Sarah Winkler lives in Detroit, which is just an hour south of Flint, Mich. And even though she knew about the continuing water crisis in the city, she was surprised on a recent visit. “People are living through an incomprehensible crisis,” she says. “You get there and it settles in and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you can’t wash your hands in the sink!’ I live 20 miles away. How is it possible that this is happening 20 miles away and we can’t find a way to lay new pipes for this town? This doesn’t make any sense. Why put money into anything else?”
That’s the money question, one that both residents and onlookers have been searching for an answer to ever since the news of Flint’s contaminated water broke nationally in 2016. Because the water filtering through the pipes has been laced with lead, Flint residents have been without clean drinking water since 2014. And the problem has not been fixed. “Right now, nothing is happening,” says Lawrence Young, a Flint resident and local actor. “All they’re doing is continuing to give us bottled water to use and putting extra money into the bridge cards so people can buy more food. But how is that going to benefit us if we still have to wash with dirty water? If we still have to pay bills for water that we can’t use? Nothing’s really changing. They’re putting a Band-Aid on it, and that’s not acceptable.”
That is why this week, Young, Winkler, and a group of theatre artists from around the U.S. and London are putting together three free public performances of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, June 8-10. The goal is to raise awareness about Flint’s water issues, which are still ongoing even though the national conversation (and rage) has died down. The project, called Public Enemy: Flint, will be performed in a converted gym on the north side of town.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people about us doing this project, and I hear people say, ‘Are things better?’” says Winkler, who is the artistic director of the Detroit Public Theatre. “People don’t know if things are better, because it’s not in the news. So refocusing attention on it is a positive thing. I think public outrage tends to move public policy.”
The idea for Public Enemy came from British directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe, who first heard about what was going on in Flint last year, when they were working in the States. “I was watching the news, and I couldn’t quite believe that this was possible,” Morell recalls. “And we thought, ‘It sounds like An Enemy of the People.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t we just do that?’”
Ibsen’s 1882 play is set in an unnamed town which has built a huge public bath with the hope of economically revitalizing the area. But local resident Dr. Stockmann discovers that the pipes feeding water into the baths are contaminated. The town mayor tells him to keep quiet about his findings because it would be too expensive to fix the issue. And the play is not just being done in Flint. A new adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins will play on Broadway next season, and theatres across the country (such as Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) have also slated Ibsen’s play in their 2017-18 seasons.
“A lot of people started producing the Enemy of the People because of Flint,” says Winkler. “I think now it has even more meaning, because our country is so divided—between the people who believe whistle-blowers are leakers who are trying to take down our country and people who believe whistle-blowers are responsible citizens trying to save our country.”
For Public Enemy, Morell and Roe have partnered with nine theatre companies (eight from the States and one from the U.K.): Fieldwork (London*), the Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, Goodman Theatre, the Chautauqua Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and People’s Light. They’re also working with three Flint institutions: University of Michigan-Flint’s department of theatre and dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, and the New McCree Theatre.
Seven of the theatres have each sponsored an actor to participate in the project and rehearse in Flint over 10 days to prepare the performances. In adapting Enemy of the People, Morell cut the play down to 80 minutes. She also turned the white male Dr. Stockmann to an African-American female character, Dr. Heather Stockman (played by Michole Briana White), in reference to the fact that Flint’s population is 56.6 percent black.
Morell didn’t add any references to Flint, but found she didn’t need to. “The discussion in Flint right now is the relaying of the pipes and the whole Ibsen play is about relaying pipes,” she says. “I’m not pretending it’s not about a water—it’s still about a mineral bath, it’s still about a wellness resort. But if you say the word ‘pipes’ in Flint, everybody thinks of the same thing.”
Here’s a sample passage from the play, as spoken by Stockmann to the townspeople:
You all know the history of this town, and the problems the city has faced, and you all know that what we built here had the potential to change our fortunes—to transform the city from a backwater into a vibrant thriving metropolis, with opportunities for all. But that dream has been shattered by the gross negligence of the authorities, the very people charged with building your futures, and now the resort, the water we depend on for this bright future, is contaminated—because some people here didn’t spend the money to lay the pipes properly.
The text sounds very much like what happened in Flint, where in 2014, authorities opted to use water from the Flint River instead of purchasing from the Huran River in Detroit to save $5 million. The poorly treated, highly chlorinated water began to leach the lead from aging pipes into the residents’ drinking water. In recent news, Flint’s pipes have been reconnected to the Huran River, but lead still infects the water. The next step is to replace the lead pipes in Flint, a move that will cost $97 million.
“A couple of the actors said, ‘Oh, you adapted this quite heavily to fix the situation,’ when in fact, I haven’t—it just is like that,’” says Morell. “The parallels are sort of astonishing. They’re just gifted to you on a plate; you don’t have to do very much.”
But Morell did make one big change to the script: She removed Act IV of the play, which features the community meeting. Instead, Public Enemy: Flint will have a real-life town hall and talkback with the audience, facilitated by one of the characters, before the action of the play resumes in Act V. “We’re going to invite the audiences to participate in the discussion about what they’re seeing and mostly what’s been going on in Flint,” Morell says.
“We’ve worked very, very hard to make sure that the community voices are louder and are the teachers of the national voices,” adds Winkler. “The Flint voices are louder and have more to say, and the project listens to the Flint voices most profoundly.”
Morell hopes the project will attract people from all around the city, from residents to lawmakers. She considers the problem bigger than one town, noting that lead poisoning is an issue in cities across America.
“There is a water problem and it’s a big water problem, and it’s there for a reason,” she says. “If we don’t fix the reason, we can send as much water as we can, but there’s going to be another one at some point.”
To Morell, the central issues are politicians’ lack of accountability to the people they serve and general apathy from the public. “The water in the play is a symbol,” she says. “It’s about everything else: How are our cities put together? What do we accept as governments? How do societies work? What have we given up in order to have some of the conveniences of modern life? How do we talk to each other? How do you know how to vote?”
Morell notes that the Barbican Theatre in London has expressed interest in staging Public Enemy after its Flint run. And actor Young has been on the ground in Flint, helping educate residents about the water crises in his work at the New McCree Theatre, the city’s African-American theatre company. For his part, Young hopes Public Enemy will help boost morale for the residents and reignite action within the community.
“Some people really have given up hope because of the lead; it’s been about three to four years,” he explains. He adds that he hopes the project will give residents “different ways and different perspectives on how to deal with the situation. And I hope they will take one of those perspectives and run with it and try to do what the people in the play are doing about the situation. And stay woke!”
*A previous version of the story erroneously identified Fieldwork as a Wales-based theatre company. It’s actually London-based; there is a Fieldwork in Wales, but that’s not the company participating in Public Enemy: Flint.