OnyxFest 2021

This last very busy weekend, aside from various production openings, was opening weekend of the two-week OnyxFest: A Celebration of African American Voices, presented by IndyFringe with performances at the IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis. We (John and Wendy) were unable to make the shows, but a friend of the site, a member of Indiana Writers Center, gifted us the following review. Opinions are the author’s. Get festival information and tickets at indyfringe.org/onyxfest-2021.

By Celeste Williams

That Day In February,” Janice Morris Neal’s OnyxFest play, directed by Dena Toler, tugs at all of the strings.

One of five productions in “Indy’s first and only theatre festival dedicated to the stories of Black playwrights,” Neal’s play returns 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, at IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd.

The three siblings, portrayed by Ennis Adams, Jr., Katherine Adamou, and Lakshmi Symone Rae, perform an intricate, emotion-laden word-dance on stage, as they navigate relationships laced with trauma of their mother’s love, but grounded in love.

Neal wrote the play with true events at its core. Even if audiences did not know the specific story behind the production, they would recognize parts of themselves, through the nuanced performances led by Adams and enhanced by Adamou and Rae.

The actors’ interplay brings the background story to life. The presence of the liquor bottle on a table subtly hints at the older brother’s internal fight — to separate himself from his father’s act, even as he fears he has inherited some his ways.

The sisters’ presence brings the brother’s insecurities to light. The more insecure he becomes, the more pours and sips. The middle sister’s anxiety is illustrated expertly by Adamou, whose leg jiggles nervously throughout. Rae, as the younger sister, is the picture of young rebellion.

The fact that it is the younger, rebellious sister, who could not have remembered the events at the heart of the story, is the one to bring the narrative to a head, is a brilliant turn. The father is an invisible presence throughout.

There is a last line (no spoilers) that leaves a viewer satisfied and wanting even more.

In interviews, Neal has said that she wanted to convey “the perspective of adult children who did not grow up with their parents.” The play also touches strongly on issues of domestic violence and the resulting traumas.

“They all grapple with different issues and how to reconcile them,” Neal said. “Even things that happen to us as children can affect us as adults.”

It is a good thing that the ending leaves one imagining what comes next. And, “That Day in February” rightfully leaves appreciative audiences wondering what playwright Neal has in store for us next.

We’ll be eagerly waiting for that day.

Thanks again to Williams, and IWC board member Mary Karty, for the assist. The other festival shows are (descriptions provided by OnyxFest):

1200 Miles From Jerome” by Crystal Rhodes, directed by Deborah Asante, 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14

In the 1940’s, during World War II, a mother, her two daughters, a young school teacher and a 14-year-old Japanese-American fugitive from an internment camp are forced to leave the town of Jerome, Arkansas, and flee over 1,200 miles to New York City. The journey is filled with danger, a daunting experience in which “driving while black” could mean the difference between life and death.

Fly Blackbird Fly/Voices We Can’t Unhear” written and directed by Latrice Young (Distinctly Unique), 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, and 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A choreopoem recounting traumatic experiences of several Black women. Each woman is at her breaking point and desperately wants to escape the cages they’re in, but this can only happen if they’re willing to relax, relate, and release.

Ranson Place” by Jameel Amir Martin, directed by Shandrea Funnye, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15

Two unlikely companions holding on to a precious thing, reluctant to leave a special place, must contend with forces that would spur their belated departure.

This Bitter Cup” written and directed by Charla Booth, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A Black family in the rural south in the 1950’s struggle to find balance in their lives. A son who wants an education to rise above the limitations of the Old South, and a daughter whose dreams are thwarted by being Black and a woman and loved by the wrong man, in a complicated entanglement that leaves us wondering if this family can find peace.

Bard Fest cast brave Albee classic

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by saying the old adage is true: Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This is the precise hour in which our tale begins. George (Tony Armstrong) and Martha (Nan Macy) have arrived home from one of her father’s numerous parties just in time to continue the “festivities” by initiating the new professor into the way of life at their provincial college. Since Martha’s father is the President (and ersatz owner) of this establishment, Nick (Matthew Walls) and his wife Honey (Afton Shepard) feel compelled to attend.

What begins as two couples sharing cocktails quickly escalates into a verbal brawl in which no one is safe. At first, Nick and Honey gape in shock as the barbs fly back and forth. but as time passes and alcohol is consumed, their own skeletons explode out of the closet for all to see.

Edward Albee’s classic play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows the author’s mastery of language and its power. Martha’s tongue is a lethal weapon, which no man, save perhaps George, can survive. However, George can hold his own in this melee.

Watching Martha and George go at each other is akin to seeing different beasts battle for dominance, the saddest thing is that they honestly do love each other, in their own way. Macy is a black belt at this sort of verbal karate, complete with Martha’s sharp tools of wit and psychological warfare. Armstrong presents George as the weathered stone taking on wave after wave of abuse, but with the eerie calm of one who has little left to lose, and one more devastating ace to play.

Walls brings his own cockiness, in which Nick manages for two of the drama’s three acts to feel that he will come out of this skirmish unscathed, and perhaps ready to exploit what he’s heard. But too late he finds he’s way too Kansas for these Ivy League-level head games. Shepard manages a lot with her character, an easy foil for Albee’s humor who, with the help of lots of brandy, devolves from a waif lost in the playground to a girl lost in the woods.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor film, note this production, directed by Matthew Socey, is a wild ride, an emotional roller coaster with no brakes, so engaging you may not notice it runs three hours. No story told or alluded to is without importance (except one bit in the first scene, more on that later) and only at the end do we get a full view of the field of play. However, while the show is very intense, it can be amusing to notice how often various couples in the audience knowingly look at each other after some of the exchanges.

