Kansas City native's new play dives deep into the racist history of public pools in America
Christina Anderson's play follows a Black family's journey through the years after desegregating the public pool in their fictional Kansas town. The show will tour 10 Kansas City community centers and libraries, after completing a run at Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
Despite having some of the best education America has to offer, 43-year-old Christina Anderson is lost whenever she’s around water.
“I don't know how to swim — a lot of people in my family don't,” the Kansas City, Kansas, native said. “It's so funny because, I don't even remember as a kid that even being an option, to go to the pool.”
It wasn't until much later, after Anderson read a book called “Contested Waters” by Jeff Wiltse, that she began to wonder why she knew almost no one who went swimming for fun.
“I remember things like church, skating parties, barbecues, and family reunions,” Anderson said. “But there was never any conversation about swimming lessons or going to the pool.”
Anderson is a writer and educator who attended F.L. Schlagle High School and the Barstow School (with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas). As an adult, she produced a hip-hop instrumental EP in 2022 under the stage name Purely Magenta, and was nominated for a Tony Award in the Best Book of a Musical category. She’s been based out of New York City since completing residency with the New Dramatists organization in 2019.
Her new play, called “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” aims to tackle the racist history of public pools in America.
Set in the 1960s and present-day of a fictional Kansas town, it details the pain and perseverance of a Black family that fought to desegregate the town's public pool. Anderson hopes the play helps start constructive conversations around the legacy of racism.
The play opens Tuesday at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, directed by Khanisha Foster. After finishing its run there in early April, the play will go on tour as part of the KCRep For All program, which will offer free shows at 10 community centers and libraries throughout the metro.
“Being in these spaces that aren't traditional proscenium stages, that changes how the energy is exchanged with the audience,” Anderson said. “Which is also something I'm really excited to witness.”
Close to 64% of African American children don’t know how to swim, according to a 2017 study by the University of Memphis and USA Swimming Foundation — that’s up from 60% in 2008. The study showed 40% of white kids did not know how to swim in 2017.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are three times more likely to die from drowning, regardless of their age.
Like many places, Kansas City has a long history of discrimination at public swimming pools. In one of the most notable cases, Swope Park Public Pool desegregated in 1954 after a three-year legal fight that involved former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Nearly seven decades later, the neighborhood residents around Swope Park are primarily Black, and the pool’s gates are permanently closed.
These days, according to author and policy advocate Heather McGhee’s 2021 book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” an imbalance between public and private pools disproportionately affects access for non-white communities, especially African Americans who more often depend on public resources.
Kansas City, Missouri, only has eight public pools, with an additional 18 spray parks. In neighboring Wyandotte County, where close to 60% of residents are non-white, there is only one public pool.
Currently, there are more than 150,000 private residential or subdivision pools in both Kansas and Missouri.
“You know, I still have not had official swimming lessons. The most I can do is get out in the water that's up to my waist,” Anderson said. “There's a connection there.”
KCUR’s Lawrence Brooks spoke with Anderson about why she thinks it's important to tell this story now. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What truly inspired this play?
I knew I wanted to write about water in some capacity in relation to Black American history. Because I'm from Kansas City, I really wanted to look at a landlocked state that didn't have access to coastal waters.
The book “Contested Waters” led me down that path, since it details the fight to restrict or deny access to man-made tanks and pools.
I come from an activist family. My family was very committed to supporting black folks via church organizations just supporting them in their various jobs. I call it the day-to-day little successes of just being a Black person and navigating life in America. That was their form of activism, in my opinion.
What do you think of the fact that there is one public pool left in Wyandotte County? Especially when a city like Lenexa, where more than 80% of residents in 2022 were white, has three?
It's really kind of sad because I feel like everybody should have access to any public recreational activities that they seek. As human beings, water is such a big part of who we are as people and to not have access to play in it is detrimental to their growth.
Once you learn how to swim, you have access to it. There's a real sense of freedom and surrendering and peacefulness that I think that Black folks deserve and should have access to. Then, (there’s) the joy (of) playing in the water.
So, it's heartbreaking and I would like for that number to grow and change. And if this play can have a part in starting that conversation, that would be a really powerful outcome.
Why do you feel this story is important now?
It should be a right to have a variety of access — to swim outdoors and to have lessons outdoors. There's also a quality of life component. Like employment: We lack Black lifeguards indoors and outdoors.
If we open up opportunities so that people can have access, they can choose how they commune and how they participate in their communities. They can choose how they find joy in them.
With regards to the play, it's my hope that it is a very topical conversation because it also looks at the multitudes of activism that we can all participate in. It was my goal to really kind of highlight the different ways that people can give back to their communities or return to them and make change.
It's about memorializing those people before us who fought and sacrificed and got wins for the community, that’s why I feel this story is relevant now.
It’s been decades since some of these battles over public pool access took place. Why should we still be paying attention to them, and why do you?
I often travel across the country and the world for my work, and I always find myself near bodies of water. I would like to believe that an artistic ancestor is calling me towards that element of water. But I can't go. That's how I would answer that.
(I hope this play) can spark other conversations that can get people to sit down and start thinking macro and micro about other issues. If it allows us to even look at the people who are out here trying to make change in our public schools or finding ways to support them in the work that they're doing. I think it's also important to understand those similarities in struggle.
There are 10 local libraries and community centers on the list of venues for this play. Why do people in those spaces need to hear this story too?
Because being in these spaces that aren't traditional proscenium stages, changes how the energy is exchanged with the audience. In my heart, I believe it's a community-based art in that it really is an exchange of energies between audience and performer.
Growing up I can only imagine how it would've impacted me to be able to see a show down the street from my house … to also see somebody who looks like me who's performing at that age.
So it is really exciting for me to shake that up in terms of the venue and the spaces that they're going to be in. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm very honored to be a part of that.
“the ripple, the wave that carried me home“ debuts at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14 at the Kansas City Repertory Theater, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Missouri 64110, and runs through Sunday, April 2. Tickets start at $35. The production will begin its tour of libraries and community centers on Friday, April 7 at the Southeast Community Center, 4201 E. 63rd St., Kansas City, Missouri 64130. For information on other tour stops, check the KC Rep website. The community tour is free for all attendees.