By Yuko Kurahashi
The Purple Rose Theatre Company’s production of FLINT, written by Jeff Daniels and directed by Guy Sanville, is a powerful, evocative, and moving work packed with “tough language.” The 75-minute performance gives witness to two sets of families — an African American couple Mitchell and Olivia and a white couple Eddie and Karen — responding not only to the Flint water crisis but also to the current political, social, and cultural climate.
Set in Mitchell and Olivia’s home in September 2014, five months after the city switched the water supply, the couple attempts to decipher the city’s confusing and conflicting instructions through postings on their phones.
The setting provides a realistic feel — a small kitchen complete with sink, cupboards, a refrigerator, a small dining table, and three chairs. This humbly furnished space becomes the site for conversation, contention, and confrontation. The thrust stage of the intimate 168-seat theatre allows for the complete digestion of the external and internal damage, and pain of each character.
The stage also illuminates a Flint in better days: above the cupboard are five black-and-white pictures of the General Motors’ plant from the 1950s.
During the course of the performance, the four characters’ relationships unfold, sometimes through flashbacks. Eddie, who used to be a supervisor at a GM plant, helped Mitchell get a job there, as well his house. However, Mitchell and Eddie were both laid off during the recession. Mitchell is currently working as a clerk at Walmart and hopes to be promoted to supervisor, while Eddie refuses to take any minimum-wage job which he believes is beneath him; Mitchell’s wife Olivia works as an office assistant in a local church. Olivia and Mitchell have a new-born baby.
Karen, Eddie’s wife, struggles to raise two girls, while her relationship with Eddie deteriorates. Eddie refuses to face reality, tearing up the final eviction notice that Karen brings to him. In addition to these economic hardships, the couples are suffering from the supply of the Flint River water containing a substantial level of lead. The toxic water is a constant metaphor throughout the show in the form of a glass of yellow tap water that the characters drink.
The focus of the play is, however, not on the water crisis itself but rather racial and class bias among the characters in difficult times. Eddie is angry and hateful especially against African Americans, whom he blames for his misfortune. During the course of the performance, David Bendena’s Eddie transforms from a pathetic but likable man into a racist coward. The climactic moment—when he admits his true animosity against African Americans—is shocking and poignant, reflecting what we see in our society today.
Eddie’s counterpart, Mitchell, tries to support his family, while maintaining his pride and hope. Playwright Jeff Daniels’s dramaturgy emphasizes how Mitchell has gotten his tenacity, patience, and quiet strength from his father, who used to work as a vendor at ball games. Lynch R. Travis is serene, humorous, and warm as Mitchell, and is well complemented by his wife Olivia, played by Casaundra Freeman. Freeman’s Olivia shows a commitment to her family and friend Karen through her postures, facial expressions and interaction. While outspoken and commanding, Freeman illuminates the gentleness, compassion, kindness and graciousness of her character. She serves as a backbone not only to her family but also to Karen and sometimes even to Eddie, who frequent Olivia and Mitchell’s house to seek refuge. Rhiannon Ragland portrays Karen as trapped in an abusive marriage and unable to find any monetary or spiritual support.
FLINT‘s music is used as a transport from present day to the past, such as when Mitchell and Olivia first moved to their house. “Jesus Loves Me,” which is played in different parts of the show, expresses Olivia and Mitchell’s faith, also alluding to that of the community of Flint.
The backdrop beyond the porch, which serves as an “alternative” space to the kitchen, is lit in blue and purple, showing the passage of time as well as the presence of the community of Flint. The costumes express personality and occupation, including Eddie’s baseball cap and Karen’s sandals with high heels.
In partnership with organizations based in Flint such as Asbury Church, Latinos United for Flint, and R.L. Jones Community Outreach Center, the Purple Rose Theatre Company has raised money for those affected by the water crisis. In addition, long-time Purple Rose donors have underwritten ticket costs for audiences from Flint.
Editor’s note: This play is currently being performed only in Chelsea, Michigan; however, its subject matter is of deep importance nationally.