POOL '63: A poignant and powerful plunge

Pool 63

Elaine Pazaski
February 20, 2014

Far from a relaxing dip in the water, Cuesta College’s devised play Pool ’63 boldly exposes the raw truth beneath our country’s racially turbulent past. Set in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, this piece takes a fresh look at key historical events that continue to haunt society, fearlessly tackling complicated racial issues with passion and fervor. Pool ’63 is a remarkable blend of courage, reflection, and reconciliation—a truly moving and unflinching piece of theatre.

A joint effort between director Bree Valle, resident playwright Philip Valle, and their students, Pool ’63 is the product of intense research regarding American history, racial culture, and societal practices. Despite the potentially disjointed variety of playing styles, mixed media, and movement practices, the cast succeeds in creating a palpable sense of unity and collaboration throughout. Key historical speeches provide provocative transitions between scenes. Sequences of pantomime, including riding a bus and swimming, punctuate instances of realism. The blending of techniques is captivating and generally flows. A fusion of dance, song, and pantomime energizes and enhances the production, providing moments of clarity and humor as well as opportunities for reflection.

With an endless supply of material to work with, Valle and her team distill the essence of the historical events into an accessible storyline. The result is a touching tale of the relationship between two young girls, one white and one black, and their desire to swim in the local pool together. While the premise seems simple, the larger trials and tribulations affecting their town tear at the girls’ friendship, raising scrutiny and exposing the dangers at hand. The play is mainly seen through the eyes of these two girls, the inquisitive Caucasian Caroline Woods (Nadia Sprehe) and her rambunctious and spirited African American friend, Rosa Jackson (Rainey Forzetting). Through their daily activities, such as going to school or visiting the library, glimpses at the darker underbelly of their society flash before their eyes, racism threatening to drive their friendship apart. The girls’ lens of childlike sincerity strips humanity to its ugly core—primal, gritty, and unabashed. In instances in which the children are absent, the play still retains a sense of raw emotion within the strong stylization of the adult characters. With the whites parading about with sterilized smiles on their faces, and the blacks silently and bravely enduring harassment, the strong polarization formed between the groups drives the action of the play.

The production is occasionally bogged down by intrusive technology, such as the confusing animated figures on the blackboard projected on the theatre’s upstage concrete wall, and the distracting prerecorded sound effects. However, the remarkable cast shines through these hindrances, making excellent use of space and gesture to breathe life into the play. In the moments free of such devices, the creative energies of the actors join together and rise up with a remarkable force and poignancy found only within the human spirit. The most stirring segments of the show occur when the collective voices and bodies of the cast emerge from the silence and stillness together—the final image of peaceful protestation, all races and ages standing united against prejudice, is a striking reminder of the power of reconciliation.

Between the slow-motion re-creation of the brutal fire-hosing of peaceful protesters, and the soul-stirring Baptist hymns that sweep up the audience, Pool ’63 delivers iconic images that linger in the mind, echoes of the true events that inspired the piece. A well-crafted historical and social artifact, Pool ’63 provides a tangible and collective experience that both reminds audiences of the ever-present racial issues surrounding our country and invokes a sense of unity against persisting prejudice. Pool ’63 leaves audiences unable to shake off the call to action to rise up against injustice, like the chlorine sting from a pool that persists and burns long after leaving the water.