Racism is a violent and violating police encounter. It’s angry white mobs enforcing their own laws. It’s when your hometown in Kansas decides that integrating swimming pools is so difficult that it’s better to close public pools altogether.
In Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “The Ripple, the Wave That Carried Me Home,” racism is also burying dreams and watching your adult life pass by. It’s shame that the world forces upon you, shame that metastasizes inside you until it transmogrifies into its own horrible violence. It’s divided passion and love unfelt. It’s relationships that never get to be what they could have been. It’s stolen joy.
Christina Anderson’s world premiere, seen Friday, Sept. 16, seeks to more thoroughly enumerate racism’s tolls and reclaim some of that joy. In imagining the not entirely unified, decades-long fight for the right to swim by Janice (Christiana Clark) and her parents Helen (Aneisa J. Hicks) and Edwin (Ronald L. Conner), the play asserts that decent, thoughtful, unflashy people are worthy of dramatization.
It elevates the everyday to poetry: “Water is a complicated element,” Janice says. “It heals, destroys, rescues, erases. It drowns. It saves. It holds memory. It washes away pain.”
Yet the script, directed by Jackson Gay, relies too heavily on narration, perceptive as Janice is of the world around her and her own mind. You might find yourself longing to see events play out in the present tense so you can feel things for yourself instead of being told what they felt like. For instance, the deaths of three unseen little boys as a result of segregation, supposedly an inciting event of the play, get talked about as if they’re a policy decision.
In its compassion for its characters, its insistence that what they went through and felt means something important, the play is perhaps too thorough, almost as if it’s a biography rather than a work of fiction that’s free to take license. We might not need to hear which classes Janice takes in college or how much she loves farm work in her youth, since neither of those episodes much relate to anything before or after. Likewise, the nuts and bolts of activist strategy accumulate in wonkish, too-dutiful detail.
Yet Gay’s solid cast frequently set the world of “Ripple” aglow.
Hicks devises a sadly hopeful expression that could in and of itself be the engine of the play. In a scene about a childhood Edwin pondering the distant whites-only pool he’ll never be allowed inside, Conner fixes his brow with a kind of uncomprehending righteous dejection that must, simply must, rebel and come up with a scheme. It’s a face that could light a fire. Brianna Buckley, in the roles of “Young Chipper Ambitious Black woman,” has eyes so earnest it’s as if her character could solve all the world’s problems by opening them wider still.
To Janice, who shoulder’s the bulk of the storytelling, Clark brings a heavy-hitter’s fearlessness and acumen. Her Janice has had to be so strong and independent for so long. She’s used to carving out a place in the world with a blunt axe and making a home inside, come what may.
In its final glorious poolside scene, “Ripple” lets her come out of the fortress she’s built and rediscover the joys of the water. That complicated element, in addition to all its other powers Anderson listed earlier in the show, also means baptism and rebirth.
L“The Ripple, the Wave That Carried Me Home”: Written by Christina Anderson. Directed by Jackson Gay. Through Oct. 16. One hour, 45 minutes. $23.50-$100. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org