IRT presents powerful ‘Reclamation’

By John Lyle Belden

Names have power.

This is one of the oldest truths of both the supernatural/spiritual world and human society in general. A name is more than just a convenient personal label. You carry expectations and the weight of history in the words that signify your identity.

Thomas Jefferson was and is a very powerful name. It holds immense significance not only to the nation he helped create and lead, but also to the people whom he was related to, owned as property – and both.

The author of the Declaration of Independence and father of the University of Virginia is long gone when two men come to visit the grounds of Monticello, formerly the Jefferson plantation. While the new play, “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” by Charles Smith, in its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is a speculative recreation of the actions and conversations of James Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette Jefferson in 1866, these were both real men. They were born into slavery on that plot of land, and later, one freed by the former President’s will and the other by self-purchase, would come to reside near each other in Ohio. They gave first-hand recollections of their lives to a newspaper in 1873.

Another important name to remember is Sally Hemings, slave and “concubine” to Thomas Jefferson and mother of several children by him, including Madison.

In Smith’s play, Madison (Brian Anthony Wilson) and Israel (David Alan Anderson) have returned to Monticello, a run-down place with an absent caretaker – the only resident being the blind mule we hear braying offstage. Both have come looking for something. Israel hopes to find the lost grave of Sally Hemings, to thank her spirit for the kindness she gave him as a house-servant in his youth. He also hopes for news of his brother,* auctioned away from him, as were other family members, when Jefferson died deep in debt. Madison wants, at long last, something that is due to him. He thinks it must be inside that neglected mansion where he grew up, son of the master but still a slave.

A familiar face to IRT patrons, Anderson gives another wonderful performance, believably fitting into the skin and personality of Israel. He lends earnestness to his story of how he decided to assume the power of the name of the man who considered him property, and easily wears the pain of longing for a glimpse of his lost family – a brother, a child, any of them.

Wilson makes a welcome return to Indy as a man just as stubborn – and in his own way, blind – as the old mule. He portrays the firm confidence of a man on a mission, circumstance be damned. But will taking the mansion’s old wooden front doors, which he helped build but never had the privilege of entering the house through, be enough “reclamation” to soothe his soul?

Being light-skinned, Wilson reflects the fact that both Madison’s father and mother Sally’s father were white (odd irony for a society that supposedly abhorred miscegenation). In fact, other Hemings children opted to pass into White society. In their conversation, Madison and Israel refer to this as “passing over” – a euphemism we usually associate with death.   

Through bouts of November rain and cold, and flashes of anger and humor, we get these men’s story, their frustrations, and their desire to see something better from a country that has wronged them so deeply. The recent Civil War affirmed their freedom but granted little else. We also discover the power of other names, of the many people who built the estate and died on these lands, power that recharges with every utterance of their names out loud. In the end, we find these two men were never alone.

Veteran director Ron OJ Parson brings together a powerful performance. Scenic Designer Shaun Motley’s realistic rustic set is perfectly balanced by Projections Designer Mike Tutaj’s images of the iconic Monticello mansion that flow from impressionistic to photo-real as befitting the drama before them.

Performances of this powerful work run through April 16 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.


*CORRECTION: Original post gave incorrect relation to the character

IRT’s ‘Carol’ an all-new old tradition

By John Lyle Belden

It’s that time of year again, but what the figgy pudding is going on at the Indiana Repertory Theatre?

IRT, under the eye of Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director Janet Allen, presents Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Haas and directed by IRT Playwright in Residence James Still – a return to the company’s annual holiday tradition. But some things are different.

In a quest to keep the old ghost story fresh, the narrative emphasizes some different moments in the original text. Adapting to potential pandemic restrictions, the cast of actors was cut in half. Also, a past Scrooge and Bob Cratchit have switched places. The endlessly versatile and entertaining Rob Johansen now plays the old miser, while Ryan Artzberger, in roles that include the poor clerk, leads the ensemble of Will Mobley, Nina Jayashankar, David Alan Anderson, Maria Argentina Souza, Jennifer Johansen, and Quinton Gildon, who not only plays Tiny Tim, but every young boy the script calls for. The multi-ethnic casting works (London has long had many colours of citizenry) and reminds us this is a story for and appreciated by the whole world.

