Playwright channels anger into 'Flint'
Four years ago when he first interviewed at the University of Michigan, José Casas says he was shocked to hear about Flint's water crisis, which had its start in 2014.
"I hadn't even heard of Flint," said Casas, who's now a U-M playwriting and drama professor. "So I started doing some research, and getting angrier and angrier."
The 50-year-old playwright with a bent for social issues channeled that rage into 100 interviews with Flint residents, which he condensed into a series of dramatic monologues. The result is "Flint," a new play directed by Dexter J. Singleton which has its premiere tonight at the university's Arthur Miller Theatre on North Campus.
"Some of the monologues are composites that create a character," Casas said, "but the dialog is all 100 percent from the people of Flint," as well as some testimony from public records.
But if 100 people were willing to talk, he added, "I probably got rejected about 400 times."
"This is applied theater," Casas explained, "so when you do this kind of work, you're creating art within trauma -- and some people just didn't want to talk yet," a reluctance he completely understood.
Like other works based on the Flint catastrophe, including Jeff Daniels' 2018 production of the same name at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Casas' scope is wider than just the lead in the water.
"The stories I heard don't necessarily reflect on the water," he said,"but they do reflect on issues that helped create the water crisis," like deindustrialization, economic inequality, and the sense, as one of his "Flint" characters puts it, "that poor brown bodies are disposable."
What distinguishes this "Flint" from Daniels' is its structure.
"Other plays created around the crisis have been timeline plays," Casas said, "and I didn't want to do that." Instead, he opted for the monologue approach audiences may recall from Moisés Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," based on the murder of Matthew Shepard.
Singleton, artistic director of the Collective Consciousness Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, came to town to direct the play for Casas. He says it's been invaluable for the theater students in the production.
"There’s nothing fictional in this show -- everything comes from the mouths of the people affected," said Singleton, who grew up in Detroit. "It's been a great experience for the students, since it’s the first time they’re portraying living, breathing people."
This isn't Casas' first original work performed at the university. Last year, his "14," inspired by deadly attempts to cross the Mexican-American border, was staged by the Department of Theatre & Drama.
Casas' characters in "Flint" range from a disabled actress to a cashier who rails about the ill-conceived AutoWorld indoor theme park that was supposed to help rescue Flint, but ended up an embarrassment that was demolished after 10 years.
"A lot of the stories I got were accidental," Casas said, "and those are actually some of my favorites." As any reporter knows -- and Casas writes journalism as well as plays -- one interview tends to lead to another.
In this regard, one of his big surprises was the experience of Flint's deaf community.
"I wouldn't have even known about them if a woman in the Latino community hadn't said, 'If you think they didn't reach out to us with information, you should talk to the deaf community.' And it turned out the city for years had pretty much treated deaf residents like second-class citizens."
Casas tried to talk to public officials connected to the crisis, but didn't have much luck.
He says he tried repeatedly to reach former Gov. Rick Snyder and former Attorney General Bill Schuette, but got nowhere. And that wasn't all.
"The mayor and her people didn't want to talk," Casas said, "and Rep. (Dan) Kildee didn't either. But Alec Baldwin," who's filming a documentary about Flint, "was there last week, and you see them all talking to him."
A theme that came up over and over in interviews, he says, was the nation's short attention span. "For a while Flint's a hot story," Casas said, "but then the media forgets it, and it disappears."
Indeed, he worries too many Americans think the problem's over. "But one of the things we're finding out," he added, "is that it's all over the country. Prof. Marty Kaufman, who teaches environmental studies at U-M Flint, thinks Flint might not even be the worst."
Talk-backs with Casas, Singleton and cast members will take place after every performance. On April 16, the play will move to the Flint Development Center for a one-night, free performance at 7 p.m.
'Flint' by José Casas
Arthur Miller Theatre, U-M North Campus, 1226 Murfin, Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 2 p.m. Sun; 7:30 p.m. April 11, 8 p.m. April 12 & 13, 2 p.m. April 14
Tickets: $30 - general admission, $12 - with student ID
Michigan League Ticket Office: (734) 764-2538 |