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.

IndyFringe: Classical Collaborations

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Dance is an interesting art form. While anyone can see it and enjoy its beauty, not everyone can understand the intent or its meaning. Crossroads Dance Indy takes note of this conundrum by placing explanations of their choreographic meanings in their program to assist in the enjoyment of the various numbers.

Two dances, “The Thing with Feathers” and “Forever is Now,” are based upon poems by Emily Dickenson. They are beautifully performed, showing the hopefulness of the former and random but vital interactive influences of the latter (which is different with each performance).

Highlights also include “Mountain Train Jam,” a country hoedown with tap shoes, and “Perspective,” in which the dancers beautifully interpret the spoken word, written and performed by Hanna Verdin.

So, whether you’re an aficionado or a novice of the art form, come out and see this show, at the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum. Who knows — you, too, may find yourself becoming a dance fan.

IndyFringe: Jordan Allen’s Magic Party

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Magician Jordan Allen loves to throw a party, though the colored stage lights did have him wondering if Aliens were crashing it. But there’s nothing extra-terrestrial here, just good old traditional magic.

Fans of magic will recognize nearly all the tricks, with scarves, books, bags and ropes. Challenged by the “other Jordan” working the Fringe, he even brought back one of the ropes to do a quick escape. Audience members get brought up to join the act, including children – this is an all-ages family show.

From the classic cups-and-balls to a simple napkin, he works his illusions right before your eyes, including doing part of the show at a table by the front-row seats. And despite its cliché nature, he might do a card trick, or two, or three.

For a taste of this fun show, you may see Allen doing pop-up tricks around the Fringe, but be sure to also join his Party, at the Murat Oasis.

IndyFringe: We’ve Come A Long Way, Ladies!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Audrey Johnson has brought to the Fringe a shortened version of her two-hour production highlighting the history of women’s rights and the Suffrage movement, performing on the Indy Eleven stage.

She uses both traditional songs and innovative costuming to help illustrate the various points shown in the story. Being an operatically trained Mezzo Soprano, Johnson bestows an interesting twist to these common folk songs. She also presents several unique and lesser-known songs and stories of this time, from the early 1800s to 1920.

While the show was written and intended to be toured last year on the hundredth anniversary of the ratification on the 19th Amendment (which granted women the vote), with today’s political climate and controversy over voting rights and disenfranchisement, it is still very topical.

Johnson’s “Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song” foundation tours the country bringing history through song and performance. This is a good opportunity to get a taste of one of shows. She has a very easy and engaging stage manner, and even during a momentary pause for a technical issue, took questions from the audience.

IndyFringe: Shopping Network!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Whether it’s the middle of the afternoon and the middle of the night, we can turn on our TV friends with big smiles, big hair, and eager voices, recommending us the most wonderful things to buy for only three low payments of $29.99 (plus shipping and handling).

It’s “Shopping Network!” presented by Betty Rage Productions at the District Theater. Celebrating the network’s 20th Anniversary, in memory of founder Q.V. Coolidge and his wife, their adult children, Ross and MarySueBeth (Kait Burch and Brandon Russell) host a special sale — which must generate a million dollars or the net goes under — with the help of producer Ellen (director Callie Burk-Hartz) and stagehand L. N. (Audrey Stonerock). 

Wouldn’t you love the Gregorian Calendar Birthstone Necklace, or a selection of American Hero Plates with faces with notables including Dale Earnhardt Jr. (just don’t eat off them, OK)? The lady calling in from Bismarck, North Dakota, will take twenty. 

Burch and Russell have excellent chemistry, even when sparks fly between the siblings. And the overall atmosphere is over-the-top fun. Even technical glitches (which hopefully won’t happen again, and Callie might not forgive me bringing them up) worked into the frantic seat-of-pants nature of this production.  

The audience for this show is also the Studio Audience for the Show, responding to cue cards to applaud, or say “WOW!” 

And you’ll want to cheer for their special guest, the hosts’ aunt, Jennifer Coolidge (Kelsey Van Voorst doing a spot-on impression of the comic actress as one of the New-Agey Hollywood celebrities often spotted on shopping shows). The highlight is the Jennifer Coolidge Candle, with which our star says “I can smell colors,” that lucky audience members get to take home.

This could be the last time you see Ross and MarySueBeth on screen (the big one projected at the back of the theater), so have your credit card ready (for Fringe tickets, I mean).

IndyFringe: Oak Island, in Concert

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Joe Barsanti was so inspired by the documentary series, “The Curse of Oak Island,” that he decided to write a show around it. With fellow Marian University graduate Brandi Underwood filling in the book to complement his music and lyrics, the two created a two-hour musical dedicated to telling the story of one family’s deep connection to the island and its legendary treasures.

What they are providing here with American Lives Theatre (at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre) is a mere taste of the full show, which will be produced locally next spring. Performed as a concert without costumes, blocking or a full cast, just the four main characters are represented in this version.

Jeanne Bawling is the put-up mother who is trying to bering her two sons back together after her husband’s death. Joseph Massingale plays Will, the son who shared his father’s obsession with finding the treasure buried on the island. Zachary Hoover is Drake, the other brother who escaped the madness of the Island’s call and made a life for himself elsewhere. John Brennan Hayes portrays Frank, the father of the family who’s curiosity turned to a mania as he cannot break the Isand’s pull to finally be the one to solve the mystery of exactly what lies beneath.

