“Givens Swim” is the last in the “My Park, My Pool, My City” trilogy from Forklift Danceworks in collaboration with Austin Parks and Recreation’s Aquatics Division, promoting civic engagement around the future of the city’s pools. The projects have brought attention to the crumbling infrastructure of many of Austin’s swim facilities, especially those in East Austin, where race and economics have shaped their destinies.
In 2017 Forklift stage “Bartholomew Swims” a celebration of significant rebuild of an East Austin pool, a rare success story in city’s troubled poolscape. The next year “Dove Springs Swims” told of a largely Latino neighborhood’s steadfast activism.
Read: “Everybody into the pool: Forklift’s inclusive art-making is radical for an arts world that ultimately equates excellence with exclusivity”
Givens Pool is a beloved place in its community, and the performance had the feel of a family reunion as much as an arts performance. Patrons greeted neighbors, shouted out nicknames, and swapped stories as the bleachers filled to capacity: “All these people you know . . . my head’s on a swivel . . . what a flashback.”
A faint violet crown rose in the east and the pool glimmered in blue light as Austin rap artist Nook Turner kicked things off straight into high gear with his anthem, “The A.” The program swung between pounding energy and thoughtful reminiscence as the story of Givens unfolded. Turner is himself a community activist, engaged with reclaiming public space in East Austin.
While much of the audience knew full well who Dr. Everett Givens was, others were introduced to this local powerhouse — a successful black dentist and a political mover and shaker — in a voiceover that recalled seeing his long black Cadillac driving around town: “You just knew something exciting was about to happen.”
Opened in 1958 as Oak Springs and renamed for him in the mid 1970s, Givens Pool was the second facility black Austinites had for their own in the racially segregated era. It was a much-needed oasis from summer heat and a place to see and be seen. But as this tribute makes clear, it is much more than that. Prompted by the stories and themes of the show, members of the audience cried out time and again in recognition of an old friend, a remembered incident, an inside joke. As lifeguard Anaires Rizo mused in the “Down Duties” segment: “This pool isn’t just full of water, it’s full of memories.”
The signature choreography of Forklift’s community-based dance featured maintenance men in uniforms balletically testing the pool water, the red-suited lifeguards’ ritualized shift changes, divers in headlamps and scuba gear checking for cracks, rescue operations in the water. Kids, elders, the skinny and the rotund, white, brown, and black moved together, synchronized and graceful at times, exuberantly goofy and splashing at others.
But it was the personalities of East Austinites and their stories in voiceover that energized and elevated the performance even beyond the vision of creators Allison Orr and Krissie Marty, or the powerful score by composer Graham Reynolds, which managed to be whimsical and monumental at once.
“Old School Lifeguards” featured Billy Owens reliving his stint as a pool guard in his teens, especially the whistle-blowing, warnings, and threats to rowdy kids, many of whom, now well into middle age, howled in recognition from the stands: “I’ma tell my mama. I know your Mama — Then I’ma tell your mama — My Mama works here, you go right on up there and tell her.”
His recollections captured the easy familiarity that comes from a tight-knit community. “Givens changed my life,” Owens said.
The Miss East Austin beauty queens stole the evening, though. Former winners from the pageants that were historically held at Givens paraded in tiaras and smart suits to an adoring crowd. Now in their 60s and 70s, they were svelte and graceful, competition-ready still. A honeyed voiceover by Pearl Dilworth-Cox told their story as they cat-walked, posed, waved. “It was like a fairytale,” she recalled. “It was like we were walking on water.
In the closing tribute the beauty queens were pushed by attending lifeguards around the pool’s edge in deluxe lounge floats to be cheered like royalty, and some were handed bouquets in true pageant fashion.
Also singular in its impact was “Learning to Swim,” featuring native East Austinite Harrison Eppright, who admits he had not set foot in Givens since failing swim class there in 1963. Now in his 60s and a longtime visitor services guide for the city, he told about learning to swim now, “because it’s never too late.” The audience cheered his aplomb as a young lifeguard led the white-bearded Eppright through basic swim maneuvers.
A raucous and powerful finale brought everybody back to the pool, along with the Smooth & EZ Dancers, and another song by Turner. The audience was reminded that the takeaway was “peace, love, soul.”
“Givens Swims” brought home all that, and more, celebrating a shared past and a community’s history, even as East Austin undergoes seismic change.