Being in ‘Error’ feels just right

By John Lyle Belden

It’s fascinating to see Clerical Error Productions expand its offerings beyond an annual parody of a popular offbeat British sitcom. Case in point: company Creative Consultant and Vaudeville Coordinator James Benn just brought to the District Theatre cabaret stage, “In the Life: Songs of Gay Harlem.”

Accompanied by longtime local pianist Carl Hines, Benn introduces himself as Dr. Tyrell Leviticus Worthington, our instructor in American History – to be more precise, American Black LGBTQ History.

Moments later he is settled on his seat by the piano, enlightening us about “The Life” (code for LGBTQ culture at the time) in 1920s and ‘30s Harlem neighborhoods of New York. As we quickly discover, many of the jazz, blues and early pop icons are also Gay Icons, some surprisingly out and proud. The names include Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ethel Waters, and the legendary Ma Rainey. With his warm earnest delivery, and the perfect beat popping out of his fingers, Benn puts the “easy” in speakeasy, entertaining in a way so everyone in the packed room feels his personal touch.

Also, you come away knowing a bit more than you did going in. An evening with these classics could have you itching to find the records yourself – provided you’ve got something that plays 78s.

Keep an eye and ear out for his next show – follow “James Solomon Benn” on Facebook and LinkedIn – and check out ClericalErrorProductions.com for upcoming productions, including the Beckett play “Happy Days” with CEP founder Kate Duffy, Feb. 23-26 at the District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

IRT: A ‘West’ we don’t often see

By John Lyle Belden

Just northwest of the center of the state of Kansas is a little town called Nicodemus.

Today it is a National Historic Site, and for good reason. This is living proof that it wasn’t just White families who settled the American West. Many Blacks sought true freedom under the Homestead Act, with, in this case, the help of the Nicodemus Town Company. In “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, we see an imagined family who held their own land there.

Circumstances including escaping racially-motivated riots in Memphis brought three sisters – Sophie (Lakesha Lorene), Fannie (L’Oreal Lampley), and Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane) – to claim their own stake. On neighboring acres, elderly Miss Leah (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) kept the farm after her husband passed.

Sophie, gun on her hip to fend off pests in both animal and human form, prepares for winter and to pass a resolution in town to fend off (White) land speculators.  She is persuading Miss Leah to stay on at their homestead, while Fannie is about to be swept off her feet by neighbor Will Parish (Enoch King) if he can sum up the gumption to court her properly. Minnie has recently arrived with her husband Frank Charles (Allen Tedder), whose pale skin masks his slave upbringing. The couple had been living in London, England, where social acceptance came easier, but they hardly saw another with African skin. Frank, eager to get back there, awaits word on a possible inheritance from his father’s estate in New Orleans. Somehow, Minnie also arrived with a bruise around her eye.

Cleage’s compelling drama combines timeless themes of family, dealing with the effects of violence and slavery, and the power of sisterhood in even the most challenging environment. The women’s  performances embody many forms of tested strength, which work together to do what must be done. King plays Will as a rock-solid support without being controlling – in contrast to Tedder’s turn as despicable Frank.

Stories and situations of family drama played out often in these times and places; there’s more to the West than the OK Corral, with a lot more diversity among those involved than our histories and media suggest.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this production includes a deceptively simple-looking turntable set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that suggests a cozy cabin without the obstruction of outer walls, as well as an excellent hand-painted background by Claire Dana, also masterful in its simplicity.

Performances run through Feb. 4 on the IRT Mainstage at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at irtlive.com.

Storefront: Listen to the ‘Voices’

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.