There is a moment in Christina Anderson’s newest play, “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” where the narrator’s father sits her down and talks of “selective memory.” It’s a term he uses to describe the cognitive dissonance of a nation built on oppression preaching equality.
He slips the phrase in while regaling the time he and his friends broke through the barriers of a white-only public pool for one joyous swim. He laughs and smiles, and his daughter does too — their joy shining brightly in spite of the inherited history that comes with being Black in the United States.
Anderson’s “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” is a play told through memory. Commissioned for its world premiere by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the production functions through a monologue, as narrator Janice (Christina Clark) wrestles with the decision to come home for a ceremony celebrating her late father.
Through this lens, the playwright explores power dynamics across race, gender and family lines. The narrator’s childhood was defined by her parents’ (Ronald L. Conner and Aneisa Hicks) politics during their fight for an end to racially segregated public pools, leaving Janice to find comfort in the arms of her Aunt Gayle (Brianna Buckley). Now a grown woman with a life of her own, Janice has stepped away from the town, people and events that drove a wedge between her family.
Woven with glimpses into Janice’s past, the narrative is built on the basis of memory. The play forgoes strict realism for something more in tune with a mind reminiscing — time moves slower at crucial points, people outside of the core family are only referred to and acted around as if they are unseen. Much like memories, the insignificant details of the play are hazy, heightening ones that really count and illuminate the big picture.
With so few actors on stage, the blocking could have faltered to banality, but director Jackson Gay understood how to make use of his space. Against a set designed to look like a rundown public pool, Janice’s stream of conscious monologues are complemented by quick changes of scenery established through minor props and convincing physicality. Nothing is jilted, everything flows. The set goes from a pool, to a family home, to a car on the highway and back again with little furniture and no breaks in storytelling, further adding to the air of fluidity — in emotion, time and memory.
Anderson’s brilliant writing shows evidence of a careful hand. In addition to expertly telling a story of political and familial turmoil, the production operates with time in flux. Every vignette of a memory passed is immaculate — a prose conveyed in a flourish of philosophies and family ties. The work is deeply empathetic, nuanced and above all, honest. Anderson does not pay her characters the disservice of flawlessness. They are rich in depth, displaying a raw humanity forged only in their slip ups, songs and tears of grief and joy.
Berkeley Rep’s actors only bolster the production with their cavernous spectrum of emotional subtlety. The stage isn’t grandiose, leaving no distraction in which their performance can hide. As Anderson layers planes of time through storytelling, the performers expertly navigate the transformations of their characters.
Hicks’ performance as Janice’s mother is a stand out, taking on the challenge of exhibiting strength through endurance as her ambitions take a back seat to the brazen activism of her husband. She is softhearted and indestructible, an outward contradiction made material through Hicks’ mastery.
Through these attributes, “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” produces catharsis. Ultimately, the story told is one of unwanted inheritance, the involuntary reckoning with the weight of a world structured with relentless injustice. To watch the play is to face that onerous reality head on — does one sink or swim? Anderson has conjured up an instant classic, universal in its specificity and guaranteed to stick in memory against the test of time.