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 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.