As implied by the title, Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home is a narrative of homecoming. The play’s protagonist and narrator, Janice, remarks at the top of the show that she doesn’t often talk to her family back home in the fictional town of Beacon, Kansas— in fact, she shares that she only calls her mother on the first and third Sundays of every month, seven out of 10 bank holidays, and during medical incidents. But then Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman of the African-American Recognition Committee in Beacon calls Janice and asks her to speak at an upcoming public event in honor of her father. Janice must metaphorically reckon with her homecoming and her childhood in Beacon.
While Janice always narrates the action, the play alternates between “present-day” 1992 in Ohio and Janice’s childhood in the 1960s and 1970s in Beacon. We learn about Janice’s mother Helen, a member of the Thinking (middle) class in Beacon and her father, Edwin, a member of the Necessity (working) class. Though they grow up under different circumstances, her parents form a steadfast unit in their desire to integrate public pools in Beacon. Many of the earlier scenes depict Helen teaching the young Black children in Beacon how to swim, which is an activity she takes to like a fish to water (pun intended). As the public pools shut down in Beacon and the private pools staunchly deny access to potential Black members, Helen and Edwin become galvanized in their desire to ensure that all Black members of the town have the right to swim. Though the action switches between these two distinct time periods, Janice is always the central focus, and the play’s events are filtered through her lens.
Anderson is wise to choose two “everyday” citizens as the faces of social justice in the play. Because Helen and Edwin are not famous in the traditional way, the play becomes primarily a character study. It focuses on Janice’s narrative, her parents’ motives, and her Aunt Gayle, who also provides much needed comedic relief. the ripple, the wave that carried me home thus becomes simultaneously subtle—as when Janice recounts small moments from her childhood—but also deeply connected to larger issues of racial injustice. Namely, the play’s 1992 setting coincides with the trial of the policemen responsible for beating Rodney King—with the ensuing riots on the horizon. It’s an ambitious approach, but it means that some scenes in the play feel unnecessary; Janice reflects on a number of moments not central to the play’s storyline. Likewise, some are overwrought. When Janice and Helen are pulled over by a police officer, it’s haunting but the parallel seems a little too neat in terms of play structure.
Directed by Jackson Gay, the cast give deeply-honed emotional life to their characters. Christiana Clark is a compelling choice for the role of Janice. Clark is likable and has a soft, commanding energy to her performance. Her line deliveries are conversational, and she strikes a fitting tone as she relays stories from Janice’s life. Clark’s performance is central to the show without overdoing it. In the dual roles of Aunt Gayle and Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman, Brianna Buckley has superb comedic timing, and she demonstrates her versatility by adopting entirely distinct mannerisms across her two roles. Ronald L. Conner is affable as Edwin, demonstrating why he could become a powerful head of the movement to desegregate pools. But the role on paper isn’t the most fleshed out. Perhaps that’s because this play is really meant to center on the women. Aneisa Hicks is lovely as Helen, and she gives the character a fitting air of quiet determination.
Todd Rosenthal presents a unique twist on his brand of set design magic; the set brings us into the community pool, with the pool itself front and center. Montana Levi Blanco’s costume designs nicely straddle time periods, and Janice’s costume in particular demonstrates that fashion has come full-circle since the early 1990s.
the ripple, the wave that carried me home is a solid character study and a reckoning of what it means to come home and accept the past, while bracing for the future.
the ripple, the wave that carried me home plays the Owen Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through February 12. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/ripple for tickets.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com