In the United States, there has always been massive resistance regarding the equitable use of public utilities. During the 1950s through 1970s, soldiers prevented Black students from going to public school, Black citizens were arrested for using public transportation and municipalities drained their public swimming pools rather than open them to Black residents.
Many consider the Jim Crow era to be the nadir of racism in America, which is why uplifting stories set during this period stand out.
One such story is “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” about a family from the fictional town of Beacon, Kansas, whose struggles with segregation nearly tear them apart. The play is written by Christina Anderson—a 2022 Tony Award nominee for Outstanding Book for “Paradise Square”—who drew inspiration from the book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America” by Jeff Wiltse. In the director’s chair is Jackson Gay, who also directed the work during its premiere in 2022.
In 1992, Janice (Christiana Clark) struggles to reconcile the past with the present. In the 1960s, Janice’s parents, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen (Aneisa Hicks), are on the front lines of the civil rights movement, their battleground the Brookside public pool. Their persistent struggle ostracizes young Janice, who, as a teenager, chooses to live instead on Aunt Gayle’s (Brianna Buckley) rural farm.
Flash forward and the acquittal of four police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King leaves Janice questioning whether progress has really been achieved, and if it was worth the dissolution of her family—“I can’t help but feel the countless times they chose the movement, not me.”
Meanwhile, the Brookside swimming pool is being reopened and named after her now-deceased father. But what about her mother? Throughout the story, Helen grapples with social injustice, the strained relationship with her daughter, and endures a sexual assault by a police officer (performed abstractly through movement and the sound of intense breathing). If anyone’s name should be on that building, it’s Helen’s, and this leaves Janice torn between feelings of resentment and admiration.
Every member of the cast adeptly develops their characters with a smoothness that makes it seem like they are really family. Brianna Buckley delivers a standout performance as both Aunt Gayle and Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman—yes, that’s the character’s name—and defines them both so solidly that it is hard to believe that they were played by the same person.
Set design by Todd Rosenthal is spectacular. The take on a public pool couldn’t be more realistic—emerald tiles display years of grime, mildew stains creep down the walls, water pipes really work! Jumping between eras is made easier to follow through period-specific costuming by Montana Levi Blanco and hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan.
In 2023, due to white flight from cities following desegregation, our society is more segregated than we were in 1923. In “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” we are reminded of how hard people have to fight to enact even gradual progressive change. We are also reminded that their struggle makes every victory seem that much more impressive.
“the ripple, the wave that carries us home” Goodman, Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $15-$35, GoodmanTheatre.org, (312)443-3800. Runs through February 12.