An African-American woman stands at the center of a starkly lit room, surrounded by men in near identical dark suits and jaunty straw hats. Their faces are contorted into grotesque, gaping grins.
Suddenly, the men turn on the terrified woman, snarling and snapping like a pack of wild wolves.
So begins “Pool ’63,” a racially and politically charged new play about a vital turning point in American civil rights history. Created in collaboration with playwright Philip Valle, director/costume designer bree valle and current and former Cuesta theater students, the one-act, 45-minute production premieres Friday at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
Philip Valle, a former Cuesta instructor who now teaches theater at Cal Poly, said the group tried to create an all-ages play that was “uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.”
“We wanted it to be about people … and not about politics,” explained Valle, bree valle’s husband. “We didn’t want it to (just) be a history lesson.”
According to bree valle, who heads Cuesta’s drama program, the impetus for “Pool ’63” was the fatal February 2012 shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin by white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla.
Outraged by Zimmerman’s acquittal in July, valle, who is Canadian, decided to delve into the racial history of the United States.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted at what I found,” she said. “I could not believe that people were not allowed to drink out of drinking fountains because of the color of their skin. I could not believe that a swimming pool would be closed because an African-American swam in it.”
She and her husband started work on a play about “two girls in a pool,” inspired in part by children’s books such as “Glory Be” by Augusta Scattergood. valle brought her students on board when school started in fall.
Set in the summer of 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., “Pool ’63” examines how the lives of two 9-year-old girls — one black, one white — are shaped by the civil rights movement.
Segregation laws forbid Rosa Jackson (Rainey Forzetting) and Caroline Woods (Shayley Gunther) from attending the same school, checking out books at the same library or even splashing in the same swimming pool.
But that doesn’t stop them from being best friends. Neither does the fact that Rosa’s mother, Grace (Jayde Forzetting), works for Caroline’s mother Margaret (Alyssa Lopez), a northern transplant with more progressive ideas about race than her peers.
When the city reopens public pools to African Americans, the decision sends shockwaves through the community. Rosa’s dad, Donald (Meshack Burton), hopes the move will usher in a new age of equality, but Caroline’s father, John (Daniel Lewis), is more doubtful.
Deonte Smith leads the rest of the “Pool ’63” cast as inspirational leader Preacher Jones and a musical Muse, joined by Greg Threlkeld as Alabama Gov. George Wallace and a prejudiced lifeguard, Cash Costango as troubled class clown Bubba Wiggins and Bo Branum, Brandon Harris and Ferris Franzen as a group of stuck-up southern belles. Ian Robertson plays a librarian, while Kody Cava, Christina Malloy, Thinh Nguyen, Lilianna Russu, Abraham Slezak and MaryJean Trujillo play schoolchildren.
“Pool ’63” is presented in black box theater fashion with minimal props and sets such as a metal ladder and a wooden table. Plain wood blocks serve alternately as briefcases, school desks, diving boards and a podium.
Given the barebones backdrop, much of the play’s dramatic effect comes from Branum’s sound design and Cuesta faculty member Richard Jackson’s lighting and special effects.
Branum, a former Cuesta student who has worked with valle for 12 years, said he looked for recognizable, period-appropriate songs that would fit in the context of the play.
Cast members in gold bikinis and swim caps groove to Bobby Freeman’s “C’mon and Swim” in a sparkling dream sequence, while Burton dances ecstatically to Clyde McPhatter’s version of “Little Bitty Pretty One” in another scene.
The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” sets the sunny mood at the start of a scene set at a swimming pool. But the song grinds to a surreal, sludgy growl when the subject of segregation is introduced, Branum said, revealing that “there’s this other layer going on underneath where things weren’t really OK.”
“Part of the whole learning curve (for) students is how do you embody what it was like back then being raised in open racism,” Branum said, noting the civil rights movement is a distant memory for most.
As Branum explained, “Pool ’63” is what’s known as “devised theatre,” in which the script does not originate from a writer or writers but as the result of collaborative, often improvisational work by a group.
“You start with nothing and everything it becomes is what you make it. It’s very rewarding to not have something handed to you and just perform it,” he said.
To prepare for the project, valle had cast and crew members do “mounds and mounds of research,” which they then shared with the group.
“They’re learning about storytelling. They’re being empowered to think as artists,” she said of her students. “They’re also gaining ownership creatively. It’s much more their piece than it is mine.”
valle and her co-collaborators plan to present “Pool ’63” in February at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Los Angeles.
“This story is really important … because there still is prejudice, whether it be toward blacks or Latinos or lesbians or gays. It’s never-ending,” valle said. “We need to shed light on history. If we don’t remember it, we’re going to repeat it.”
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Dec. 13 and 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14 and 15
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College
$15, $10 students, $5 children 12 and under
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.