Sci-fi play ‘Pool of Unknown Wonders’ sheds light on inescapable traumas

photo from a theatre show
Ben Dillon/Courtesy

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Content warning: Racism, xenophobia, abuse

Eerie sirens wavered in and out as attendees searched for their seats, merging into the hollow sound of water drops as six passengers rocked their heads up and down in a trance. Clothed in spectral white, four spirits known as karmas make grudge-like movements across the stage, delicately observing the sleepy passengers before they wake. The UC Berkeley Zellerbach Playhouse was transformed into this surreal spacecraft from Oct. 14-17, immediately immersing attendees as they prepared to experience “Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul.”

The play follows six strangers from different time periods and backgrounds, each seeking to free themselves from personal demons — ranging from socially unacceptable desires to the harsh realities of racism — in a pool that supposedly heals all. With its first in-person production since March 2020, it also reflects the widespread grief relating to the pandemic.

Each individual’s reason for journeying to the pool is slowly pieced together through shifting flashbacks of their individual traumas, sometimes leading to conflicts between characters. Each passenger wears a different colored mask to match their time period’s appropriate clothing, reminding attendees of the world’s present state while leaving attendees to distinguish one voice from another.

Acclaimed playwright and UC Berkeley professor Philip Kan Gotanda favored a fragmented storyline to weave these politically and psychologically disturbing realities together. Director Michael Socrates Moran builds off this erratic structure to erase time from the stage, leaving no sense of beginning, middle or end.

Echoing unhealed wounds of the past, the numbers 9-0-6-6 and 1-3-7-6-9 repeat throughout, deepening the play’s purposeful disorientation. Executive Order 9066 of 1942 resulted in the U.S. establishment of Japanese American internment camps, while the more recent Executive Order 13769, widely known as the “Trump Muslim ban,” suspended refugee entrance. Although the numbers’ significance isn’t clearly defined within the play, character narratives associated with immigrant realities elicit feelings of isolation and betrayal.

In one torturous scene, America’s abusive treatment toward immigrants is personified. A karma morphs into the red, white and blue Auntie Sammy, blowing air kisses to the passenger Hamsun (Thomas Nguyen) as she reassures him of her love. As the scene progresses, her mood dramatically alters to show her inconsistent feelings implying America’s hypocrisy. She repeatedly slaps Hamsun’s face for what feels like several minutes, each smack separated by an alternating “I love you” or “I hate you” that amplifies not only Hamsun’s pain but the audience’s.

Importantly, the play also spotlights racial and gender stereotypes. Black passenger Mrs. Bankhead (Emma Gardner) painfully remembers her baby’s intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) diagnosis and how her doctor blamed the IUGR on her suspected abuse of drugs. Mrs. Bankhead panics as she lists her educational background in an attempt to prove herself. The upsetting scene demonstrates how racism pervades every institution and impacts the everyday lives of the Black community.

Abrupt breaks in passenger flashbacks may make it easy to get lost in confusion, but passionately performed tragedies tether attendees to a pool of overflowing emotion and heightened curiosity. These traumatic scenes are magnified by a versatile use of sound. At times, a live cello creates a chilling atmosphere; other times, the play relies on a backtrack for sounds akin to singing bowls or fluctuating bodies of water. Even a karaoke rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” makes its way into the play, paving the way for a heated speech on the reality of a white man confronted with shame.

Despite their differences, the passengers are constantly reminded that however many began the journey to the pool must finish. Their shared sense of pain and loss gives rise to a combined hope for a world without trauma, inspiring a relatable desire for wholeness.

Each torment that afflicts in “Pool of Unknown Wonders” leaves a scar, making the audience question the healing powers of the pool. But healing is not about reaching the end of a linear lifeline, only to forget how you got there — sometimes, as Gotanda’s play reminds us, it’s the smallest fragment of light shed onto neglected realities that produce a freeing sense of unity.

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].