KC Rep’s “the ripple, the wave…” Surges with Substance and Spirit

Meredith Noël, Chioma Anyanwu, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, and Gregory Warren in “the ripple, the wave that carried me home.” (Photo by Don Ipock.)

Water is one of the most enduring symbols in art and literature; it can represent life, death, and the journey between, often in the form of a driving river, a rejuvenating spring, a chilling rain, or an endless ocean. (You get the idea.)

In the ripple, the wave that carried me home—the superb new play by acclaimed playwright and Kansas City, Kansas, native Christina Anderson that has, well, come home to KC Rep’s Copaken Stage—the water in question is the kind that fills a swimming pool; it represents freedom—but also futility, and decades of inequity.

Under Khanisha Foster’s direction, that water imagery flows beautifully throughout the production. Before the lights even dim, Josafath Reyoso’s immaculate swimming-pool set—perfectly lifelike, but also dreamlike, with tiles and lane markers rising up the back wall, and ropes floating up and out, over the audience—impels us to dive right in. Characters will often enter and exit the playing space as if swimming into the scene. And the script itself smoothly streams through crevices in the narrative, back and forth between the “present”—specifically, 1992—and flashbacks from the 1960s and ’70s.

Anderson’s story swirls around its narrator, Janice (Meredith Noël), a 30-something college administrator in Ohio who has mostly separated herself from her hometown of Beacon, Kansas, where her parents had lead the movement to integrate the city’s swimming pools. (Beacon may be fictional, but Black Americans’ struggle for aquatic equality is direct from the recent history of Kansas City and many other places.) The inciting incident is a call—rather, a series of persistent calls—from “Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman” (Chioma Anyanwu) of the African-American Recognition Committee, who implores Janice to come home and speak at a ceremony honoring her late father, in whose memory the community pool will be renamed.

The invitation, and Janice’s consternation over how to respond, stir a whirlpool of memories, of her parents’ remarkable zeal for swimming and teaching Black children to swim, and their ongoing determination to change “just one small part of the system.” Helen (Tiffany Yvonne Cox) and Edwin (Gregory Warren) are loving parents to their only child, yet she sometimes feels overshadowed by “the fight.” As a teen, Janice develops her own passion for the pool—until a revelation from her mother, and a particularly traumatic encounter with the police, threatens to drown that love of swimming once and (seemingly) for all. Janice’s conversations with her gregarious and delightful Aunt Gayle (also Anyanwu) further link the 1992 present to the past, especially with the coverage of the Rodney King trial churning in the background.

Meredith Noël and the set of “the ripple, the wave that carried me home.” (Photo by Don Ipock.)

Anderson’s language is poetic, but often profoundly concise on seemingly complicated issues, peppered with lines you will want to remember (and drop into conversation). Because, yes, above all, this is a masterfully rendered, highly entertaining drama of one family, and as just that, it is worth the time and price of admission. But it is also an example of how, in the right writer’s hands (and executed flawlessly by a talented cast and crew), a very specific story can unleash and illuminate much larger truths, and force us to confront them anew: Why should something as simple as equality require such struggle?

Janice’s journey down memory lane ultimately leads her to another realization, and a decision. The final moment borders on the sentimental, but it—and the waterworks it is likely to provoke—feel completely earned.

From here, appropriately, the ripple, the wave… will flow around town as the second production of the company’s community touring program, “KCRep for All,” with free performances scheduled at community centers, schools, public libraries, and senior centers throughout the metro area.

After all, one of the properties of water—and waves—is reflection. And thanks to this beautiful production, some audience members may see themselves or their story reflected on a stage for the first time. Others will simply have the opportunity to reflect—to learn, to feel, to think, and hopefully to act.

“the ripple, the wave that carried me home” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way) through April 2 before embarking on its free community tour. For more information, visit kcrep.org.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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