Public swimming pools aren’t always understood as flash points during the long American struggle toward racial integration; most white Americans think of schools, buses and diner counters first.
But “the ripple, the wave, that carried me home,” the eloquent new Christina Anderson play at the Goodman Theatre, makes a richly worded argument that segregated swimming had an especially pernicious history, born of the remarkably pervasive and long-lived panic over Americans of different races sharing the calming shifts of water. (In Chicago, we are especially familiar, given the notorious fights over who got to swim at which Lake Michigan beach.)
Since, in so many communities, the facilities affording Black people and white people were unequal in size, quality and upkeep, that disparity alone served to discourage many young Black swimmers, putting them more at risk in terms of future drowning deaths, not to mention denying them opportunities for both professional athletic accomplishment and a healthy recreational option on a hot summer’s day. As Anderson’s play, a coproduction between the Goodman and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, makes very clear, there is something especially shameful about this history of denying entry to a swimming pool, of interfering with the basic human right to cool off, or dive away one’s troubles, or jump with a great and joyous splash before racing to the other end.
The play, which is mostly set in Beacon, Kansas, does not contain as much of the joy of swimming as one might wish. Anderson is looking at this history through the lens of a young woman, Janice (Christiana Clark) who has become progressively alienated from her parents, Helen (Aneisa Hicks) and Edwin (Ronald Conner), both of whom are involved with the struggle to get a decent Beacon pool open to Black swimmers. Janice is struggling with her relationship with her father, who can lose his temper, and also feels that she is being asked to play second fiddle to the movement itself. Her refuge for her feelings is a loving aunt, Gayle (Brianna Buckley).
Given the play’s title and a set from Todd Rosenthal that contains an empty pool, several things rapidly become clear at the Goodman. One is that the pool will be filled with water and the other is that Janice will figure out a way to reconcile herself with her parents and with their activism on behalf of their entire community. We know she’ll find a way home; the question of the play is how she gets there.
In many ways, “the ripple” is a well-written example of a common current genre in regional American theater that often looks to Ivy League schools for its writers: Anderson, born in Kansas and trained at both Brown and Yale Universities, is reflecting the sudden dislocation that a lot of outsiders feel when they suddenly find themselves in elite East Coast environments. Often, these playwrights write pieces about their search for personal identity and how to deal with their feelings of belonging nowhere and finding fault with everywhere and everyone, including their nearest and dearest. We older folks tend to look at these works and think, well, you will work out what is most important and you will be just fine; richer in opportunity, for sure, than some of the folks of whom you once were critical. But that all depends on where you are in your life.
The problem with these plays, of course, is that they inherently lack dramatic tension and I think this production and script could do more to compensate by evoking more of the tactile joy and emancipatory pleasure of swimming, by really bringing home in a theatrical way how important these pools were to Black communities. Perhaps that’s why I found myself less drawn to Janice and more to the older generation of women, as superbly acted by Hicks and Buckley, even though Buckley also does double duty as another character, named Young Chipper American Black Woman. That said, I also think many people will relate to everything Janice has to say here.
Clark truly throws herself into this show and she energizes the production, which is a crucial contribution, but for a mostly narrated work, she does not really talk to the audience and she still needs to find the quieter, more vulnerable moments that would not just deepen her character but make her even more relatable to those who stayed home and struggled on.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” (3 stars)
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $15-$45 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org