “raise consciousness and radicalise” audiences.
“I’m a black woman who has grown up in a family of primarily black women,” said Dickerson-Despenza. “I wanted to write about women living under siege – environmental racism, classism and gender dynamics, and what this does to women and girls in the black midwest. Because I’m a grassroots organiser and activist, I think of all my work as a vehicle. My goal is to radicalise people … I will explore an issue in a creative way to raise collective consciousness.”
Dickerson-Despenza grounded the drama in the context of the 2014 water crisis in Flint, when lead-tainted water led to deadly disaster: “I didn’t follow a single family but I began seeing things written by Flint residents on social media, even before the news stories. I ended up mapping the information for a couple of years on Post-it notes on my wall.”
The play uses language in innovative ways, disrupting conventional syntax, with characters speaking in a black vernacular: “I do not follow white rules of how writing should look on a page. I think of it as a disorderly, joyful kind of writing. I’m interested in the possibilities of language and what I can build with it.”
Born and raised in Chicago, the playwright, 29, lives in New York and has been mentored by Lynn Nottage, a previous recipient of the prize, whose play Sweat contains similar themes.
Dickerson-Despenza, who receives $25,000 and a signed print by Willem de Kooning, revealed that cullud wattah had been submitted to the prize in two previous years. Natalie Abrahami, on the judging panel, said that while race and class inequalities exposed by the pandemic only make the play more resonant, it is a “winning play” in spite of the current backdrop. “I think it is a standout play but we were so aware of how it speaks to the situation we are in now. From the moment you start reading it you know you are in the hands of a master. She is so in command with what she is trying to achieve.”
Last July, cullud wattah had been due to premiere at the Public Theater, in New York, but that production was cancelled because of the pandemic. Dickerson-Despenza is now developing a 10-play cycle focusing on the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Judges commended two other playwrights on the shortlist: Kimber Lee, for The Water Palace and Ife Olujobi for Jordans, who were each awarded $10,000. Abrahami said the shortlist was broad in scope but fiercely political, with several plays grappling with environmental themes and containing clear, direct instructions around casting for diversity and representation. Paapa Essiedu, another judge, presented the prize in an online ceremony. He said Dickerson-Despenza’s play would be seen as a classic for years to come.
Last month the Hlcarpenter.com published findings of a nine-month investigation which discovered alarming levels of forever chemicals, arsenic and lead in American water systems, with more than 35% of samples containing potentially toxic chemicals at levels above the recommended maximum.