An empty swimming pool can evoke countless childhood memories. For Janice, the protagonist of Tony-nominated playwright Christina Anderson’s new play, it brings up a story her father told her of their small Kansas town’s public pool being drained because of “contamination” in the ’30s, after Black kids snuck in to swim—and of his subsequent life-long fight to desegregate it.
the ripple, the wave that carried me home, which opened as a coproduction between Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre on October 13, speaks to the complicated relationship segregation created between Black Americans and water. Anderson’s script uses the metaphor of swimming, which requires every muscle in one’s body, to illustrate the arduous task of fighting racism: “The connections between the physical exertion of what it takes to be a strong swimmer and the exhaustion that comes with fighting for the right to live in your body and swim or drive down the street,” as Kamilah Bush, PCS literary manager and the production’s dramaturg, puts it.
ripple was commissioned by California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018 as part of a summer residency lab. And though its world premiere was just last month, Bush calls the script an “easy get” for Portland. Anderson, whose last production was the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Paradise Square, is a close collaborator of PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf; PCS has commissioned her before. That relationship made quick access to the script possible, Bush says, and has also allowed for lots of on-the-fly collaboration between this production and the playwright.
As the Berkeley production was fleshed out, Anderson passed notes along to PCS and ART. “Even on first rehearsal, she sent us a new script,” Bush recalls. Most changes were small, but there was a last-minute scene added, giving some airtime to a nostalgic Sugar Child Robinson song. “Plays are never ‘finished-finished,’” says Bush.
Harlem-based director Daniel Bryant is making his PCS debut with the play. He’ll come directly from a production of May Treuhaft-Ali's ABCD at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, which also featured Chavez Ravine, who plays Gayle, Janice’s aunt in Ripple (you may have seen her in Prison Break, Mike Birbiglia’s film Sleepwalk with Me, or Barber Shop 2). In the lead is Drammy-winning Portlander Lauren Steele, turning in a performance Bush calls “singular” right on the heels of her role as Susan in PCS’s production of Tick, Tick … BOOM!
The script itself leaves an unusual amount room for performers to put themselves into the play; a symbol called chicken feet (“=.=”) repeated throughout asks actors to react to the context of the scene and improvise gestures or lines. “It's really important for us to let the people whose stories are being told—who the stories are about—tell it themselves, in ways that feel authentic and right to them,” says Bush, who notes the import of having a Black cast and almost all-Black production team.
Most of the play is set in the spring of 1992. Though it jumps through time, the climax directly overlaps with the Rodney King trial that sparked the Los Angeles riots. “I've heard audience members who don't know about the Rodney King trial leaving and going, ‘I need to know more.’ And people who do know about the Rodney King trial being like, ‘I remember exactly where I was when I heard this. I remember exactly what TV I was standing in front of watching those streets go up in flames,’” Bush says.“I say that the history in this play is both slippery and sticky. It sticks to your bloodline. It sticks to who you are as a person in your family and how you’re moving through the world. But it’s slippery in that it’s so easy to forget how connected all of those things are.”
Anderson’s inaugural show at Berkeley Rep overlapped with the rehearsal process of this performance, but Bush says she will be able to catch the show at PCS and, she’s sure, make notes and tweaks for its next production.
Various times Wed–Sun through Oct 30 | Portland Center Stage, $25–86