Play based on Hank Williams’ final ‘tour’

By John Lyle Belden

Playwright and retired journalist Garret Matthews incorporates aspects of people he has known and interviewed into his plays. In his latest, “Opening Hank,” he includes the story of someone more familiar to most of us.

On New Years Day 1953, country music legend Hank Williams Sr. rode his Cadillac into eternity. In a body weakened by a hard life that included alcohol and painkillers (mainly to deal with chronic back pain), his heart gave out on the way to a Jan. 1 concert in Ohio, discovered dead in the backseat in Oak Hill, West Virginia. This necessitated another ride, in a hearse from there back home to Montgomery, Alabama.

On that route, in Mathews’ play, is the town of Bluefield, where you can get gas, car repairs, and “a free Coky-Cola with a fill-up” at the West Main Esso. Willie T. McClanahan (Taylor Cox), a savant with car engines but largely seen as a kind but simple soul otherwise, barely notices the news on WHIS radio as he challenges himself at checkers, but his second-shift manager Steve Tatum (Zachariah Stonerock) has heard and is not taking it well. Williams’ music and songs inspired him to take up writing for the first time since his horrific experiences in World War II a decade earlier.

A nicely dressed gentleman, Hiram Ledbetter (David Mosedale, who also directs) enters what he declares to be the “gasoline emporium” not seeking fuel but rest, and offering a proposition. He pilots Williams’ transport, and while he finds a meal and a nap elsewhere in town, he says, he would leave the coffin at the service station for safekeeping and in exchange for a fee, Steve could then charge the townspeople to get their last look at the hillbilly music superstar.

Having a dread fear of the trappings of death, Willie is sent away, leaving Steve, who takes up the undertaker’s offer, but for his own reasons.

While fictional, this story contains characters, events and anecdotes based on actual stories Mathews reported, and we get an excellent refresher on Hank Williams’ life, struggles and music, with several songs featured before and during the play. There is much heart and humor, with moments of dire drama. We get a feel for the brotherly relationship between Willie and Steve long before we learn their connection, as well as how they are essential to each other’s wellbeing. Cox and Stonerock have a natural chemistry, borne of talent as well as working together before. Mosedale cuts an interesting character himself, with hints of the Devil-in-a-suit archetype but with Southern charm and a grudging bit of good conscience. Ol’ Hank is a bit stiff in that box, but does sound good on the old radio.

In a post-show talk, Mathews and the cast give hearty thanks to stage manager Aaron Henze for his contributions, so we will as well.

Remaining performances are today and tomorrow (Nov. 19-20) as I post this, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at thecat.biz.

‘Anne’ charms Bloomington stage

By John Lyle Belden

Life can be frustrating when you’ve got a big wild imagination and you are stuck in an orphanage or foster home doing chores and taking care of others. But suddenly, your dreams start to come true!

This is how we meet “Anne of Green Gables,” in a production of Constellation Stage & Screen (formerly Cardinal Stage) at Waldron Auditorium in Bloomington. The play by Catherine Bush adapts and condenses the celebrated Lucy Maud Montgomery novel to a quick-paced movie-length act perfect for the various children and tweens in the audience, just a little younger than the red-haired girl – played by IU student Alexa Norbeck – arriving at the village of Avonlea in beautiful Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Anne (don’t forget the “e”) is to live at Green Gables farm with late-middle-age siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (Greg Simons and Maria Walker). They had planned on adopting a boy, but before the error can be corrected, Anne charms her way into their lives. The cast also includes Mia Siffin as dramatic busybody Rachel Lynde and Diana, Anne’s “bosom friend;” David Hosei as Gilbert, Anne’s scholastic rival and enemy for mocking her hair; and Kenny Hertling in other roles, including teacher Mr. Phillips.

Norbeck presents Anne as a wild-eyed romantic, a bit melodramatic and prone to renaming things when what they were called seems too plain, but also relatable as she takes on life lessons without losing an ounce of her spirit. Siffin is a study of contrasts, wildly over-the-top to the delight of younger audience members as Rachel, yet sweet and best-friendly as Diana. Hosei presents Gilbert as a regular boy – not mean in his teasing and slowly finding he likes this smart and special girl, if she would only forgive him. Simons portrays a respectful father-figure, discovering the closest he would ever get to a daughter. Walker has an arc of growth in Marilla, as she learns that strict upbringing might not be best for the fire-haired force of nature she has come to love.

