The long-held stereotype that Black people either can’t or don’t swim has been upheld by generations of Americans — often in the form of jokes. It’s a myth that stands to be busted, but has largely gone unchallenged.
Charlotte’s Mixed Metaphors Productions (MMP) hopes to change that with SwimCap, an immersive theatre experience set to take place at Brooklyn Grace, formerly Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, in Uptown from Aug. 18-20.
Created in collaboration with local organization Evolutionary Aquatics, the show will combine traditional theatre, visual art and aerial performances to celebrate Black swimming and trace the ways it has shaped Charlotte.
Following its 2021 FixaPlate project — an exploration of gentrification through food, theatre and art — MMP cofounder Kat Martin said the organization was inspired to do something targeted to Black people and swimming in Charlotte.
Having worked with Nadine Ford, founder of Evolutionary Aquatics, an organization that aims to “reteach Black adults their authentic and genetic aquatic culture,” and its foundational organization Mahogany Mermaids on FixAPlate, MMP organizers became inspired to partner on a new immersive theatre experience.
“During that project, [Ford] was like, ‘Wow, we should really do something like this about the renaissance of Black swimming and the work that they do with Evolutionary Aquatics to create a community of people that are reclaiming the aquatic heritage of the diaspora,’” Martin told Queen City Nerve. “So she came to us to create this art piece and we started with the blank page and have created this whole thing from there.”
In a structure similar to FixaPlate, the project highlights relevant topics by making them accessible and relatable through immersive artistic expression, Martin said.
“Basically, we take a topic that someone in the local community wants to discuss that needs more awareness brought to it,” explained MMP cofounder K. Alana Jones. “We take people’s stories and opinions and thoughts and fears and create a piece that is easy to relate to as well as educational.”
“We always like to have lots of points of entry for people to engage and participate,” Martin continued. “So some people love a good ‘sit down, be quiet, watch the play.’ Some people do not. Some people love painting. So we like to create lots of different points of entry that are all looking at the multifaceted angle of whatever it is we’re talking about.”
The multi-platform approach offers not only different points of entry for patrons but artists.
“It’s a great way for us to collaborate with as many Charlotte-based artists as we possibly can from as many mediums as we possibly can,” said Martin. “The Charlotte-ness of our work — that it’s for Charlotte by Charlotte about Charlotte — guides a lot of our decisions that we want to make sure that it’s open and inviting and joyful as well. It’s funny, it’s challenging, it’s celebratory and we think that using a lot of mediums is the best way to do that.”
The reasoning for this is simple: The more mediums they use, the more accessible the work, the more people they can reach.
“All of us are different types of artists, and there’s no reason to separate them, especially because people are not monolithic,” Jones said. “Everyone enjoys things differently, everyone learns differently. So if you bring in a collaboration of different forms of art, you’re guaranteed to touch everyone in there.”
Given the myth surrounding Black people and swimming that pervades society, this experience is clearly necessary and important. Jones and Martin agree that this is inarguable.
“Knowledge is power, for one, and oftentimes us in the Black community are led in the opposite direction of what is factual,” Jones said. “So it’s important that we show that we do swim. We’ve been swimming. You can swim. The fear is in oneself, not in the actual act. So most people, once they learn about something, it’s easier for them to actually do.”
“Working with Evolutionary Aquatics, their entire mission is that the African Diaspora is a deeply, deeply rich connection to swimming and aquatics and the water and boats and the ocean and all of that,” Martin continued. “A lot of these myths, which are, more bluntly put, lies, are very constructed.”
Martin pointed out a lesson that Ford is known for teaching; when white westerners first encountered Africans, those Africans were regular swimmers, and most white people at that time couldn’t actually swim.
“The breaststroke is an African stroke. All of these things that we take as fact come from a systemic creation,” Martin said. “Without that knowledge, it’s easy to just accept this as the reality, this as something that’s been naturalized over and over and over.”
“So as Evolutionary Aquatics work so hard to correct that narrative — not change that narrative, correct it — we think that our work is a good way to extend that into an experience, because it’s easier to learn something that’s inside of you, inside of your body, than just in your head,” she continued.
Following that experience, Jones and Martin say they hope people will take to heart what they’ve discovered in the larger context of American society.
“I would hope that they take away knowledge, the desire, the yearning to continue or begin swimming,” Jones said.
“We want to make sure that people leaving the show connect with Evolutionary Aquatics,” Martin said. “Go take a lesson. Go paddle in the kayak. Go swim at Double Oaks. We really want this to be something that activates and through all of this swimming, we create a community that’s healthy and thriving and joyful and celebratory.”
SwimCap will run from Aug. 18-20, with shows on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. It will take place at Brooklyn Grace, formerly Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, located at 219 South Brevard St. in the area of Uptown formerly known as Brooklyn.
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