Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
the ripple, the wave that carried me home
More than merely a story of political activism, the ripple, the wave that carried me home is a superbly acted, taut family drama that examines both the legacy of racism and the universal challenge of living up to familial expectations while trying to find one's own way in the world.
When you enter the Peet's Theatre, it's as though you have stepped into the basement of your local YMCA. For there in front of you is the sliver of pool, the tiled decking, the concrete stairs, the glass case filled with trophies, the pool equipment, and three large windows pouring in light from above. The only thing missing in Todd Rosenthal's delightful design is that acrid hint of chlorine in the air.
Although the pool takes up virtually the entire stage, only a little of the action takes place there. Most of what we see happens in the homes of Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen Collen (Aneisa J. Hicks) and their daughter Janice (Christiana Clark). The fourth member of the family is the somewhat sassy Aunt Gayle (also Brianna Buckley), who is Janice's friend and confidant.
Janice functions as a narrator, guiding us as the action shifts between 1992 suburban Ohio and 1956 Kansas. In the '50s, Kansas was rigidly segregated, and in the small, fictional town of Beacon, there are three public pools, two for white folks, and the rather dumpy Brookside Pool, where Edwin and Helen devote their time to both teaching Black children to swim and, ultimately, working to open up all three pools to all the town's residents, regardless of the skin color.
In 1992, the town has decided to rename the Brookside Pool the Edwin P. Collen, Jr. Pool, and they'd like Janice to come back to Kansas to say a few words at the naming ceremony. However, Janice is reluctant. Despite her parents being avid swimmers, Janice proclaims "I don't like water." At one point, in 1956, when Janice is a child and her parents are actively pursuing the integration of the pools, Janice tells them, "I don't want to spend my life chasing after white people, begging to play with their toys."
In an attempt to convince her to attend, Janice is pestered relentlessly by Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman (also Brianna Buckley), who certainly lives up to her name, which elicits a laugh every time it's said–even when she's simply referred to as "Young Chipper."
Together, across decades, the family is forced to navigate the systemic racism that has poisoned America throughout our history. In addition to the segregated pools, Helen and Janice experience a horrifying incident of "driving while Black" (heartbreakingly played by both actors) and the even more horrifying verdict in the Rodney King trial, which set off riots in Los Angeles. Though the decades pass, nothing seems to change. As Edwin says at one point, "This country is built on selective memory." Twice, when some obvious injustice occurs, a character says (with a painful, resigned sense of snark), "Is this your first time in America? Let me show you around." We laugh, even though we probably shouldn't, it being a sad commentary on American injustice, but it's true, and only the truth is funny. And sometimes funny is what you need to get a mind to open even the tiniest crack.
The direction and cast in this production are nothing short of brilliant. Buckley is especially wonderful, switching between her two roles so completely that I wasn't even sure it was the same actor playing both. Hicks has such an expressive face and can communicate volumes with the most subtle raising of an eyebrow or tightening of a cheek. As Edwin, Conner displays a passion for both his character's family and his cause that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever worried about a child or cared about injustice.
In short, while summer is still here, you should dive into the refreshing (at times bracing) water of the ripple, the wave that carried me home.
the ripple, the wave that carried me home runs through October 6, 2022, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $26-$105, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call the box office at 510-647-2949.