Direction is by Mallory Metoxen. The clever stage design by Erin Gautille is also noteworthy, made up of wooden boxes decorated like children’s toy blocks with furniture and other features painted on the sides.

Like the book, this play is fine for all ages, wonderful for children. Performances run through Nov. 27; get info and tickets at seeconstellation.org.

Pain of decades-old loss lingers in McNally play

By John Lyle Belden

We are often reminded to “Never Forget” a devastating event or era, but those who went through it often can’t stop remembering. Every day, any little thing can bring up a memory of someone who was lost.

“Mothers and Sons” by Terrance McNally, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield, has a cast of four actors, but there are five characters. Not present but very much felt is Andre, who died 20 years earlier during the AIDS epidemic. We are in the New York apartment, with a view of Central Park as lights come on during the longest night of the year, of Cal (Austin Uebelhor), who had been Andre’s partner and caregiver in his final days. To his mild surprise, he is visited by Andre’s mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Ruddell). Recently widowed, she arrived from Dallas (where Andre grew up) with plans to fly to Europe. Cal shares his home with husband Will (Nicholas Heskett) and their young son, Bud (Tyler Acquaviva).

We come to learn a lot about Cal, Will, Katherine, and Andre. Will chafes at the thought of competing with a ghost. Katherine still harbors resentments and denial – “Andre wasn’t gay when he went to New York.” Cal tries to keep the pain of the past in perspective even as it rises up to overwhelm him again.

“Who’s Andre?” Little Bud is chock full of questions, lots of questions.

This heartfelt play is a comedy, with lots of chuckles throughout, but there is pain that must be dealt with. Grief has no time limit or expiration; before the evening is done, so that Bud and his family can trim the Christmas tree, each adult will have their say.

Ruddell makes Katherine hard to love, but easy to understand. Heskett presents as a superficial millennial, but he emerges Will’s own sense of maturity. Acquaviva delivers the right level of charm. Uebelhor is superb as the man who has had to be a rock for so long, the cracks are undeniable.

Jim LaMonte directs, happy to present this play that he hopes “will broaden [people’s] definition of family.” For those of us who remember the 1980s and ‘90s, this show is also a loving tribute to the struggles so many endured – those who became names on a quilt, and those left behind to stitch them on.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Southbank’s ‘Shocks’: Trigger warning

“…To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d…”
 – William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 1

By John Lyle Belden

Angela takes shelter in the basement. We, the audience, find that the fourth wall is behind us; we are trapped with her. The approaching tornado roars. Threatening an “overwhelm,” a noun coined by her fellow insurance specialists, this event is not entirely fictional or even hypothetical: It is statistical. This will happen to Angela, it may – one day – even come to us.

This is “Natural Shocks” by Lauren Gunderson, presented by Southbank Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre. Directed by New York-trained local actor Eric Bryant, Carrie Ann Schlatter delivers a fascinating performance, drawing us into her world of risks that can be quantified, but are more than cold numbers when calamity happens to you. She feels a kinship with Hamlet (inspiring the play’s title, see above), noting the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy is not so much about suicide but just mulling over the options of the cost/benefit of staying alive, vs. not.

Angela tells us of the life that led her up to this moment, of choices made, love lost and found, and a stand she needed to take. Spoiler alert: She lies when she says her husband is a good man. Also, there is a gun. It will be used.

This intense nonstop hour-plus drama is engaging and important viewing, though possibly triggering for those who can relate to this woman’s plight. Her ordeal becomes, for a moment, ours to bear. Tornadoes are unpredictable and wildly destructive – the same with what happens here.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at 2508 W. Michigan Ave., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at SouthBankTheatre.org.

Indy Bard Fest’s Band of Sisters

By John Lyle Belden

During World War II, Fort Benjamin Harrison had America’s largest Reception Center for soldiers joining the Allied effort. Meanwhile, the civilians in Lawrence, Ind., adapted to life in wartime. Things were going to be different, but it helps to have something familiar.

This sets the scene for Indy Bard Fest’s production of “Into the Breeches!” by George Brant, at, appropriately, Theater at the Fort through Sunday. 

