By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden
Down in the basement venue of the Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, we are visited by a Griot. In ages past, this storyteller class told the stories and shared the heritage of West African peoples. Neither the cruel Middle Passage nor the slavers’ whips could destroy their spirit, which lives on in people of color today, and channeled by playwright Angela Jackson-Brown into “Voices of Yesteryear: A Showcase of School #26.” This hour of important narratives is directed by Dena Toler, whose experience included bringing to life multicultural stories at the old Phoenix Theatre under Bryan Fonseca.
While you entered the theater at Broad Ripple, in this space you are on 16th Street, formerly Tinker Street. The area Griot (Saundra “Mijiza” Holiday) invites you to hear stories, told first-hand by those who lived them, about John Hope School No. 26 and its mostly African American neighborhood.
For those who don’t know or remember, this K-8 public school was open from 1920 to 2007 at 1301 E. 16th St., now the site of Oaks Academy Middle School. Named after John Hope, an educator, political activist, and the first African-American president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University, it is held in proud memory by its alumni, who went on to high school at Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks.
In “Voices,” we are transported to a different era, not much different from our own but in which we are reminded of the traditions and wisdom it feels we sorely lack in our current world.
We are at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle and a Teacher (Katherine Adamou) shows how the children of the time were taught not that they could succeed but that they WOULD succeed. Discipline, manners, scholarship, and moral integrity were the cornerstones of the classrooms. “Do not shame us,” she commanded, “Or yourselves.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached these principles and every child was expected to know and live them.
Speaking of Dr. King, we hear from a Young Girl (Ari Casey) excited to hear him speak when he comes to Indianapolis in 1958. She not only loves his message, but also has quite a crush on the handsome minister. However, speaking of her feelings could make her mother take the switch to her for being fresh with a man of God.
We also meet one of the many Elders (Ennis Adams) who were leaders in the Neighborhood. They made sure that the children behaved, were respectful to others, went to church, learned their lessons, and parented them as needed. “I’m reminding you that you are a community,” he emphasizes. Everyone looked out for everyone else and while nobody’s lives were by any means easy, they were a bit more stable in a way that would be nice to see return to the world.
Rounding out the cast is Jamaal McCray, remembering as an Alumni and present as a Teenage Boy in the 50s, whose stories echo the change in direction that many youth took in stepping away from this upbringing and finding their own way in this burgeoning new world.
Having grown up in a rural environment where folks likewise looked out for one another, we found these stories brought on a nostalgia for a simpler, more secure time. One where you could safely play throughout your neighborhood knowing that everything would be alright as long as you were home before the streetlights came on. Of course, we didn’t have the additional burden of race. Teacher and Elder understood this extra stress, and made sure John Hope students knew where they came from, that their history didn’t begin on the shores of America.
The children understand. “A lot of bad things have happened to our people,” the Girl muses. “Ain’t no place perfect,” the Boy says, reminding us that mid-century Indy was not all an idyllic location for Black residents.
Toler and the cast do an excellent job of bringing us people who are a little different, yet very much the same as us. “You know me!” Griot declares; the story of a people is told, she says, in every man, woman, boy and girl you see on the street.
Listen to their “Voices” through March 6 at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at www.storefrontindy.com.