CHICAGO – What I liked best about The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home, was how Tony Award nominee Christina Anderson tenderly layered the story of a fully-realized, middle class black family into a larger story about social justice, segregated swimming pools, growing up and growing apart and the gift – and curse – of water. It’s the story of how Janice Clifton, the daughter of civil rights activists, reconciled a childhood upended in many ways by her parents fight to integrate the local swimming pools in 1960s Kansas, in a town named Beacon. This reconciliation comes about when Janice is asked, via phone, by a hilarious and perfectly proper “Chipper Young Ambitious Black Woman” to come home from her Ohio suburban life and be present when her hometown renames one of its formerly-segregated pools after her father.
That simple request creates an internal crisis for Janice, causing her to spiral into a flood of memories of loving the water, being taught to swim, watching her parents fight the power, and finally deciding not to swim anymore. Returning to Beacon could force additional sorrow or perhaps additional healing.
The language is beautiful and kept me up for hours thinking about this passage:
“But we, you and I, each of us are sixty percent water—give or take a few percentages. You and I need it. In a way, we are it—water.
‘One can say each of us —every man, woman, and small child—is a small river…’
My family, my ancestry, is a tree of small rivers. Roots filled with lakes of memory. So while I grew up in a landlocked environment the family was an ocean.”
Janice’s initial stream of monologues are long, yet necessary. Without outright throwing the words in your face, this work tells the story of segregation and all the other isms – sexism, racism, ageism – through the mildest of methods: narrated flashbacks that turn into full flashbacks with cast support. Once I understood where the play was going with this, I was all-in and ready to revisit this imagined past for a little over an hour and a half.
I enjoyed the nuanced narrative, the set and the vibe. Walking into a misty Goodman Theatre and hearing old-school hip hop playing as I find my seat exuded a whole vibe of understanding and acceptance of my blackness – and that of the characters. Seeing Janice (Christiana Clark) talk about this childhood and then hang out with her aunt Gayle (LaKecia Harris) and her mother Helen (Kristin E. Ellis) felt familiar in a way that I’ve never felt in a theatre before. When Janice and her father (Marcus D. Moore) danced in the living room, and when Janice anxiety ramped up while listening to the voicemails left by the (very funny) Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman, those moments were deeply felt. What stays with me the most, several days after viewing, is the feeling that the character’s memory and life experience felt like my story too.
The set was lovely. When it came time to swim, I could practically see the glint of light off the water, though certainly no pool was present at the theatre that day. I also laughed. Parts were funny. Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman is someone we all know, and we all laughed at her memory. But we also cry at her pain because we know why she must stay chipper, and Janice speaks to it.
There’s lots to consider as you experience the play, and there are multiple points of entry for further discussion. Clark, who portrays Janice, captured me entirely with taut emotion when describing her relationship with the water and its ripples. This was a quiet play and an accessible one. Also, at under two hours with no intermission, it’s quite comfortable for those of us finally venturing into the world “outside” after a long time dealing with Covid19.
The theater is hosting several talk backs and Q&As about segregated pools and the racism behind why many black Americans don’t swim to this day. The accompanying Playbill had multiple Q&As and a timeline about segregated swimming. One in particular stands out to me: “Art In Action: Contested Waters”—a free panel discussion with Peter Cole and Franklin Cosey-Gay from the Chicago Race Riots Commemoration Project as they delve deep into the Red Summer, the history of segregation in Chicago and how riots serve as origin stories that impact us today. ( The event takes place on February 5 from 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm. You need a ticket to the play to secure admission to the chat.)
These were good ideas; especially the part where the Goodman is trying to encourage the public to talk about the history that inspired this play. To participate in understanding a social justice movement. (This is also part and parcel of what I’ve come to expect from the Goodman, which is also the first theater in the world to produce all 10 plays in August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle.” ) These talks deepen our understanding of old issues that are still relevant today. All these discussions help to digest a play that also seems to be sending a message to modern freedom fighters who are caregivers. Work, balance and sometimes forgiveness are also part and parcel of the toolbox that builds equity and freedom for all.
The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home, is on stage through Feb. 12, 2023 in Chicago at GoodmanTheatre.org.