The Shakespeare-focused Oberon Theater has gone dark as the male actors and crew have gone off to fight, but Maggie Dalton (Madeline Dulabaum) honors her husband’s wish to keep the stage alive by producing the Henriad (Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays) with a small cast of women – a thing no one would even imagine trying before 1942. But these are highly unusual times, and Maggie has convinced the Oberon’s legendary Celeste Fielding (Susan Hill) to take a lead role. Still, board chairman Ellsworth Snow (Kelly Keller) isn’t on board until his wife, Winnifred (Tracy Herring), expresses interest in taking a part. 

With the help of stage manager Stuart (Kaya Dorsch) and costumer Ida (Anja Willis), Maggie auditions and casts servicemen’s wives June (Michelle Wafford), who is heavily involved in homefront resource drives, and Grace (Dani Gibbs), who sees this as a way not to dwell on the dangers her husband must be facing.

“We happy few”? Not entirely. For diva Celeste, it’s Prince Hal or nothing; and the company risks it all by the necessity of casting Ida, who is Black, and Stuart coming out of the closet to take the female roles. Mr. Snow is again concerned, to say the least.

This is a wonderful production, with bright optimism tempered by the shadows of war, an excellent snapshot of life on the Homefront, with its own distinct stresses. Performances are heroic, starting with Dulabaum’s portrayal of how stage director is such a varied rank – from the leadership of a field officer to the cunning of that enlisted hand who always comes up with just what the company needs. 

Hill makes Celeste both adorable and unbearable, impossible and essential – her method for helping fellow actors “man up” is a comic high point. Wafford is a “Do your part!” poster at full volume, but also unwavering in her love of the stage. Gibbs is a stellar talent playing one realizing her own potential, and the strength necessary to endure a lack of news from the front. 

Willis gives insight on facing inequality at home in a land fighting for freedom overseas. Dorsch gives us Stuart’s personal dedication and bravery in what was a dangerous time on all fronts. Herring is a delight, especially as Winnifred discovers her inner Falstaff. As for Keller as the frustrated husband, how he has Ellsworth come around is too adorable to spoil here. 

A big salute to director Max Andrew McCreary for putting this together, including stage design, with the help of Natalie Fischer and stage manager Case Jacobus.

For information on this and future Bard Fest productions, visit indybardfest.com.

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.

OnyxFest: Houseless, not Homeless

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

There are hundreds of homeless people around the city, and in “Houseless, Not Homeless,” by Michael Florence, there are about as many stories of how each man, woman and child ended up that way. 

Matt (Dominique Hawkins) has a home and a job, but during his lunch hour at an inner-city park, he can’t help but notice those who don’t. He wonders why, and what he can do to help. So he approaches individuals who pique his interest (or maybe just bumps into) and in exchange for gift cards to a local restaurant, he gets their stories.

Matt meets Lonnie (George Gooding), a former Union plumber; Rita (Ronnie Watts), a young mother of two; Marine SSG Jackson (Quinton Hayden), an Afghanistan veteran with “emotional issues;” Pauline (Jetta Vaughn), a retired social worker who, ironically, used to work at a shelter; and John (Zach Dzuba), a former lawyer with a bipolar disorder.

Hawkins presents Matt as wide-eyed curious, and a bit naive, while the other actors play it understandably wary and suspicious before opening up to give us watching the answers we need to hear. Eric Washington directs.

Florence based this play on the real-life interviews by documentarian Mark Horvath featured on the YouTube channel “Invisible People,” now a 501(c)3 organization. We see in these portrayals how easily one can slip into losing it all, and how difficult it is to recover, even with limited resources. 

“You never know how many people are sleeping in their vehicles,” the Marine says, “until you sleep in yours.”

OnyxFest: Police State

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 Wendy Carson

The saying, “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth will lead to a world of the blind and toothless,” kept running through my head while watching “Police State,” written and directed by Rain Wilson. This play asks one of the most difficult questions of our current climate: What will it take to get people, especially police, to stop threatening and killing Black men out of fear of their skin color?

There is no easy answer. The scenario Wilson presents shows direct revenge is certainly not the solution, but what is?

The plot revolves around the death of a young man, *Amadi, shot in the back several times by a police officer while trying to walk home. B.J. (Atiyya Radford) tries to get his friend Mo (Deont’a Stark) to attend a justice rally he is organizing. Mo says the protest won’t solve anything and will probably lead to more violence at the hands of the police.

