Many citizens have been welcome at community pools and swim clubs their entire lives. This is not true of African-Americans. Here we have the story of the African American Bowlding family which was denied membership to a private, Maryland swimming pool by its all-white membership in 1974.
The uncomfortable truth of racial discrimination is etched into the history of the United States. Full Stop. It still lives, thrives even (sadly). And the history of swimming pools is knit closely to the history of bigotry, I was surprised to discover at the exciting and phenomenally thought-provoking new play #poolparty.
True events of the Bowlding family and the pool in Mt. Rainer were the springboard for the story of #poolparty.
The play is by Jennifer Mendenhall, known throughout the DC theatre area as an actor, director and vocal coach, Mendenhall has taken the subject of racism and looks at it through the chlorine-shocked lens of swimming pools for her first play, an ambitious effort that she handles with a poetic style that is as creative as it is dense with history and a dose of bitter reality.
Through Mendenhall’s script and the clever staging and cinematic approach of director Angelisa Gillyard, #poolparty weaves a story of not only the renamed Waters family and their swimming pool narrative, but the story of their ancestors, going back to the ancient Gold Coast of Africa where their forebears swam like fish. Another jump in time and we see how slavery changed the game for African-born ancestors, and on into the 19th century when public bathing paved the way for public and private swimming clubs. Through the 90 minute running time, all these periods smoothly blend in and out with the modern story of one family and their connection to the pool in their neighborhood – one to which they never felt welcomed, even after their father helped open the gate.
Carrying the audience through this emotional story are six actors, playing both the family members and a multitude of other characters. Keith Irby is Ray Waters, Sr., the father and host of the evening. Like a cross between the Stage Manager in Our Town and a friendly spectre, he introduces his children and granddaughter, stepping in and out of the action to comment with quiet dignity. Irby handles the role with ease, a picture of a beloved father who taught his children valuable lessons of self respect and self preservation in a time still riddled with racial tensions.
As his four grown children, Eli El, Ivana (Tai) Alexander, Shaq Stewart, and Jonathan Miot make the most of their roles, each with their own perspective of their late father’s important legacy. El, as Ray Jr., receives the invitation from the local swimming pool to honor their dad’s contribution. Regina, playing Alexander, is the sensible sister, a school teacher. Stewart is Ro, who still harbors great feelings from a pool incident many years ago. Ricky, the jokester and youngest sibling, is played by Miot. Together this ensembles superbly portrays the dynamics of a family raised by their widowed father, trying their best to continue his lessons into their adult lives.
closes July 21, 2018
Details and tickets
Central to Ray Jr. and his siblings’ lives is his daughter Roya, played with sensitivity and grace by Lori Pitts. Roya, a high school student, is a competitive swimmer, a self-proclaimed water baby, who learned to swim in her own backyard pool, built and meticulously maintained by her father. As a young lady of today, Roya has faced her own demons of racism, hearing comments from other (presumably white) members of her swim team. She takes these doubts to heart, questioning her own abilities as a trophy-winning swimmer. She also is surprised to discover her pop-pop Ray’s legacy and their connection to the neighborhood pool, in which she has never even dipped her toe.
Through Roya’s eyes we see glimpses of Black Lives Matter and cries of “Hands up!” and “I can’t Breathe” and other current examples of how little progress has been made even as major strides have been taken.
If it seems like a lot to take in during one play, I will offer that it is. But writer Mendenhall and her director Gillyard keep the story moving swiftly even as the past and the present collide in a panoply that illuminates as it questions. You will likely leave with questions about your feelings on the subject matter or even your own pool story. The production invites patrons into the lobby of Joe’s Movement Emporium to continue the discussion, share, and talk. Or you can drive home, past neighborhood pools, and dwell on your questions No matter what, it makes for theatre that is more than just a cool dip in the pool, and that’s as it should be.
#poolparty by Jennifer Mendenhall . Directed by Angelisa Gillyard . Cast: Ivana (Tai) Alexander, Eli-El, Keith E. Irby, Jonathan Miot, Lori Pitts, Shaq Stewart . Set design: Jimmy Stubbs . Costume design: Asia-Anansi McCallum . Lighting design: Alex Davis . Projections design: Hope Villanueva . Dramaturg: Lenora Inez Brown . Assistant Dramaturg: Katie Keddell . Stage manager: Keta Newborn . Produced by Ty Hallmark for Ally Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.