BWW Review: Ally Theatre's #POOLPARTY
Ally Theatre's "#poolparty" is a prime example of discovering a little known chapter of local history, fashioning it into art and creating a more universal statement.
That it is premiering in a Mt. Rainer performance space a mile from where the action that inspired it occurred only gives it more power.
Hyattsville resident Jennifer Mendenhall recognized a strong story when she saw it because of her decades of experience as award-winning actress director and vocal coach in the region. When an official at the private pool she attended came across a file of 40-year-old paperwork regarding a civil rights complaint, it led to some self-examination, a public apology and a commemoration of a new pavilion three years ago.
It involved an African American welder and union rep named Raymond Bowlding Jr., who was prevented from having his family join the neighborhood pool because of discrimination.
Bowlding filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the Maryland Commission on Human Rights through actions by the NAACP, and eventually the pool was opened in 1975. Even then he still made his kids walk a mile and a half to D.C. pools during sweltering summers because he didn't trust how people in the local pool would react if they joined. "They'll drown you!" he warned his kids.
Those kids, all grown up and scattered across the country with their own families, returned to Mt. Rainier for the dedication.
For the fictional family in "#poolparty," Mendenhall had them consider whether it was a good idea to come back at all.
By then there were all manner of other public pool issues to consider. A granddaughter (Lori Pitts) has become a competitive swimmer who has lately lost her interest in the sport. Specifically, she says she sees the bodies of her ancestors on the bottom of the pool - a piercing, horrific image she presents in poetic language.
And there are other historical problems of African Americans and pools: Possibly because they weren't welcomed to public swimming facilities, fewer learned to swim, causing tragedies like one in Louisiana in 2010 when six teens drown trying to save another who also drown. There were the ghastly stories of Jim Crows, where towns chose to forever close their pools rather than integrate. And there was that appalling scene of excessive force on a teenage girl at a 2015 suburban pool party in McKinney, Texas. And the entirety of Black Live Matters is before us.
There are so many stories about African Americans and pools, everybody seems to have one, Ally Theatre artistic director Ty Hallmark says. But it looks like they tried to put all of them in "#poolparty."
That makes for a stuffed script that seems to be a work in progress, when there is a strong central story of the wronged family and the granddaughter's youthful weariness at carrying on her gift in the water.
Kieth Irby plays the patriarch Ray with kindness and benevolence, narrating and presiding over the action as if he were in "Our Town." Ray Jr. Eli-El has a strong performance as Ray Jr., whose daughter is the swimmer. Ivana (Tia) Alexander, Shaquille Stewart and Jonathan Miot do such good job creating their characters as Ray Jr's siblings, that they are less credible when they abruptly switch to a number of other characters they are required to play, from students, to town bigots, to African griots.
Jimmy Stubbs' aqua-colored set is meant to be versatile enough to recreate with a set of boxes, a pool's edge, to a living room, to offices and podiums. (Along these lines, there's quite a lot of moving around boxes).
Hope Vellanueva's projections are good scene setters, though, from a gif of shimmering water when poolside or shifting to news footage we all recall from having gone viral.
"#poolparty" is a worthy stab at a significant cultural shift in one's own neighborhood, but going forward, it needs -- like a swimmer -- to stay in its lane and focus on its central story. Ally Theatre is soliciting people's own stories about pools and race. I hope nobody is tempted into adding those stories, too, into a future version.
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Ally Theatre Company's "#poolparty" continues through July 21 at Joe's Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mt. Rainier, MD. Tickets at 301-699-1819 or online.