The victim’s father Abu (D’Anthony Massey) and mother Gloria (Shakisha Michelle) argue about how they should proceed in order to recompence their loss. Gloria knows that nothing will bring her son back, so in her eyes justice will never be gained. Abu feels that killing the officer responsible will show everyone that changes to the system need to be made, even declaring it a form of community “self defense.” His white brother-in-law Mark (Bryan Gallet) tries to be supportive but is no help at all, saying all the wrong (yet familiar sounding) things.

 I don’t want to spoil the ending but here’s what I can say: Much heated and important discussion occurs; another man dies; and no solution presents itself. 

Wilson’s story is tough to watch, as it evaluates much of the current ideology regarding this situation and clearly shows that there are no easy answers. However, it does offer a jumping off point in which to start a dialogue to try to find some beginning steps towards a solution.

*”Amadi” (primarily meaning “free man”) is fictional, but reminiscent of numerous victims of police violence. A quick web search by this name brought up Amadou Diallo, shot more than 40 times by New York police in 1999 when the unarmed man reached for his wallet. Also fresh in local memory is the killing by police of Dreasjon Reed in Indianapolis in 2020. Black lives matter.

OnyxFest: Majesties

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 Wendy Carson

Women are creatures of spectacular power and ability. They can raise up or tear down those around them. Yet so many get caught up in the fallacy that their own worth is tangled up within their relationships with men. This was the message that I took away from “Majesties,” Charla Booth’s tale of three generations of women struggling with their past.

Leslie Moliere (Megan Simonton) is an aging singer, no longer booking performance dates as she’s considered by club owners to be past her prime. She also deals with the realization that she is alone because she has always been in love with one man and although they were almost married, he has done his best to torture her while knowing her feelings for him.

Andre (Daniel Martin) is not only the object of Leslie’s heart but also the father of Andrea (Shandrea Funnye), the product of a past fling who left them, whom he claims is only his niece, thus creating sorrow in her heart as well.

Gloria Jean (Katherine Adamou), a past schoolmate of Leslie and Andre, is dealing with her own lack of a man in her life, especially the negligent father of her own daughter.

Through careful calculation by a wise Wellness Center owner (Jamillah Gonzalez) and Gloria’s Mother (Brittany Taylor) these three women are brought together for a spa day in order to resolve their issues with each other as well as their own internal conflicts.

Simonton ably takes Leslie from haughty but sadly regretful of the choices that have led her to this end, while Adamou embodies the conflict of her constant love for her ex and well as the realization that this is a major part of why she can’t find someone new.

Martin, as adept at drama as his frequent comic turns, keeps his character aloof and slimy as Andre mentally abuses every woman in his path.

Taylor does a great job of managing to keep her character’s machinations subtle to make her presence almost a surprise when she shows up at the end, and Gonzalez perfectly embodies her shaman role.

Funnye amazes us by bringing forth the most heart-wrenching story of all, while showing the bravery and power of her character to overcome it all and persist in finding happiness. She also directs, superbly bringing these actors together to give us a show that brings you to tears, enrages you, and inspires you – without being overbearing or preachy.

OnyxFest: Your Love Will Be Judged

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 Wendy Carson

In “Your Love Will Be Judged,” director and playwright Gabrielle Patterson takes us all to an alternate timeline where divorces are decided by a jury trial. We become privy to the deliberation of six jurors who each have their own strong ideas as to what choice will best satisfy the needs of an offstage couple.

Alicia Sims as Juror 2 feels that the whole thing is cut and dried, but aggressively argues with everyone regarding their choices and reasoning, sometimes nearly coming to blows – she is a sheer delight to watch every second. Haleigh Rigger brings a lot of charm as well as tone-deaf condescension to Juror 1’s “perfect housewife” character. Jacob Pettyjohn makes the “hit it and quit it” attitude of Juror 3 so slimy, you want to mop the floor after he passes. Rodney Smith as Juror 4 spectacularly brings out his character’s “old-school/back in my day” bluster. D’yshe Mansfield is masterfully mellow, filling Juror 5 with the distracted wisdom that only herbal enhancement can provide. Attempting to oversee and contain the varied personalities is Michael Martin Drain as the Foreman, showing all the resolve and exasperation that the position entails.

While, like Sims’ juror, you may feel that the verdict is obvious, the twists and turns of each player, as well as some prejudicial attitudes, will keep you guessing as to the outcome. This show is not only very funny, but also offers material for personal discussions of many of its topics for a good while afterwards.