Encore Michigan

Purple Rose’s ‘Flint’ by Jeff Daniels is about much more than the water

Review January 29, 2018 David Kiley

CHELSEA, Mich.–If Jeff Daniels new play, Flint, being produced at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, teaches us anything, it is that there is much more to the recent history of Flint, Michigan than bad water. If anything, the scandal that revealed that the state’s decision to change the city’s water supply, resulting in widespread lead poisoning of city inhabitants, was just the latest turd in making an already poisoned punch bowl undrinkable for people struggling for their existence.

Flint has been in decline since General Motors downsized its manufacturing plant and campus from more than 80,000 in 1978 to less than 8,000. The city’s population, about halved between 1960 and 2010, according to census data. Housing values plummeted. Foreclosures have been rampant. Blocks upon blocks are abandoned. Poverty and crime rates have risen. The drug-trade and sex workers have laid down its roots in place of making cars for American roads.

The city’s long decline seemed to be accepted by Michigan’s population and certainly by Lansing politicians of both major parties. Their plight was wallpaper, a backdrop curtain we got used to. We were numb to the suffering. As a city, with hardly any tax base, it was a basket case, under state of financial emergency twice.

But it was not until 2014 when the city began facing a public health emergency because of tainted drinking water that outrage and the spotlight returned to Flint. It was one thing to ignore the perennial economic plight of desperate low-income families, but it became quite another to actually poison them. Not even the most callous, privileged people, nor even the most jaded members of the media, could ignore Flint. National media heavyweights came to Flint to hold town-hall meetings.

It is against this backdrop that actor/director and Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniels wrote Flint. In 2016 and 2017, Daniels told me, he was working on a comedy as his next play. The film-maker Michael Moore, he said, came to see his performance of Blackbird on Broadway. Moore discussed the Flint situation with Daniels, a native of Chelsea, Michigan, and he changed gears to begin writing this play instead.

And we should be glad he did. But Flint is not really about the water, though the water plays a character in this play.

Lynch R. Travis plays Mitchell, a displaced auto worker from GM who has been squeaking out a living as an hourly worker at Walmart with no health benefits. Casaundra Freeman is Olivia, Mitchell’s salt-of-the-earth wife, who makes $100 a week driving the church bus, and she is a new mother, nursing her baby. David Bendena is Eddie, a former line foreman at the GM plant, and alcoholic who has never accepted the closure of the plant and refuses to work at a job beneath his station. Eddie’s wife and former stripper, Karen, was played in the performance I saw by Kristin Shields, understudy of Rhiannon Ragland who was down with flu.

The flow of the play is an afternoon in Mitchell’s and Olivia’s house. Eddie is drunk and waxing on about the old days in the plant, while Karen has made it clear she has no more use for her shattered, living-in-the-past husband. Mitchell, meanwhile, is hoping for a promotion to management and benefits at Walmart. Eddie refuses Mitchell’s help in getting a job at the store.

What unfolds from there is a snapshot of two couples faced with the same set of circumstances, but who react to them quite differently, mashed up with race relations and racism that lay just below the skin. Flint is about people who have nothing, and trusted that even if the government allowed GM to ship their jobs to China they surely would not force them to drink tainted water. These are not people who buy bottled water and toss out empty bottle after empty bottle. These are people who drink from the faucet and often collect the cans and bottles thrown away by more privileged people too busy to recycle.

Daniels uses the piss-colored water these folks casually fill Ball jars with as a symbol–a symbol of how people who trusted that they had hit bottom and had nowhere to go but up, were victimized by their trust. But the white privilege that killed the City of Flint wasn’t done wringing the life out of these people who remained, clinging to little else but their faith in God and their faith in their own families. Mitchell even dismisses a warning that comes across his phone from the city to not drink the water unless it is boiled, and instead references a friend who works for the water treatment plant who assured him the piss-color was nothing to worry about.

The roughly 90-minute one-act play (no intermission) is intense at times. But we are so glued most of the time to the character, perseverance and faith of Mitchell and Olivia, their simple love and work ethic, their rock-ribbed “do unto others…” default point-of-view that we can find hope and something brighter to fix on. Their beauty counters our anger.  Because even before we sat in the theater, most of us already scorned the politicians and bureaucrats who made a series of penny-pinching hubris-filled decisions that further decimated an already shattered populace–decisions that never would have been made for West Bloomfield’s, Shelby Township’s or Chelsea’s residents.

Mr. Travis plays Mitchell perfectly, a bear of a man with aging but strong shoulders, slumped from carrying the weight of responsibility and pride, a legacy of his father and father’s father. His place is as a provider, no matter what. He pairs beautifully with the earthy, genuine Ms. Freeman who plays Olivia just right–the kind of woman the American black experience, and any neighborhood, is built upon. Caring. Loyal. Resourceful. Generous of heart. She is beautiful. This may be the best work of David Bendena’s career. He plays Eddie’s truth so thoroughly that it is coming out of his pores. The pain. The resignation. The damaged pride. Look closely in his eyes and you see the ghosts of Buick Regals behind the fog of Jack Daniels. And the pain is real. Ms. Shields knocked it out of the park with no rehearsals with the cast, save one run-through the day of this performance. She managed to play “trash” in a way that made us care deeply about her as a Mother, and rooted for her to get away from Eddie. She is, in fact, better than Eddie, sober, mothering and grateful for kindnesses despite letting us know she has been cheating on Eddie with her former strip-club boss. “He treats me good.”

The set, by Vince Mountain, and props by Danna Segrest, are simple, as they should be, but it is utterly nailed as a Flint kitchen and dining area, right down to the cereal boxes on top of the fridge and the Ball jars as drinking glasses. The nicer-than-we-expect lovingly cared-for oak dining room set belonged to Olivia’s grandmother. Lighting by Dana L. White is noticeably well done. Sound is by Tom Whalen.

It’s easy to extol Jeff Daniels virtues as a playwright, and to root for this play, and to root for him as one of the truly good guys in Hollywood. But, in fact, the actor we have come to love on film, screen and our TV screens, fully delivers the goods with Flint. And his actors, and director Guy Sanville, more than honor the script and the story of Flint’s survivors, and those who have not survived, while leaving our minds and hearts forever changed when we hear the name “Flint.”

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