OnyxFest: Black is My Color

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In a bookstore and coffee shop called I Take It BLACK, two “sistahs” meet. The millennial (Paige Elisse) shares her personal frustrations with an older poet (Marlena Johnson), who shares the wisdom and verse of Mari Evans.

“Who’s that?!” the young woman asks. 

For many of us watching “Black is my Color,” by journalist and playwright Celeste Williams, this is sadly a common question. Evans, who resided in Indianapolis until her death in 2017, was a world-renowned poet, author, and activist. Today, a full-body portrait of her looks down on us from a wall on Massachusetts Ave., but she is not as widely and readily known as other people so honored around Indy. This play helps to introduce us to the woman in the mural.

“Who can be born Black and not exult!” The young reader is puzzled at this declaration. To reach understanding, we step back in time to a cluttered living room where Evans (Ellen Price Sayles Lane) grants a rare interview. She seems to both resent and welcome being considered a “troublemaker” – “I look at everything through a Black lens.”

As Evans speaks, “Who I am is who I was at (age) 5,” her young spirit (Amani Muhammad) appears. She and Elisse dance to accompany the poetry. Evans speaks fondly of the lost community around Indiana Avenue, and frankly about her adopted hometown – “The contradictions are more seething here in Indianapolis.”

Directed by TaMara E’lan G. and Manon Voice, this show is a much-needed lesson in local history, especially of the lives and perspective of African Americans, as well as an insight into a brilliant woman who lived among us, dedicating her life to Black – and therefore human – empowerment. Lane as Evans radiates both power and a generous spirit, holding no malice but accepting no compromise. Muhammad and Elisse are an artful chorus of movement, and Johnson happily gives us entry to this important figure’s world.

As this work develops through its performances, hopefully we will see more of “Black is My Color” at future events.

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