By KRISSI HUMBARD — How can you breathe when your head is always under water?
#poolparty, Ally Theatre Company’s second play of their second season, wades into the topics of racism, segregation, family history — and swimming pools. #poolparty sheds light on an unexpected invitation that launches a family into motion: the discovery of historical documents at a private swim club in Prince George’s County leads to a reckoning with the past. Ally Theatre Company dives into the strange history of swimming pools and confronts the gates that still slam shut today.
#poolparty is the first full-length play written by Hyattsville resident Jennifer Mendenhall, who has lived in the city since 1997 and has been an actor for 30 years. Mendenhall explains the inspiration for the play in her playwright’s note: “In 1974, a [African-American] family was denied membership at a private, neighborhood swimming pool, all the members of which were white. The father reached out to the NAACP. They contacted the Department of Justice. Letters were exchanged, a lawsuit was hinted at, and membership requirements were changed. The family was offered membership, but declined, out of concern for the children’s safety.”
She continues: “In 2015 the president of the pool board discovered copies of those letters while sorting old papers, and this event was unearthed. He thought the pool community should acknowledge this part of their history, and invite the surviving family members to a ceremony to honor their father. A pavilion that had recently been built would be dedicated to him, with a plaque that bore his name and credited him with desegregating the pool.”
Mendenhall was in attendance when the family came to the pool and spoke about their experience. “It was breathtaking,” she wrote. “The atmosphere was charged with an awareness of the history of racism in America, and how it landed on a group of ordinary people, at a swimming pool.”
The experience stayed with her.
“I was so moved by the ceremony, the family’s story … and the whole issue of discrimination wouldn’t let me go,” Mendenhall said. “And so, in a way, this is the story that insisted that I write.”
Mendenhall got the family’s permission to create #poolparty, based in part on their story. She then dove deeply into the history of discrimination at swimming pools, racism, segregation and the myths surrounding African Americans and swimming. She read books, court cases, thesis papers, news articles and spoke with friends about their childhood memories.
“My best experiences as an actor were always when I felt like I was channeling something much bigger and more mysterious than myself. And it’s a wonderful feeling because there’s no ego attachment, because you’re in service and that’s a very different feeling, when you’re serving someone,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what this process has felt like.”
Mendenhall acknowledged that she has never experienced this kind of racial discrimination. That’s where director Angelisa Gillyard and the cast of six African-American actors stepped in. Mendenhall says the actors — Shaq Stewart, Keith E. Irby, Ivana (Tai) Alexander, Eli-El, Jonathan Miot, and Lori Pitts — played a role in shaping the characters and bringing them to life.
“I put it on the page, but they are the ones who are bringing it to life and shaping it with all their collective wisdom and experience and knowledge,” Mendenhall said. “And that’s a hugely important part of how the process has gone for this production.”
Mendenhall isn’t just telling one family’s story in #poolparty. She is trying to raise awareness and give ownership to those who deserve it, and create employment for African-American actors.
“In American theater, most of the power resides in white hands and it’s really important to shift the power into the hands of the people who own these stories,” Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall also says she hopes that by looking at a narrow issue like swimming pools, she will spark an interest in viewers to look at the larger scope of every day racism and discrimination.
Ally Theatre Company is in its second season. The company’s mission is to produces theater designed to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America. They aim to join the vital conversations — sparked by generations of thinkers, writers, performers, and activists who paved the way before them — conversations that continue each and every day.
#poolparty has showings June 23 through July 15 at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mt. Rainier, Md., with a special Community Preview Night June 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission; $15 for students and veterans. This play is recommended for all ages.