The Ripple, The Wave At Yale Rep
Playwright Christina Anderson’s earnest The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home makes great use of water as metaphor. The 90-minute play, performed without intermission at the Yale Rep, strives for poetry as it tells the tale of segregated swimming pools in the fictional town of Beacon, Kansas, and the struggle to right that wrong.
Anderson also touches on the humiliation of Blacks by the police, intergenerational strife, the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the ways in which the contributions of women are devalued as men are elevated to starring roles in the struggle against segregation. The result is to roil the metaphorical waters as Anderson splashes about to make her points.
The subject matter is undeniably compelling and there are moments of real drama. Yet in telling a story that spans decades, The Ripple, The Wave resorts to clunky dramaturgy. Too often the audience is held at an emotional distance from the characters.
The heavy lifting falls to Janice (Jennean Farmer), the daughter of Helen and Edwin Collen (Chalia La Tour and Marcus Henderson). Much of the story is told through Janice’s to-the-audience narration. Only when Anderson shifts from telling to showing do her characters come to life and engage our emotions.
The Ripple, The Wave cast is rounded out by Janice’s supportive aunt Gayle and a character listed in the programme as – no kidding – Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman and often referred to by Janice as “Young Chipper.” Did I mention clunky dramaturgy?
On the plus side, a terrific Adrienne S. Wells doubles as Gayle and Young Chipper, performances that steal the show. As Janice, Farmer does a good job of taking Janice from age eight to a moody adulthood.
Director Tamilla Woodard has not solved the problems inherent in Anderson’s script, although I admired the way she used changing hairstyles to indicate the passage of time. (Hair and Makeup Design are credited to Krystal Balleza and Will Vicari.)
Emmie Finckel’s handsome modernist set, which stretches too far across the entire width of the Rep’s playing area, doesn’t help. The Ripple, The Wave is at its core an intimate family drama and the wide open spaces of Finkel’s set too often set the characters adrift.
The center section of the set echoes the tiled design of a municipal swimming pool but doesn’t actually become one until a clumsy coda at play’s end. A recent, much lauded production of the play at the KC Rep in Kansas City, Missouri, set the play entirely within a swimming pool, which strikes me as a more successful solution, one that echoes the play’s central metaphor.
What power The Ripple, The Wave possesses comes largely from the subject matter and that is not to be discounted. Despite my reservations about Anderson’s script and the way Woodard brings it to life I welcomed the lessons to be learned from her story, which although fictional and in the past tense is based on an all-too-present reality.
Segregation officially ended decades ago, yet it still persists. Anderson’s play serves to remind us of this uncomfortable truth.
The Ripple, The Wave That Carried Me Home continues at Yale Rep though May 20, 2023. For more information, visit the Yale Rep website.
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Footnote: The Yale Rep continues to excel in unintentionally amusing programme notes. Here is an observation from one of the two dramaturgs who contributed to this production: “Giving the ocular proof ten years later triggers the precarity, neither life nor death yet both, between better health outcomes and worse health outcomes.”