The story of Flint flows meaningfully in a timely play
FLINT, Mich.–Theater survives because it has something to say. Sometimes it makes us laugh, sometimes it makes us remember and sometimes it makes us love.
It can also express pain and challenge us to change.
Flint is a city that is filled with pain and despair. It’s a city that has been abandoned by business, filled with violence and, most lately, poisoned by its government. It’s a city that needs its theater to tell its story, even when the ending is yet unknown and the story unfinished.
Andrew Morton takes on this mantle of storytelling with his new work, The Most (Blank) City in America. It’s a story of Flint that is being told at the Flint Youth Theater in its world premiere. But this is not the kind of story that you expect to take wings and travel the country or make a trip to Broadway. It is a story about, by and for Flint. It is devised theater that captures the emotions and pain of both the actors and the audience.
Directed by Jeremy Winchester, The Most (Blank) City in America is an ensemble piece that combines puppetry, music, singing, dance, movement, improv and storytelling to try to capture the emotion of what it is like to live in Flint today… and to be of Flint. An oft-repeated phrase that is sometimes chanted, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, is “I am Flint.”
What does it mean to be of Flint? The answers are varied and a mix of both positive and negative. Morton doesn’t shy away from talking about the problems of Flint. He acknowledges that not only does Flint have an image problem, but a tough reality. It’s a troubled city filled with urban blight, violence, unemployment and now poor health due to water poisoning. It’s got a crumbling infrastructure, economic woes and a national reputation for being dangerous. All of this is in the play—along with the emotions that those things inspire in the residents—anger, frustration, fear, despair.
But Flint is more than just the national headlines. There are good things about Flint too, and that is in the play. There is hope in Flint and people who are from there that love and have pride in their city. There is creativity, commitment, revitalization, strength and courage. Morton doesn’t just focus on the negative. He finds the soul of the city and the reason it hasn’t just turned out the lights and packed up. There is a vibrancy in Flint that comes from the people who live there, make their lives, make art, build families and create. These emotions are spoken in the play too—pride, excitement, creativity, hope.
The staging, with scenic design by Tim McMath, is an integral part of the storytelling. There is a postcard-like backdrop with the word Flint and pictures of the city in each letter. In front of that is a hard-baked ground with scattered leaves and weeds, signs of an urban block where green lawns are a thing of the past. Central to the stage is a stream of water, used to represent the Flint river. It’s an important part of the stage as no story of Flint today can be told without reference to water.
The play opens with puppetry and a tribute to the city’s Native American past. It demonstrates the importance of flint (with a small “f”), and how it was used by the Native Americans to create fire and arrowheads used for hunting. This particular area, Morton later tells us through his actors, was rich in flint, thus giving the city its name. The ensemble often speaks the Native American word for “I am Flint.”
There is no one single strand of story line or plot in “The Most (Blank) City in America.” There is one through-line of a grandfather with his two grandchildren, a story that becomes representative of Flint and the challenges that families face there.
The heart of the play, however, is in the ensemble with their attempts to fill in the blank of what Flint is. They provide many different answers throughout the course of the evening with sketches, monologues, and group interactions that are filled with emotion and expression.
It’s not a perfect play. A few of the individuals are hard to understand and there are some moments where the pacing becomes awkward. However, these are minor moments and do little to detract from the overall importance of this show. Most of the show flows smoothly, or is purposefully jarring and the majority of the actors have strong voices that they use to create a rhythm and melody.
Flint is a city that needs its storytellers, especially as it goes through this historic time of the water crisis. Morton may have started this play long before the water crisis hit the headlines, but he fully incorporates it into the play and it is discussed as well as built into the set. The playwright, cast, creative team and crew all step up to the plate and help Flint to tell its story, to reveal its character and to demand a better future than it’s been given so far.