Water. We can’t seem to get away from it, living so close to Lake Michigan in the Chicagoland.
During this past holiday season, “Lake Song” was an audio drama that centered water and Chicago and came to life with the myriad voices of Chicagoans. Now, the Goodman is featuring “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” a work by Christina Anderson that won the 2022 Horton Foote Prize for a playwright, in a co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The play is about a Black family fighting for the integration of public swimming pools in Kansas in the 1960s. The narrative features Janice, the child of activist parents, who has grown apart from her family through the years, only to have to return to her hometown to honor her father’s work. Racial justice, political legacy and family forgiveness are all themes in the story, as Janice (played by Chicago native Christiana Clark) decides to deal with her past that she has compartmentalized away from her life and current family.
We caught up with Anderson and Clark during a technical rehearsal of the play to talk about political inheritance, going home again, and the history of water and Black bodies in our country. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: This play talks about political inheritance. What is our responsibility to legacy and heritage and keeping it going?
Anderson: I deal with a lot of political, social, cultural aspects across my body of work. I’m very interested in American history, and how we as a culture tend to repeat things. The lessons that we fail to learn and the consequences of that, but also the lessons that we do learn and the celebrations of that. I’m always interested particularly in Black women and how they navigate American politics. And even though I use these terms — politics and social and cultural, I’m still very committed to character and who these people are specifically and how they navigate the world. I’m very interested in balancing real life people. And even though I lean into poetry with a lot of my work, and into Black folks’ relationship with the police … I like to think of myself as someone who writes dramedies. I’m interested in history and how to articulate that and how to watch people navigate that. But also staying true to life because there’s a lot of humor in life, but there’s also a lot of tragedy and darkness and how we, as humans can still survive and thrive in that.
Q: Going home again is an aspect in this play. There’s revelations, secrets, a certain element of forgiveness. Is forgiveness and grace always a theme in your work?
Anderson: To some degree, yes. And within that, really exploring who’s seeking it (forgiveness) and who is denied it. Because I think in a lot of ways, so many of us are grateful when we receive that grace. A lot of my characters are trying to build and maintain relationships. And sometimes they fail at that. But sometimes they succeed. I had a friend who always said people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. And I feel that a lot of the people who populate my plays experience different elements of that. People can come in and change your life in a week or they can change your life in half a century. Those are things that I’m exploring, definitely.
Q: The character Janice, is she conflicted in her relationship with her parents because she felt her childhood was slighted?
Anderson: That’s a part of it. I don’t want to give it away any spoiler alerts because I would like for you to have a unique experience where you come to see it, but the other aspect of this show and something I’ve always been fascinated in is the children of activists. I have a very good friend whose mother worked closely with the Black Panther Party, and he was saying that he has vivid memories when he was 5 or 6 years old where he’d come out of his bedroom and see three Black men sitting in the living room and his mother is hiding them out. She’s telling him when you go to school, don’t talk about these dudes, and he would often say: “When I’d wake up in the day I didn’t know if I’d have my mother or I’d have the activist,” and that notion always stuck with me. With Janice, the inner conflict that she’s wrestling with is as this Black woman she can understand how important the fight is. But what does that mean for her and her parents and the sacrifices they made at home? Over the course of the play, they as a family have some intense events happen that they didn’t talk about and that had a real effect on their relationship as a family. In the community and in the local press of that town, Janice feels that her parents knew how to be the face and how to be communicative and articulate in the fight, but at home there’s a lot of silence that happens around these events. In a sense, Janice feels like her parents were consistently choosing the movement, but not necessarily the family. And she carries the responsibility for not knowing how to fix it. It’s complicated relations. I’m super grateful for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Lives Matter and the history of activists that we’ve had in this country, but I acknowledge that there is a great deal of sacrifice when you do that type of work, especially the type of activism where you’re physically putting yourself in spaces, in the press and out in the world. That’s the thing that Janice is wrestling with.
Q: As an individual and Chicagoan, were you aware of the amount of history surrounding water and the Black body before this play?
Clark: I feel like I had the information of the experience as a Black person in America. My parents grew up in Chicago, they swam. I remember hearing about them swimming in high school, they both went to Hirsch. My dad’s sister, if I’m not mistaken, was on the swim team. But the knowledge of the segregation of pools … I don’t know so much that it came from school, it came from family. I’m excited for sharing the story for those who are in the know and for those who are not. For some, it’s a beautiful honoring and validation of stories. And for others, it’s a chance to shed a light and put in greater context things we think about when there’s stereotypes of Black people not knowing how to swim, Black people being afraid of the water, “I don’t want to get my hair wet” — all that stuff. When you open up and have context of societal reasons and reasons of law that were placed on us, that limited access, that does so much for speaking of things that ripple and are handed down through generations. It’s a history that I’m surprised more people aren’t aware of. But I feel like the more I live on this Earth and in this country, surprise starts to go away.
Q: Water is life, and in the play’s program, there is a brief history of the racial politics surrounding public pools. Do you think the Black community can move past the historical trauma that exists around water in this country?
Anderson: I hope we can get past it. I’ve been working on this play for a couple of years and I end up having a lot of different conversations around swimming and water with a lot of different types of people. But the one consistent thing that I keep hearing from lots of people is how swimming can be a form of peace and relaxation. And it’s also very meditative and spiritual. I want, hope, and wish that for Black folks, to have that kind of access because I think it’s very important.
Q: What are we, as outsiders looking at your work, missing from your process of world building?
Anderson: I’m very inspired by Black women artists who created bodies of work, and women in general. Paula Vogel is a mentor who I now consider a friend. The same with Lynn Nottage, and I’m an eternal fan of Ntozake Shange. I would encourage people to consider the body of work that I’m making, because each play is its own world.
Q: It’s been over two years since the letter to white American theater was penned and delivered. Have you seen or felt a difference in the landscape, as an artist?
Clark: In the face of perceived ‘we’re all woke now and we all see it,’ there’s so much work to do. There’s so much at the root institutionally that has not allowed opportunity, that has deemed work by Black artists less than, that has upheld what had been in mind of the cannon or the classics that were predominantly, if not all, Eurocentric and one year’s focus is not going to bring the change to an institution like the American Theatre. I think it has brought more opportunity right now for a lot of Black artists and Black artist leaders. They are doing incredibly hard work but it’s hard work that’s up against boards and established systems and mindsets of what sells and everybody’s in a financial hardship now — we have to make money. I believe that we are in the growing pain phases of establishing this change, that can bring Black artists and other artists of color, to a better equity among this landscape. But it’s more than just putting Black stories on stage. It is changing things in boards, it is changing our audiences — because I’ve had the experiences of doing a play like “ripple” where there were audiences all white. Being in a place, being vulnerable, telling our stories, takes something away from you when constantly sharing our stories, but we’re not there to receive them. There’s much work to be done to develop Black audiences, to invest in critics who are being able to watch and take in what they’re saying. People are really facing the fact that it is more than just assigning this artistic director or plotting this play. It’s a deeper work that requires coming to communities as opposed to expecting them to show up.
“the ripple, the wave that carried me home” opens Jan. 23 and runs through Feb. 12 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; tickets ($15-$45) at 312-443-3800 and GoodmanTheatre.org/Ripple