As a 30-year Woolly Mammoth Theatre company member and a veteran of stages around the District, Jennifer Mendenhall is used to being reviewed. But the audience she was thinking about during the opening night performance of #poolparty—the Helen Hayes Award-winning actor’s debut as a produced playwright—wasn’t the critics. It was more than half a dozen members of the Bowlding family who had come to see their father’s and grandfather’s story told, in the service of a larger narrative about how segregation persisted even after the civil rights victories of the 1960s.
Raynard Bowlding drove more than 300 miles from his home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Mount Ranier, Maryland, where he grew up, to attend. Accompanying him were two of his sons, 22-year-old Dimitri and 17-year-old Dante. His brothers Rayvon and Raymond Jr. were there, along with his sister, Sonja Bowlding, and his cousin, Missy Hill.
Raynard was 10 years old in the summer of 1974 when his father, Raymond Bowlding Sr., applied for membership at the Prince George’s Swimming Pool. The outdoor pool, which had opened in 1956, required applicants to be sponsored by two current members. In 1974, all of its current members were white. Ray Bowlding and his children were not. Their application was declined.
Suspecting the policy had been designed to keep nonwhites out, Bowlding contacted the NAACP, which helped him bring his claim to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and Maryland Commission on Human Rights. After 15 months of legal wrangling, the pool’s Board of Directors agreed to end the sponsorship requirement and offered the Bowldings membership in November 1975. But despite having forced the pool to back down, Bowlding didn’t trust that the neighbors who’d tried to keep his family out would welcome them in. Raynard still remembers what his father told him when he asked if he could swim there when the pool opened again the following spring: “Fool, you can’t go to that pool. They’ll drown you.”
So Raynard and his four siblings—Rayjean, Rayvon, Raymond Jr., and Sonja—continued to make the roughly mile-and-a-half walk into the District and across busy Rhode Island Avenue NE to the Langdon Park Pool, or sometimes to the Theodore Hagans Pool in Fort Lincoln Park. After high school, Raynard joined the Army and moved away. He rarely thought about this chapter of the family’s history until a few years after his father died of lung cancer in 1996. Sometime in the late nineties, Raynard did a search on his father’s name and came across a news report about the case. He’d been vaguely aware of it as it was happening, but he hadn’t paid close attention. He was just a kid.
DJ Nolan, the PG Pool’s current president, wasn’t exactly looking for the Bowdlings’ story, either. He was cleaning out a file cabinet in the pool’s office about three years ago when he found 40-year-old correspondence documenting the club’s battle with Bowlding. The dates on the letters were from a quarter-century before Nolan, who grew up in Ireland, moved to Washington, so he wasn’t surprised he’d never heard of Raymond Bowlding Sr. or his claim against the pool. But he was still disturbed to find that an organization he was personally involved in had within his own lifetime resisted integration, and he felt compelled to acknowledge and apologize for the pool’s racist past. He began sending letters to all the Raymond Bowldings for whom he could find an address; about 30, he guesses. One of those letters found its way to Rayjean Bowlding in Massachusetts—one of Raymond Bowlding Sr.’s four sons.
Nolan suggested that the pool name its new shelter in honor of Raymond Bowlding Sr. and the board agreed. On Sept. 5, 2015, the Raymond Bowlding Sr. Pavilion opened at the PG Pool in a ceremony that included the reading of a “Resolution on Acknowledging Our History.” All five of Raymond’s adult children were present, along with various other relatives.
That event almost three years ago — a dedication ceremony followed by a barbecue — left a lasting impression on Mendenhall. She and her family had belonged to the pool since 1995. Like Nolan, she was unsettled by her proximity to this history. She found herself wondering how many variations of the Bowldings’ story had happened to other families. “Every community has a story like this one,” she says.
She thought about an incident from three months earlier, in June 2015, when about 100 adolescents, most of them black, jumped a fence to access a pool in a gated community in McKinney, Texas. Cell phone video of a white police officer forcing a 15-year-old black girl in a swimsuit to the ground, then briefly unholstering his sidearm when two boys approached him with the apparent intention to intervene, went viral. The officer resigned a few days after the incident. (The hashtag in the play’s title references how social media was used to spread word of the party and ensuing events.)
As 2016 wore on, Mendenhall read Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, which gave her a deeper understanding of how policies and behaviors with respect to pools reflected the country’s evolving racial and sexual mores in the 19th and 20th centuries. For each case Wiltse wrote about, Mendenhall would search for news reports and legal documents. She’d write Facebook updates about her discoveries, which in turn led to others sharing more stories with her.
“People started writing to me to tell me their own pool stories; things that had happened to them or their parents or grandparents,” she says. Someone sent her a recollection of Independence Day, 1961 in Lynchburg, Virginia, when city officials decided to close all of the public pools in their jurisdiction rather than integrate them.
