Imagine condensing and collapsing the entire modern history of Flint into a dark, blue-collar slice-of- life story about two families struggling with abject poverty.
Writer Jeff Daniels has done just that. An amazing, masterful job that stirs emotions, silences an audience into sadness and invites deep reflection.
What happened in Flint? Where did it all go wrong? Students of Michigan history will recall what they learned of the Great Migration, an influx of blacks from the deep south escaping Jim Crow laws. Combined with an equal number of white-folks from Missouri and elsewhere — both groups vying for auto-plant employment promised by William Durant, who bought General Motors and located it in Flint.
Eddie, in the play, sums up the history succinctly — noting that a job at GM was meant to be a lifetime experience, one that could be handed down from one generation to the next.
Except it didn’t turn out that way.
Instead, in the play two representative couples, one black, one white, are confronted with life after GM has abandoned Flint. Their economic troubles are magnified by the presence of toxic urine-colored tap water.
Lynch Travis as Mitchell, and Casaundra Freeman as Olivia, are the black couple, struggling and barely surviving on Mitchell’s minimum wage income from Walmart.
Karen, played by Rhiannon Ragland and Eddie, portrayed by David Bendena, the white couple, are a hot mess. Eddie, once a floor supervisor at GM, has turned to alcohol for comfort, and Karen, who once was a stripper at a men’s club has turned to prostitution, soliciting her old boss for money to pay the rent.
Despite these troubles, the couples are seemingly good friends, Eddie having hired Mitchell at GM when he was a floor supervisor.
And then it all falls apart.
Eddie cannot handle his loss of status, eschews a job at Walmart where Mitchell might supervise him, and soon his perpetual drunkenness, combined with subsequent extreme marital conflict, tears the friendship apart.
While Mitchell is stoic, accepting the notion that any job is better than none, Eddie regresses to blaming the black community for taking all the jobs when they arrived by the hundreds, decades ago.
Can this friendship be saved? Alas, no.
Daniels addresses large issues of institutional indifference in Flint, first GM calculatingly moving plants elsewhere for greater profits, followed by the state of Michigan’s denials of the toxic water crisis.
While the play begins artfully with a shadowy darkness and a simple guitar solo of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” we soon hear from Olivia, who questions whether God even cares for Flint.
Mitchel comforts her, reminding her of the 23rd Psalm, which they recited as part of their wedding vows.
Mitchell and Olivia are comfortable in their relationship, Travis having a soothing healing emotional touch overall, and Freeman fitting into that like a hand in a glove. Karen is shrill and biting, giving no quarter to Eddie, whose pent-up rage explodes in a scene of uncontrollable violence toward both women and Mitchell.
This couple is not going to reconcile.
Throughout the play, the water is a silent partner, exacerbating the cumulative stresses of poverty and unemployment. Every time someone onstage pours and sips a small glass of tap water, you can feel the audience flinch.
This is not an easy play to watch. It can thrust many audience members uncomfortably back-in-time to their own difficult family roots where families subsisted on two slices of Wonder bread and accoutrements of ketchup and mustard.
Bravo, Jeff Daniels.
“Flint” continues to Saturday, March 10, at the Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsie, Michigan Tickets can be purchased at the box office or at 734 433 7673 , or at firstname.lastname@example.org