The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jul 29, 2011

May I have some water, please?

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Jean-Marie Allion, Lead Writer “Home Water”

The lack of access to water is a worldwide issue that has an increasingly preponderant role in geopolitics. On a smaller scale, here at home, we can see that it is also a burning issue in urban America. When our Community Writing Circle met in November 2010 to write a play on the theme of water, which Matrix Theatre had been exploring in different ways for the past years (see Shaun Nethercott’s blog), we had no idea in which directions we would be going. There were eight of us at the start of that venture, all either Detroit-born or long time residents. We wanted to tell a story that would be Detroit-based

We did some extensive research, under Shaun’s guidance. We gained a new awareness of the organic bonds between Detroit and water, including its “Ghost Waters”; we dug into the history of the Detroit Water Department, following the stages through which, from its humble beginnings in the 1840s, it eventually became one of the largest in the country, serving communities like Flint, more than 65 miles away. Week after week (we met every Thursday evening), we deepened our understanding of that vast, complex and aging system. However the more information we gathered, the less clearly we saw what we could do with it.

One fact particularly struck home with me: to our great surprise, we learned that more than 40,000 households in Detroit had had their water shut off because they were behind in paying their bill. You get a warning after you miss the first bill and, 10 days later, if you have not come up with the money, the man with the big key shows up in front of your house, turning off the main valve. We heard first-hand accounts of the plight of families who had to go through months without water. To make matters worse, if you have young children and Social Services become aware of your situation, they take the kids away.

We knew then that our play would have to deal with that issue, one way or another. Then our friend Leonard Gross, a long-time collaborator of Matrix Theatre and a very active member of our Circle, mentioned that whenever he traveled, he missed the taste of his home water. In some dark recess of my brain, that expression collided with the data on the water shut-offs. I suddenly envisioned someone who, faced with a shut-off, would decide to have his “home water” by digging his own well in his backyard. I submitted the idea to the group and they deemed it worth developing. Soon we had imagined the various members of the family and their neighbors that would be the characters of “Home Water”. Each member of the Circle adopted one of these characters and acted it out as we went on writing.

I can hear some of you grumble: “You keep talking about water but what about the jambalaya you mentioned in your last posting?” Stay tuned: next time, I promise I will share some our secret recipes.

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