In August 2016, Mendenhall was thrilled to see Simone Manuel, a 20-year-old swimmer from Sugar Land, Texas, win four medals in the Summer Olympics in Rio. She was the first African-American woman in Olympic history to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. Commentators framed Manuel’s achievement in the context of the history of segregation: “The significance of Simone Manuel’s swim is clear if you know Jim Crow,” was the headline on a column by The Washington Post sportswriter Kevin B. Blackistone. The New York Times asked, “Will Simone Manuel Inspire More Black Children to Swim?”
This confluence of events had been percolating in Mendenhall’s mind for more than a year when her friend Audrey Cefaly invited her to a playwrights’ retreat in Delaware the following January. Mendenhall had written short pieces before, but never a full-length play. In Delaware, she wrote #poolparty’s first five pages, wherein Ray Waters—a fictionalized version of Raymond Bowlding—speaks directly to the audience. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it really felt like I was channeling voices that did not come from inside my head,” Mendenhall says.
At the same time, she realized she’d solved an important structural problem before she even knew she had one.
“‘Okay, it’s overwhelming to look at racism in its entirety,” she explains. “What happens if we look at this narrow sliver of history? What happens if we just track all of the different rules and regulations that governed African-Americans’ access to municipal pools, to public water, to neighborhood swim clubs? We’re not going to talk about housing or education or finances or employment or anything else.”
But even with this organizing directive in place, Mendenhall decided she would need the Bowldings’ permission to write about them—even though she’s adamant that #poolparty is not explicitly about them, but rather informed by their history along with that of many other families. “This is not a docudrama,” she says. “I’m taking elements of their story and using them as a launching pad.” Even so, she reached out to Raymond Bowlding Jr. through Nolan. Raynard says that while the family had no reservations about giving the project their blessing, he didn’t really imagine he’d ever see a tangible result.
Mendenhall was surprised how easily the script flowed out of her. She’d been a reader for the American College Theatre Festival’s Playwriting Intensive at the Kennedy Center for 15 years; last year, she asked to participate as a playwright instead. Her participation in that four-day workshop earned her an invitation to bring the script to the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage New Play Festival over Labor Day weekend, a little less than three months later. Mendenhall says more than 100 people attended the reading of her still-incomplete script, and what they said in the feedback session that followed was illuminating.
“It was so interesting to see the difference between the people who had lived this history and the people who were unaware of it,” Mendenhall says. “There was one person who said, ‘This play reminded me that my uncle drowned when he was a boy.’” She pointed out that African-American children drown at a higher rate than those of other ethnicities. Learning to swim, after all, requires having access to a place where you can practice.
After Page-to-Stage, Ty Hallmark—who had founded Ally Theatre Company, with a mission “to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America” in 2016—told Mendenhall she wanted to give #poolparty a full production this summer. Mendenhall hadn’t even finished it yet. “You will,” Hallmark assured her. Ally performs at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Ranier, just a mile south of the PG Pool. “It’s kind of magical that the first place that would commit to doing this play is in the same community that inspired it,” Mendenhall says.
Both playwright and producer felt strongly that #poolparty should be directed and performed by artists of color. “I’ve done hundreds of new plays,” Mendenhall says, noting that the attitude in these first productions is typically “to serve the playwright’s vision. I wanted to flip it,” she says, and have the actors and director inform the work with their own perspectives and life experiences.
Hallmark says it was the poetic language in the script, and its opportunities for stylized movement, that made her think to ask Angelisa Gillyard, who worked on two of Ally’s prior shows as a choreographer, to direct #poolparty.
Gillyard welcomed the invitation to contribute, along with her cast, to the blueprint Mendenhall had developed. “Jen has been able to write a play that is grounded in truth, and still allows the other artists involved to draw on their personal truth,” she says. “I wouldn’t say necessarily that certain people can only write stories about certain other people. If you can only write about something you have actually experienced, where is the imagination? Where is the creativity?”
“What you have here is a start, but we’re going to make it richer by inserting our own insight and experience into these characters and this situation.”
After the opening performance, Raynard Bowlding had only praise for the show. In the play, the character of Ray Sr., played by Keith Irby, watches over his family as a sort of benign apparition while they navigate a crisis.
“That’s the way I think about my dad, being here, whatever I’m doing, he’s watching over me, he’s listening,” Raynard says. “To see [Irby] doing that on stage, that really brought me into the moment.”
He appreciated one of the play’s imaginary elements, centering the story on Roya, a competitive swimmer played by Lori Pitts, who comes to feel conflicted about her involvement in the sport. That scenario is fictitious, he says. But he’s firm on one point.
“My boys can swim,” Raynard says.
To July 15 at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mt. Rainier. $15–$25. allytheatrecompany.com.