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.
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.
The family came, and spoke about their experience. I was there. It was breathtaking. 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.
It is impossible to grasp the depth of feeling, or the thoughts, of the family members who were
there. One can only imagine. It is impossible to undo the damage done. But that gathering felt
like a gleam of hope in the darkness. It felt like the beginning of a way forward, of truth and
reconciliation, of acknowledgement, apology, and atonement, initiated and led by those whose
work it is to change the course: the people who have allowed unjust systems that supposedly
benefit them, and do so much damage to others, to continue.
Racism in America is vast, and pervasive, and entrenched in our thinking, our language, and
our governmental system. It is institutionally encoded in a person’s access to housing, financial
tools, education, environment, and opportunity of all kinds. In every arena, there are regulations
and accepted norms which are rooted in racist thinking, designed to exclude, oppress, and
deny. Racist thinking is pinned firmly in place by myths that obscure logic and compassion, and
which are used to justify the accepted norms.
I asked for, and received, permission from the family to create a piece of theatre based, in part,
on their story. I wanted others to experience that gathering. I wanted them to witness how
deeply racist thinking hurts our fellow human beings, and to sense the powerful gifts of
acknowledgement and apology. I wanted to understand why and how this had come to pass, in
a pool community I had been a member of for twenty years.
As I set to work researching the reasons for the segregation of swimming pools, I found a
wealth of information. I read Jeff Wiltse’s book, Contested Waters, which details the history of
swimming pools in America from the late 1800s to today. I followed the court cases that shut
down or allowed access to the water, and learned how the civil rights movement held swim ins at the
Monson Motor Lodge in St Augustine, FL, in 1964, and wade ins in Biloxi, MS, 1959-1963, to
protest regulations and laws governing pools and beaches. I found a thesis paper by Kevin
Dawson about African swimmers and slave divers. I read about the court case that shut down
the racial discrimination practiced by the YMCA in Montgomery, AL, in 1972. In Baltimore, a
judge said that education was easier to desegregate than swimming pools, when talking about
Brown v Board of Education (1955). Overwhelmingly, communities made the decision to shut
down municipal pools rather than integrate them. Friends sent me articles and talked about
their memories as children.
That summer, in 2015, was when the McKinney, Texas, pool party incident happened: suddenly,
journalists and thinkers were writing about black people, swimming, the history of segregation,
and the myths and racist thinking that people ascribed to. I researched the myths surrounding
African Americans and swimming, and their fatal consequences: black children are more likely
to die by drowning than any other ethnicity. Black Kids Swim is an organization that promotes
swimming skills for children and adults of color: I got in touch with them and learned more about
the reasons why many black people do not know how to swim, and why those people’s children
are more likely not to be able to swim. I read about the tragic loss of six teenagers who drowned
in the Red River in Shreveport LA in 2010, trying to save their cousin, with their parents standing
helplessly on the bank.
In 2016, Simone Manuel, a black swimmer, won the gold medal at the Olympics. This
unleashed a tsunami of articles about the significance of her win, about why swimming is seen
as a white sport, about the cost of competitive swimming, about black hair and the history of hair
treatment and care and expense and coconut oil and Vaseline and swim caps and good hair vs
bad hair and how hair is political. And the weight on her young shoulders, being held up as a
beacon, as an example, a refutation of four hundred years of racist thinking.
Wanting to better understand racist thinking, what it is and how it is employed, I read Dr Ibram
Kendi’s book, Stamped From The Beginning. This is a brilliant book, because of its author’s
clear eyed gaze, his steady, deep, and comprehensive examination of the reasons why and how
and to what purpose racist thinking has been employed. Dr Kendi is newly arrived at American
University, heading the Antiracist Research & Policy Center Department of History. This book
was so helpful in organizing my research: every law governing access to the water was created
by a person whose thinking and understanding of history was shaped by the beliefs to which
their community ascribed, and the evolution of those beliefs can be tracked through the years.
And all this while, I was working to hone my skills as a brand new playwright. This is the first
full length play I have written. Service to a mission has always galvanized my work as an actor:
knowing that you are actively promoting a greater good helps to take the heat off and give you
the courage to extend yourself. I called on my DC theatre community of thirty years for help. A
playwright friend, Audrey Cefaly, invited me to a writers’ retreat, where the first five pages were
written, and read aloud by my companions. I cannot say that I wrote them. I took dictation from
the characters who were living in my mind. Gregg Henry and Gary Garrison at the Kennedy
Center invited me to the Playwrights Intensives, a workshop where I had worked as a reader for
fifteen years and now joined them as a playwright.
An invitation to the 2017 Page to Stage Festival followed. Woolly Mammoth agreed to sponsor
me, as a company member. Jennifer L. Nelson directed the cast: Natalie Tucker, Jeremy Hunter,
Reginald Richard, Heather Gibson, JJ Johnson, Keith Irby, Bill Newman, and Otis Ramsey-Zoe
was the dramaturg. We presented the first forty five pages to an audience of over a hundred
people, and the talk back from the audience was illuminating. They said, we want to know more
about this history. They said, you reminded me that my uncle drowned when he was a child.
They said, think about the fact that in the Caribbean, white people swim for recreation, and
black people swim for work. I understood that there were two audiences: one who had lived the
history, and one who had not. Everyone I spoke with, when they heard the subject matter of the
play, told me a story about swimming pools. They told me about pools that had been filled in and
grassed over. They told me about family history no one had told them about. They told me about
learning that family members did not know how to swim. They wanted to know more.
And Ally Theatre said, we want to do this play. To which I replied, you can’t. It’s not even a script
yet. And they said, it will be. We love the characters, we love the story, we love the writing. It will
be fine. So this is our journey. A belief that by studying the narrow sliver of swimming pool
history, we can face the broader issue of systemic racism, and comprehend how those children
in our community, back in 1974, suffered the experience of being denied access to a pool, and
why. I am honored to serve this family and their story. I am honored to create an opportunity for
my theatre colleagues of color to tell it. And I am deeply grateful that Ally Theatre is committed
to providing space for those voices to be heard.
Jennifer Mendenhall has been a DC actor, director, and vocal coach for 34 years. #poolparty is
her first full length play, and it is the story that made her want to write for the stage. While
working on #poolparty, she has written short pieces for Dominic D’Andrea’s One Minute Play
Festival, Aubri O’Connor’s Nu Sass the Future is Female Festival and an upcoming bar crawl,
and a reading directed by Natalia Gleason at Marymount University. She participated in the
2017 Playwrights Intensives, led by Gary Garrison, and presented an early version of #poolparty
at the 2017 Page to Stage Festival, led by Gregg Henry. She is deeply grateful to the many
people in the DC theatre community who have generously encouraged her, to her family for
their tolerant support, and most especially to the Bowlding family, whose story inspired the play.