By Jan Worth-Nelson
I was warned: I had Kleenex at the ready. Still, when my tears started up in the dark during Flint Youth Theater’s production of “The Most (Blank) City in America” Saturday night at the Elgood Theater, they hit me like a squall.
I was crying for this beleaguered, heartbreaking, devastated town. And for all of us entangled in its travails.
Andrew Morton’s powerful, participatory play, framed around the relationship between a Flint teenager and her grandfather, ranges through history distant and recent but ultimately zeroes in to the Flint River and our water crisis. It begins with natives silently, hauntingly scooping water from a recreated river. (The occasional bubbling sound of it unexpectedly touched me). That quiet ballet sets the stage for a potent thematic exploration of dismay, struggle, guilt and a wrenching, poignant attempt to claim the city’s goodness.
There’s a part in the play when the “chorus,” a favorite device in Morton’s “verbatim” plays shaped in part from interviews and the real words of affected people, builds in a spoken-word babble until all their voices converge, in unison, crying out, “…they told us it was safe to drink the water!!!”
That stark moment gripped my heart: as the intense cri de coeur reverberated in the small theater, it felt as if the betrayal, lying and confusion, all the worrying and anger, belonged to all of us. We were hurt and angry together.
They told us it was safe to drink the water.
A few minutes later, after a long furious monologue by student cast member Alazsha Donerson, a senior at the International Academy, the whole chorus just started screaming. Primal screaming. No holding back.
I was right there with them. Some days it feels like the whole city should have one good, angry cry. Maybe the Mayor should declare a day of the Primal Scream.
My husband and I had been gone three months – in, ironically, drought-plagued Southern California – and as we coursed back across the country last week, we wondered if we would find Flint changed.
The first day back we made our way to the water distribution station at the downtown fire station. Two National Guards tucked two cases into our trunk. Inside, I signed in and took handouts and talked about filters and testing. I took one package and an armful of testing kits.
The National Guard crew, all young and friendly, delivered the necessary info with the practiced phrasing they’ve honed since January. One National Guard who said he’s been working here for two and a half months told us he’d taken an apartment in town for the time being to save driving. When I thanked the crew and took a few photos, another declared “We love this city.”
We’re still learning the ropes you’ve all perfected while we were gone. I keep forgetting to brush my teeth the safe way. There’s a bottle right there on the sink, but habits die hard, and I’ll be half way through the routine, my electric brush buzzing companionably in my hand, when I realize I’ve been unconsciously using tap water. Damn! How much damaged water did I just swallow?
I snuck out last night – and the night before – and fill the birdbath, using one of the big bottles. For some reason I didn’t want anybody to see me doing it, as if it was an indulgence, a waste of the good water we’re all getting “free” these days.
But the birds – a horde of gold finches this year, plenty of doves, nuthatches, robins and cardinals – are one of the reasons waking up in the morning here makes me happy. I don’t want the birds to be harmed by this disaster any more than any of the other imperiled creatures. The asshats who’ve done this don’t get to ruin my birds.
My husband and I are not yet inured to these realities. We got lead-tested and we are okay; we took our water in for testing and still await the results. So far, so good.
As for the rest of you, I sense a great weariness. I sense cynicism and anger – the anger that we are still drinking bottled water, that the funds keep getting held up, that we have been saddled like so many times before by unconscionable decisions outside our control, by losses one after the other just when we think we’re on the upswing.
I sensed it last week when I posted photos on Facebook of two bulldozers demolishing the Sarvis Center. Even though I cherish my memories of voting for Obama there – of many votes in line with my neighbors over the years – I never particularly admired the building’s architecture and wasn’t hurt by seeing it go.
But others were. “A total disgrace,” one person said. Many others shared memories of childhoods in the building, nostalgia surfacing with surprisingly raw vehemence and sadness. It was as if this one additional loss, the brutality of the bulldozers’ teeth, was just one infuriating insult too many.
We are told something great is going in its place. I personally believe that it will and I’m looking forward to it. But the community spirit right now feels touchy, depressed, and deeply skeptical.
And then the Governor pulls that dreadfully cartoonish stunt, carting filtered water from a kitchen on Brookside and leaving for Europe the next week. And then Darnell Earley charges the city for his legal fees, the latest outrage, the latest shameful repudiation of responsibility.
They told us it was safe to drink the water.
And it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. And we’re trying to live good lives here. But not a day goes by that we can let our guard down, that we can trust our days to be free of struggle or our leaders to have our best interests at heart.
Primal scream, anybody?
Jan Worth-Nelson is editor of East Village Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.