A conversation with director, writer, and actor of the soul-stirring stage play 'Wrong River'

FLINT, Michigan — Black genius is on display. It is radiant and infectious, cementing the fact that the hashtags #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy were always present even before they became part of the modern mantras of African American people. Laughter is abundant as each guest arrives on the call, greeting one another — and me — as if we were old acquaintances, classmates, kinfolk.

These adorning faces belong to Josh Wilder, Jeremiah Davison, and Madelyn Porter — the writer, director, and actor of The Flint Repertory Theatre's newest world-premiere play, Wrong River. Together, they possess an indescribable aura that ties together the many reasons why Black people continue to push forward despite incredible opposition.

Through our conversation and connection to Blackness, I learned what inspired Wrong River, how Davison became the anchor to hold everyone together, and Porter's gift of storytelling.

"It all started from Facebook," says Wrong River writer, Philadelphia native Josh Wilder, commenting on the catalyst that made him write it. "I realized once children are lead poisoned, their lead-poisoned for life, and to try to attempt to take away their futures, that's when we stand up as a community, as a people."

For Davison, directing a play about his hometown of Flint was a "dream come true. It means the world to me. I feel like I brought Flint's natural flow and perspective. With anything you do, that heartbeat has to be from the source."
The play follows the story of a young Black family's experience in Flint as the Flint Water Crisis begins to make national headlines. 
"But I believe in my heart that as an artist, you have an obligation to use your craft and skill to speak up, speak out, and to send a message," remarks Porter. "Wrong River is a form of protest, and we're soldiers of the arts."

In the words of The Rep, Wrong River is an "edgy new drama [featuring] thrilling magical realism moments born from the imagination of a 10-year old girl." The play, featuring an all-Black cast, highlights 10-year-old Dayla, her family, and grandmother June, played by Porter, as they explore and deal with the traumatic effects following the Flint Water Crisis. An event that left thousands of Flint residents without clean water, infected for life with elevated lead levels, and once again searching for the light within the darkness.

It is a brilliant emotional rollercoaster as it positions Dayla and her family front and center to grapple with her new reality of living a life sustained by the boxes of Fiji water that litter it unable to bathe or drink from the now leaden pipes. To me, Wrong River is a social commentary of how a government-sanctioned disaster impacted a predominately Black city and added to the evolving narrative of what it means to be Black in America, for better and for worse. But for Wilder, Davison, and Porter, it means all that and then some.

Philadelphia native Josh Wilder serves as the playwright for 'Wrong River.'

"Wrong River is symbolic to me because as Black folk, we [have] been going up the 'wrong river.' I think about slavery. I think about the Nile River. I think about the West coast of Africa," says Porter as her own life experiences and that of her family come to the forefront. "I think about how many 'wrong rivers' as Black folks we had to cross and had to pull the gunk out of."

"They have to see us to believe us. Black people aren't believed when we're in pain," says Wilder taking time to ascertain the weight of his work. "I think the representation of our imagination is seldom on stage. I think the play pulls the curtain back on us and how we're able to love each other through crisis and how quickly we have to grow up."

"It is showing insight on a Black family in the Midwest and our ability to dream and keep dreaming. It's not just, oh, they're Black, and they're struggling," explains Davison offering insight into his directorship. "It brings together and represents our ancestral unity. How we are so intertwined with our ancestors and how that can help us continue to move through life."

Emotions run hot in Wrong River. Relationships become strained, and love and survival are intertwined. But to process this new reality, rationalize her decisions and push forward, Dayla must turn to what continues to be a child's greatest gift and the thing many adults strive to rekindle — imagination.

With incredible displays of sound, lighting, and visual work brought to life by Davison, he pulls audiences into the mind of Dayla, where they must grapple with the question of what is right and wrong. But bringing the imagination of a 10-year-old to paper and then to the stage took everyone into inspiring spaces and allowed them to tap into their inner child.
Jeremiah Davison is a native of Flint and the director of 'Wrong River.'
"I had to tap into the mind of what Dayla's imagination was first. You never stop being a kid as an artist, I feel. A lot of this sparked from figuring out, what is the playground that we have? How do we go into these and create these worlds," explains Davison, who loves talking technology. "How do we create the atmosphere, lights, and implement reality and the magical world of [Dayla's] brain. Then, as a sound designer, how do we wrap ourselves into this space?"

But the production of Wrong River is nothing without its cast and crew, says Wilder, one of which is Porter, having under her belt 30 years of experience in the business, is home on stage, bringing to life her portrayal of June. Porter's used the acting to offer insight and educate audiences — particularly the youth — of African experiences. However, she tells me with several laughs and powerful oratory that storytelling runs in her family. Growing up, she was labeled "weird" and "crazy" and listened to her aunt tell stories that took "reality, surrealism, and realism and mixed it up."

Those experiences bring the richness of old African griots to the current generation and helped flesh out Wrong River's narrative. Wilder and Davison explicitly state the time spent researching, getting case studies, listening to the stories of Flintstones, and talking with Davison's family to make sure the story was as authentic as possible. The storytelling, whether through Wilder's written work, Davison's directing and usage of tech, Porter's and the cast acting, and the backstage crew, push the collective conversation forward.

Through Wrong River's final moments, the quintessential reasoning, or the seed that binds this all together, of how and why African American people continue to advocate, march, push boundaries throughout education, sports and entertainment, the creative landscape, and have advanced as far as have is revealed — hope. We bow our heads or raise them to the skies calling up our ancestors, tapping into our spiritual connections, giving our hopes, fears, praise, honor, and glory.

Wrong River is not a story for European Americans to finally see Black people for who we are. Quite the opposite. It is for us to see and know who we are. To tap into the unconscious imaginative realm that Dayla so powerfully commands to change our realities and create the unseen.

"For generations, as Black people, we've always crafted. We always take something traumatic and make it into something beautiful for us. I think the spirit and the seed are within the journey of Dayla and her grandma in the wrinkle in times," says Davison.

"The key at the very end of this show, there's hope, and there's a utopia in our minds," remarks Porter.

"My idea with writing this piece was to create a timeless piece of drama that can last for centuries. I want to [write about] the Civil Rights Movement of today," exclaims Wilder.

You can learn more and see Wrong River at The Flint Repertory Theatre live before its end date, February 20. Tickets are on sale now.

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.