“Flint” is the 17th play Jeff Daniels has written for Purple Rose, the theater company he cofounded in 1991. For him, it’s an attempt to put a human face on a situation that has made national headlines for the past three years.
“The best plays shine a light on the human condition,” Daniels said in a prepared statement. (He was unavailable for interviews.) “ ‘Flint’ is about hope, abandonment and what happens when good, hard-working people scream for fairness in an unfair world.”
Daniels knows about hard work. Once best known as a film actor in titles like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Squid and the Whale,” the 62-year-old actor has spent much of the last decade working on the stage and in TV shows like HBO’s “The Newsroom” and the recent Netflix series “Godless.” He enjoyed one of his biggest Broadway stage successes in 2009’s “God of Carnage,” which the Purple Rose performed last fall.
“Jeff writes his best work when he’s angry,” says Sanville, who is also the Purple Rose’s longtime artistic director. “If you’re not angry about something these days, you aren’t paying attention.”
“Flint” began to take serious shape early last year, and the 2016 presidential election definitely played a part in setting the play’s tone. “We all woke up a year ago November sort of stunned,” Sanville remembers. “Jeff had been thinking about the play before that, this idea that for over a century, generations of men and women in Flint earned a really good living building cars and everything that went into them. Then almost overnight, those jobs disappeared.”
The city’s decline, chronicled in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger & Me,” began nearly four decades ago when General Motors began drastically reducing its Flint workforce. Aside from the issue of fouled water, the story that unfolds in “Flint” could have been written 30 or more years ago.
Along the top of the play’s kitchen set (designed by Vincent Mountain) are black-and-white photographs of Flint residents during happier times. They’re seen shaking hands in hard hats or marching down Saginaw Street in a Labor Day parade. The images contrast sharply with the misery unfolding onstage just below them.
“Jeff wants to show people what it’s like to live this way,” Sanville says. “Flint will be forever connected with water, but here the water is a metaphor for what has happened to the city and the people in it.”