Oh, and to save you a minute or two of Googling during the first intermission, the answer to Martha’s question is, “Beyond the Forest.”

Presented by Indy Bard Fest as part of its Prestige Project of great stage plays not written by Mr. Shakespeare, performances continue Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17, at The Cat theatre 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (note there are some construction street closures, but it’s possible to reach the building). Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Scars and healing in ‘Alabaster’

By John Lyle Belden

“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body. 

This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.

Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.

This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).

There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.

It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart? 

Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.

To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga). 

Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.

IRT: Join the ‘Club’

By Wendy Carson

Book clubs are meant to be a gathering place where friends, both new and old, can commune together over literature – but are they, really? Many devolve into socially-acceptable drinking parties in which wine and gossip are far more important than some silly book.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) is determined to have her Book Club – begun prior to Oprah’s, she notes – to be the gold standard to which all others should be measured. In fact, her group has been selected by a notable Dutch documentary director to be the subject of his newest work, captured by an all-seeing-eye camera installed in their living room.

This is “The Book Club Play,” by Karen Zacarias, directed by Benjamin Hanna and playing on the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, its first production before live audiences in over a year.

Ana’s group is comprised of her best friend, club co-creator Will (Will Mobley); faithful gal-pal Jen (Emily Berman); oh-so-perfect husband Rob (Sean Davis); and new (black) co-worker Lily (Cassia Thompson).

Will and Ana are literary elitists who insist that even though book choices rotate, they MUST be considered classic literature. Jen is doing her best to just get each book read (and find her keys), while Rob is only here because it’s at his house and he likes the snacks.

Lily appears to be the only member who is actually participating and gaining something from the group. Therefore, it’s no surprise that she disrupts the dynamic by not only choosing a recently popular novel as her selection, but also by inviting her neighbor Alex (Adam Poss) to the group.

Each of our actors also play short cameos of other people interviewed in the documetary.

Davis is spectacular as the jock husband who gains amazing insight into his being when he actually reads one of the books they choose. Berman plays Jen’s socially awkward bestie perfectly, embodying the comic timing of the role. Mobley does an excellent job of keeping the neurosis of his character in check with the desperate need for validation to bring out the empathy within. San Miguel brings Ana to life as controlling and haughty, while keeping her vulnerable. Thompson’s subtle turn at Lily keeps her part of the action without overtly betraying her role as instigator of the drama that unfolds. Poss is brilliant as the agent provocateur, questioning the club’s motives, choices, and inherent prejudices (both literary and social).

Aside from brilliant comedy, with moments of slapstick, this production is impressive for the simple yet elegant living room set coming alive between scenes with the words of various books projected on the walls, the work of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.

While a quote from the show describes it as “Lord of the Flies with Wine and Dip,” I think it’s better described as “A coed version of The Talk that you’d actually want to watch.” Oh, and please don’t exit the theater quickly as there is one final joke at the end of the credits.

Performances run through Oct. 31 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

Catch the spirit of Civic’s ‘Color Purple’

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is helping bring live audiences back in a big way with the Tony-winning musical “The Color Purple.”

For those unfamiliar with the acclaimed Alice Walker novel, or the Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film (starring Whoopi Goldberg), this complex and dark coming-of-age story is difficult to justly describe. From a book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – directed for the Civic by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Teneh B.C. Karimu – “The Color Purple” is challenging and disturbing, yet uplifting and life-affirming. This is one of those musicals where it’s best to just go and see for yourself the pain and triumph, and have the soulful voices wash over you. Whether or not God is in this place, or even with our heroine Celie, his Spirit has no doubt taken notice.

A lot happens in the story, so the musical keeps the characters, their motivations and actions mostly sung-through, up front with some handy chairs the only necessary props. Early 20th-century rural Georgia is more evoked than shown. The chorus starts out singing to the Lord, while Celie (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow) essentially asks if the Creator has forsaken her. Life with her abusive father (Bradley Alan Lowe) is so bad, that marriage to whip-toting Mister (Troy T. Thomas) is marginally better.

Though descended from slaves, Mister considers every person on his land his property, even his children. He frequently reminds Celie she is “ugly” and berates young son Harpo (Brenton Anderson) for being kind-hearted. At least Celie’s sister Nettie (Kendra Randle) manages to escape, promising to write to her from wherever she goes – but Mister intercepts the letters, letting Celie think she is alone in the world.

A strong-woman example comes into Celie’s life in Harpo’s bride Sofia (Rachel Bibbs), who will herself find the limits of standing up to authority in that era. We also meet the magnetic Shug Avery (Ashlee Baskin), the singer who is Mister’s one weakness, and who shakes things up even more than expected by befriending Celie. The large cast also features Miata McMichael as sweet Squeak, and Rayanna Bibbs, Tiffany Gilliam and Alexandria Warfield as the Church Ladies – this culture’s equivilant of a Greek Chorus.

Performances are solid, including Ludlow’s perseverance, Baskin’s complexity, Anderson’s charm, Rachel Bibbs’s full-throated attitude, and Thomas’s complete character arc.

Though bad times come frequently, there are genuine moments of joy and laughter, music in the juke-joint, colorful fabrics, and without spoiling, I’ll note that a measure of justice is meted out.

See – and feel – “The Color Purple” through Oct. 23 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.