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“A Cool Dip” Into a Hot Topic Kia Corthron’s latest play divines the political power in water

By LAURA HEDLI

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick tells a story that it didn’t start and can’t possibly finish, but Kia Corthron accepts that. When she started writing the play, which addresses the global impact of privatizing water, she knew she was tackling an enormous subject. “It’s a huge discussion, much bigger than the play,” she says. “But what I have brought up starts that discussion.”

Contemporary politics have always been the driving impetus behind Corthron’s work—Life by Asphyxiation tackles the death penalty, Force Continuum concerns police brutality—and A Cool Dip, premiering this month at Playwrights Horizons in association with The Play Company and Culture Project, is no exception. Along with how water is regulated in America and abroad, it explores racism, spirituality, and grief. 

Corthron combines these issues in her surreal-but-serious plot, which follows an Ethiopian student in the United States. Though he studies environmental science in hopes of helping his village get clean water, he’s also pulled by religion, occasionally giving sermons from atop kitchen chairs. Meanwhile, he lives with a mother and her daughter in a house riddled by loss, and as they process their respective tragedies, these characters embody Corthron's sweeping political concepts.

Yet for all its global concerns, many of the play’s issues are rooted in Corthron’s personal history.  To begin, it’s set in her hometown of Cumberland, Maryland—an old factory town which she describes as economically strapped and over 95% white. Meanwhile, the opening scene, in which the young man continuously flushes an American toilet, was inspired by a trip to Nairobi for the 2007 World Social Forum. Corthron met a young man there from Nairobi’s Kibera slum who was fascinated by the shower. “He came to our hotel and was marveling at how water just dependably comes out with a twist,” says Corthron. “It’s not like he’d never seen such a thing before, but it’s just so different from where he lives and where he grew up.”

The World Social Forum also introduced Corthron to the bottled water controversy, which figures prominently in A Cool Dip. Before attending the Forum, she says, “I had no problem with tap water, but I also had no problem with bottled water. I didn’t think anything of it.” Now she totes a pink aluminum canister filled with New York City tap.

Some of research, however, contradicted her personal choices (and her choices for the play). Last fall, the New York Times published an investigative story claiming that one in ten Americans have been exposed to tap water that is either contaminated by pollutants or fails to meet federal health standards in other ways. Corthron felt compelled to include this perspective in her script, in the form of a character who works for a water bottling plant. “It strengthened the play because it was kind of a one-sided argument before, and now I provide two sides,” she says. 

But while A Cool Dip presents the facts, Corthron stresses that she’s got an opinion. “I do not sit on the fence,” she says. “I show two sides of the argument, but as playwright, I favor tap water. That should be clear to the audience. Most Americans are fortunate to have clean water that comes right out of the spigot, and it is our responsibility to fight to maintain that.”

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Laura Hedli is a theatre reporter and critic based in New York City