This offering is an excellent peek at what promises to be an engaging show.

IndyFringe: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The title of the show was never said in the 24 tiny plays presented by the University of Indianapolis Theatre at the Murat Oasis. To be more accurate, it’s: “Too Much Time Makes the Audience Get Cookies.”

The series, “neo-futurist plays” by Greg Allen performed by UIndy students Refik Dogruyol, Nick French, Kyle Jeanor, Kielynn Tally and Kelli Thomas, is represented by cards numbered 1-24 at the back of the stage. The audience chooses the order, so the show is different every time.

The topic and form of each vary widely, from funny to absurd to introspective to disturbing to deadly serious. There’s also a bit of audience participation within the action. And remember, Play 23 does not exist.

It’s easy to see how this was one of the hottest tickets the last time it was at the Fringe. Add to this the fact it’s hard to get this many scenes done in 48 minutes (an average of 2 minutes per play). The performance we saw clocked in at 51 minutes — and we did get cookies!

IndyFringe: The Old Man and the Old Moon

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Why see this new folktale, created by PigPen Theatre Co. of New York, and presented complete with on-stage musicians and shadow puppets by Carmel High School students?

As one character puts it, “I like a good story.”

And quite a tale it is. Jack Sullivan, who narrates, acts, sings and plays some guitar, introduces us to the Old Man (Micah Phillips) whose job it is to refill the Moon after light leaks out, and the Old Woman (Madelyn Wood) who had been by his side for years, but now wants to take a walk — which includes stepping on a boat headed westward on the Sea.

Panicked, the Man looks for a ship to follow her, but ends up – by mistaken identity – on one headed to the south, and war. Will he find his wife? Will the crew survive this risky voyage? What actually happened to Lt. Pericles Llewelyn McWallander? We do understand that “dirigible” also means “air balloon,” right? And, most importantly, what will happen when all the light has finally leaked out of the Moon?

“The Old Man and The Old Moon” is an adventure fable full of wonder, whimsy, and music, also featuring Ella Asher, Kyle Barker, Josh Baxter, Theo Curtis, Seth Jacobsen, Kaylyn Johnson, Sarah Warf, and shadow puppetry by Elliot Clancy with Marybeth Okerson. Direction by Maggie Cassidy and Grace Fellabaum, with stage manager Gavin Griffin, sound by Ryan Dafforn, lights by Arthur Mansavage and technical direction by Andrew Okerson.

This charming show is an excellent choice for all ages, with plenty of seating room in the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: Abraham Lincoln, Hoosier Hero

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The stage has just a chair and a 36-star United States flag – and Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I know it’s actor and historical interpreter Danny Russel, but it feels like this is the closest anyone could ever come to seeing America’s 16th President in the flesh.

He puts us at ease immediately with his famous sense of humor – one can tell he grew up in Indiana from his corny jokes – and he feels a little relieved that as much as he loved theater, this venue (at the Murat Oasis) doesn’t have a balcony.

He establishes his Hoosier bona fides, noting that at age 7 he moved from Kentucky to then-wilderness Indiana, and his father placed in the already-tall boy’s hands an axe – which he said served him well. But even more useful to him were books, including his mother’s Bible, his first “library.”

This brilliant first-person history fills in so much of what we little know or long forgot about Mr. Lincoln, including what a prodigy he was, writing all the correspondence for his illiterate father at age 10, self-educating not only from his Step-Mammy Sally’s books (he had less than 300 days of formal education in his life, he said) but later from law books to become an Illinois pioneer lawyer, arguing 5,800 cases.

The jokes and humorous observations are tempered with moments of dark drama, shedding tears not only over various family members who died, but also in rage as he saw the evil of slavery first-hand on a trip to Louisiana. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong!” he declares.

Lincoln notes that he is the only lawyer to ever have the nickname, “Honest,” and elaborates on how he actually earned that sobriquet.

We learn of his courtship of Mary Todd, his many business failures, and his political career, including his famous verbal sparring with Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate race.

Things get a little more serious as he relates his tumultuous Presidency (1861-65) and the horrors of the Civil War, which would claim three percent of the U.S. population, he notes. Lincoln relates his proudest moment, when, with a tired but steady hand, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation – “My soul is in it.”

After one of the most horrific battles of the War, he is asked to speak at the dedication of a cemetery for the fallen. After the era’s greatest orator holds forth for over two hours, Mr. Lincoln steps up on that Gettysburg platform to say just a few words…

Please don’t miss your opportunity to see arguably our greatest President, live and in person.

IndyFringe: Win, Lose, or Die!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

The ComedySportz Indianapolis team is back with another hilarious show for all ages. In this “Comedy Cage Match” of sorts, six performers play various improv games in order to be the last one standing, and win the big prize.

While the roster of players is mostly the same, there are occasional substitutions, and with audience feedback fueling their efforts, the show is always unique.

Contestants enter with “Survivor”-like introductions and each carries an envelope with a particular game inside.

Leading the mayhem is Ed Trout as game master Phineas Pheabody. He oversees the competition and counts the audience votes to determine who will be given immunity from elimination. Eliminations are totally random, as they are determined by a roll of the dice from an audience member.

So take an hour out of your schedule and check out this zany competition, held in the District Theater. Regardless of who is named champion, the viewers are the true winners.