ripple makes waves at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play the ripple, the wave that carried me home includes (left to right) Christiana Clark as Janice, Brianna Buckley as Gayle, Ronald L. Conner as Edwin and Aneisa J. Hicks as Helen. The play is produced in association with Goodman Theatre. BELOW: Clark’s Janice takes us back to her childhood in Kansas and life with her activist parents. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

In her moving new drama the ripple, the wave that carried me home, playwright Christina Anderson gives us what we want – or, more accurately, what we need – in a family play. She takes us into a very specific time and place, creates distinct personalities, raises a variety of colossal issues and then makes us feel like we’re inside that family in ways that relate to our own family situation.

When that dramatic click happens – when a play begins operating specifically and universally – you know you’re in good theatrical hands.

A world-premiere collaboration between Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the ripple unfolds on the stage of Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre in what looks like an abandoned public swimming pool. There’s no water in the tank, and chairs are tipped on their side. But there’s still a light on in the awards window.

Much of the story we’re about to hear has to do with swimming and how something so healthy, recreational and fun could turn into a sadly typical American tale of racism, oppression, violence and horror.

By any measure, Janice (Christiana Clark) is a successful adult. It’s 1992, and she’s a department director at a small Ohio university and has a supportive husband and two kids. As the narrator of this story, her story, Janice easily admits that she has compartmentalized her life. Her past and her family all belong in Beacon, Kansas, where she grew up. But a string of insistent messages on her answering machine (oh, the vestiges of 1992) from Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman calling from Beacon threaten to pull her from one compartment of her life into another, and she resists.

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This is when Janice’s story expands. We meet her parents, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen (Aneisa J. Hicks) as young people in the late 1950s. She gives free swimming lessons at Brookside, one of three public swimming pools in Beacon but the only one that allows Black people. He gets bussed in from another neighborhood to enjoy the pool, and their lives entwine.

As tragedy rocks the town, Edwin and Helen become activists and begin a years-long battle against the deeply embedded racism of their hometown. Their daughter is born into this fight, and as a teenager, she finds herself embarrassed by her crusading parents (especially her dad) and embarrassed by her very blackness. By the early 1970s we can feel her compartmentalizing begin as she longs to escape to someplace easier and more peaceful.

But things happen both within the family and without that have a profound impact on how Janice will choose to live her life and deal with her parents. When those calls start coming from her hometown, she realizes she can’t just keep being the polite daughter from a distance. Her straight-talking Aunt Gayle (Brianna Buckley, who also plays Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman) is, in many ways, the ripple that creates the wave that brings Janice home, both physically and metaphorically.

Headed by the warm and eminently relatable Clark as Janice, this strong cast finds humor and drama in equal measure. The family connections feel strong and complex even while the outside world delivers nonstop horror. We see how women labor and suffer in the shadow of men who claim to be focused on issues of equality. We see repeatedly how virulent racism manifests in the lives of this Black family in the Midwest. “Are you new to America?” several characters ask? “Let me show you around.”

Director Jackson Gay unfolds the story at a natural pace, as the swimming pool set by Todd Rosenthal becomes family homes in Kansas and Ohio, a car being pursued by a police car and a fugue state somewhere between nostalgia and trauma.

A generous and empathetic writer, Anderson imbues her characters with depth and complication. Perhaps most importantly she allows for triumph amid the tragedy and for growth and understanding amid hostilities and resentments. Within this ripple turned to wave, she even leaves us swimming in the possibility of joy.

Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home continues through Oct. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $24-$100. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Crowded Fire delivers the goods with Good Goods

Good Goods

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (left) is Stacey and Armando McClain is Wire in the West Coast premiere of Christina Anderson’s Good Goods, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Boxcar Playhouse. Below: Mollena Williams is Patricia and Lauren Spencer is Sunny. Photos by Pak Han

A little bit weird (in the most wonderful way) and a whole lot good, Christina Anderson’s Good Goods is a captivating drama that becomes a highly satisfying love story – or love stories to be exact. Crowded Fire Theater is producing the West Coast premiere, with artistic director Marissa Wolf firmly at the helm.

What’s so appealing about this two-act play is that it’s old-fashioned and fresh at the same time, mysterious and yet straightforward enough to be almost instantly engaging. You get a sense of community and real human connection intermingled with the supernatural as in an August Wilson play and abundant romance, betrayal and pining, as in a Tennessee Williams play. But this is not to say that Anderson is being derivative. It’s more like she’s using the best parts of drama to tell an interesting story and keep her audience involved and wondering what the heck is going to happen next.

It’s best not to know too much about the plot (of which there’s no shortage), but it’s OK to know that it all spins out in a small town that is rather out of place and time. There has been a major event – an “invasion” of some kind – in the not-too-distant past that has had a dramatic effect on the area, which is presumably an all-black town in the American south.

The major industry in town is a pencil factory, and that keeps the mercantile of Good Goods – owned by a man whose last name is Good – in operation. The business is ostensibly owned by Mr. Good’s son, Stacey, but he’s been gone for a decade, having hit it big on the comedy circuit with another hometown girl, Patricia. The one actually running the story, or at least keeping it from going under is Truth (“It’s a name you have to earn, that’s for sure”).

Good Goods

As with any good drama, the status quo is disrupted. Stacey returns home to deal not with the disappearance of his father but to revisit a lost love – his childhood friend (and Patricia’s twin brother), Wire. It’s a recognizable world but slightly askew. The set, by Emily Greene, makes the store look like something out of the 1800s, yet one character wears Nike shoes and another listens to a comedian on a cassette player. The time is now (or 1994 to be specific), yet it seems a world away from the modern world. Perhaps that’s why the spirit world is so alive and well here.

There’s talk of a cursed family going back for generations that might be the key to Armageddon, and there’s most definitely visitation from another world, yet somehow these fanciful flights seem just as part of the fabric of this town and these people as the love stories or family dramas.

Wolf’s cast is superb at underplaying the more sensational aspects of the story and imbuing the whole thing with real heart. Yahya Abdul Mateen II is Stacey the prodigal son returned to see if he can reconnect with Wire, played by the vibrant Armando McClain. Their love story is especially touching because it’s clearly meant to be in spite of Stacey’s inability to express himself fully.

Stacey has an easier time fighting with Truth (David E. Moore), a sort of brother figure who is bitter that he’ll likely be forced into work at the pencil factory if Stacey refuses to take over the store. A ray of hope comes into his life with the return of Patricia, played by the luminous Mollena Williams, and her new friend, Sunny, played by Lauren Spencer, an actor who shows extraordinary range in this surprisingly demanding role.

Before this quintet can figure out how their relationships will sever or evolve, the spirit world intervenes, which demands the presence of Anthony Rollins Mullens as a neighbor with talents that extend into various realms. Mullens is, to say the least, a commanding figure, and it’s no wonder the play ends on such a calm note after his hurricane of a scene.

The play zips by at only two hours, and though there are underdeveloped elements – I wanted more from Patricia and her transition into love – it satisfies like few new plays I’ve seen recently. It also feels like it could be the first chapter in an ongoing saga. Here’s hoping.


Christina Anderson’s Good Goods continues through June 23 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets prices are on a sliding scale. Visit