‘The ripple, the wave that carried me home” review: Goodman Theatre production soars

On the surface, Christina Anderson’s engrossing drama “the wave, the ripple that carried me home” is about the fight to integrate public swimming pools in the fictional suburban town of Beacon, Kansas. But like water itself, there are depths here that defy cut-and-dried boundaries.

As Anderson points out in passages that sometimes ripple toward poetry, water is both destroyer and redeemer, a font of life and a taker of it. On stage as in life, the movement to integrate public pools in the 1960s and ’70s was marked by violent history and lethal racism. But there is also a buoyant sense of joy flowing through the world premiere running through Feb. 12 at the Goodman Theatre, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre (to where it travels later this year).

‘the ripple, the wave that carried me home’

The 105-minute, intermission-free drama leans too heavily on exposition at times, but when the script moves from narration to action, Anderson’s drama resonates with the primal force of the tides.

The plot begins in 1991. Janice (Christiana Clark) is in Ohio, intentionally far from her hometown of Beacon and barely speaking to her mother Helen (Aneisa Hicks). She’s forced to reckon with her past when community organizer Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman (Brianna Buckley) calls from Beacon with news that a pool has been named after Janice’s father, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner). Young Chipper is insistent that Janice speak in his honor at the ceremony.

The request sends Janice down a spiral of memory. Edwin was “the face” of the movement to make Beacon’s swimming pools accessible to Black children, but Helen was the warrior engine propelling the activism. Throughout, Anderson uses the family — which also includes glamorous, adventurous Aunt Gayle (also portrayed by Buckley) — to illustrate with cut-glass clarity the violence that met the desegregation attempts.

As a kid, Janice is proud of her father and bonds with her mother during pre-dawn lap swimming at a town some 30 miles off. But her relationship with her parents — and swimming — is shattered one morning during a devastating confrontation after she and Helen leave the pool. To say more would entail spoilers, but know this: The silent scene where the break occurs bears witness to centuries of violent racism. It is terrifying, enraging and unforgettable.

By 1991, Janice hates the very taste of water. Her journey through trauma into healing is evocative of the ocean itself — rough waters, transcendent beauty, perilous rocks, peaceful shores, but danger never that far.

Christiana Clark (from left), Brianna Buckley, Ronald L. Conner and Aneisa J. Hicks in Christina Anderson’s “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” at the Goodman Theatre.

Liz Lauren

Director Jackson Gay’s staging pulls the audience in and doesn’t let go until a final, ebullient water aerobics class that has the vibe of a beach and the energy of a dance floor.

Clark’s Janice effectively moves from wide-eyed child in the 1960s to disillusioned teen in the 1970s to conflicted adult in the 1990s. As Helen, Hicks is indelible. In one searing, silent scene (with movement by Erika Chong Shuch), Anderson bears explicit witness to the shattering extent of Helen’s sacrifices. You’ll want to look away, but Hicks makes bearing witness the only choice.

Conner shows his range early on, as Edwin recalls the time he and a few other kids broke into the pool for white kids, as panicking white parents chaotically yanked their children from the water. After Edwin and his friends escaped, the pool was closed for three days so it could be drained and disinfected.

Buckley’s wise, acerbic Aunt Gayle is the kind of relative everyone needs as kin. Her Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman is played for comic relief, until a scene that transpires in the wake of the 1992 acquittals of the police officers beating Rodney King. As talking heads drone in the background Young Chipper moves from comic relief to a woman of substance.

Todd Rosenthal’s set is a detriment. It’s essentially a swimming pool/deck with a trophy case that slides back and forth every time the scene moves anywhere else. There’s far too much sliding, resulting in an environment that makes the transitions distracting and choppy.

Montana Levi Blanco’s period costumes, on the other hand, are meticulously recreated works of art, from Helen’s midi-skirts and stacked heel clogs to Aunt Gayle’s shimmery lounge attire.

Anderson ends the play on a redemptive, celebratory note, the three women in bathing suits, splashing, singing and dancing in a testimony to resilience and the endlessly healing powers of the very substance that comprises some 60 percent of our very bodies.

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