Next April 2024 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Flint Water Crisis. Known locally as “The Great Poisoning,” it was one of the most socioeconomically pronounced environmental public health crises in modern U.S. history, disproportionately harming more than 100,000 Black and low income Flint citizens including 12,000 children exposed to extreme levels of lead, and dozens lost in an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. With a declining auto industry since the 1980s, Flint’s crippled civic society reflected a familiar post-industrial narrative of factories closing, jobs moving overseas, and resulting city bankruptcies. And yet how did a thriving middle class American auto-supply hub once hailed “Vehicle City” reach the point of failing to provide the fundamental human right of clean water?
Seven years ago, a small team of Uncommon Productions researchers began to collect interviews with the reporters, doctors, residents, city workers and church leaders who experienced the crisis firsthand. We listened to their trials of brown water running out of taps, baths using bottled water, and health effects ranging from skin rash to a shocking spike in miscarriages. We also witnessed less well-told provincial tales of petty political squandering, state obstructionism, institutions undermining Black home-ownership, ordinary city employees under outrageous pressures, and a blatant, unconcealed racism that began to rear its head as the crisis unfolded. These stories inspired the music and libretto of THE POISONER, an 85-minute three-act ballad opera composed by M.M. Haney. A love story, the opera explores – through acoustic instrumentation, spoken word lyric verse, and archival visuals – how acknowledgment of personal culpability, genuine community, and philia love can transform a crumbling society. Orchestration is based in string and piano melodies, with percussion and synth beats that reflect the contemporary culture of post-industrial Rust Belt cities like Flint. Songs written in modern rap tradition are performed by four diverging characters, with narrative context provided by a Greek opposing chorus. Next April 4th – 21st 2024, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Flint water crisis, La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York will premiere THE POISONER. Founded in 1961, La MaMa believes art is a force for change and that violence, discrimination, and systemic racism will not stop without a unified resistance. As the Flint community comes together to repair the water system, provide health care and recompense to those affected, and hold accountable the leaders whose direct action or willful neglect led to the crisis, we hope THE POISONER helps provide dramatic catharsis that restores respect for our institutions, our differing points of view, and the intimacy and vulnerability of human life and the environment. We will hope you will join us next April in New York City and will share more details as the project progresses. Meanwhile, below are the true story and images of the Flint Water Crisis as we remember this anniversary and offer a ray of hope this Last Weekend of Earth Month.