This production keeps the practice of the cast reciting the narrative as they act it, like we’re all being read a Christmas story, with props and hints of scenery flowing in and out of an endless snowbank – with new stylistic tweaks. Kudos to costume designer Linda Pisano for the look of the Ghosts, especially the Jack Frost-inspired outfit on Souza as Christmas Past.

The story is comfortingly familiar, from spooky moments to happy ending, and whether you have seen an IRT “Carol” before or are new (I did meet a couple of first-timers!), you are in for a holiday treat. Performances run through December 26 (Boxing Day in the land of Dickens) at 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.

Observe a witness to history at the IRT

By John Lyle Belden

An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.

Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”

David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.

The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Satisfy your ‘Curious’ity at IRT

By Wendy Carson

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius but he finds all social and physical interactions to be terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father, who told Christopher that his mother died of a heart attack two years ago.

His great love of animals causes him to go out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it murdered. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the policeman tries to calm him down, the touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but he is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering that others think the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, Christopher decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do so himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery.

While he does eventually find out the murderer’s identity, the journey to that information has him discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities, challenging his autistic limitations.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” opening the 2017-18 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is based on Mark Haddon’s critically-acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name. It won the 2015 Tony for Best Play. However, due to the novel being written in first-person and the production of it needing to have the various characters fleshed out and enacted, many technical alterations were made to bring the tale to the stage.

Shiobhan (played by Elizabeth Ledo), one of Christopher’s teachers, reads much of his inner dialogue from a notebook. He has written the story there in hopes of turning it into a book once it has concluded.

Much of the cast morphs from one character to another while also voicing the self-doubts and thoughts of Christopher. The medium of stage allows for non-linear and abstract elements required to tell the story, and even briefly goes “meta” with the cast discussing the play as themselves with Christopher.

This production includes IRT’s landmark casting of Mickey Rowe as Christopher, making him the first American actor with autism in the role. Familiar faces Robert Neal and Constance Macy portray his father and mother.

The entire cast, which also includes David Alan Anderson, Margaret Daly, Mehry Eslaminia, Eric Parks, Gail Rastorfer and Landon G. Woodson, do an impeccable job, true to the standards of an IRT performance.

Thought-provoking and surprisingly relatable, this drama brings you on an unusual journey through a unique mind, as well as through the English countryside and heart of London. And when you go, be sure to stay after the curtain call for a unique, and highly entertaining, mathematical encore.

No dogs were actually harmed in the making of this play, which runs through Oct. 14. Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St. downtown or online at irtlive.com.

Boy overcomes inner blindness in IRT’s ‘The Cay’

By John Lyle Belden

It is interesting when a theatre, for its show during Black History Month, stages a production that gets us to think about race in a bigger context than the typical American struggle of black/white. Such is the case with “The Cay,” on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 26.

Adapted from the Theodore Taylor novel by Gayle Cornelison, and directed by Richard J. Roberts, the two-person drama is told from the perspective of a white boy, Phillip (Dalyn Stewart), who has the adventure of a lifetime. It is 1942, and living in the Caribbean, he sees World War II as an exciting novelty. As the island of Curacao is home to a Royal Dutch Shell oil refinery, German U-boats lurk nearby. This fact goes from fascinating to frightening when one sinks the ship taking Phillip home to America.

The boy is pulled onto a makeshift raft by an old black man, Timothy (David Alan Anderson). Being from the Virgin Islands, he knows how to survive on the open sea, and later, upon the small island (the “Cay” of the title) where the raft is carried by the tides.

But their survival is complicated by two factors: Phillip being blind to his own white privilege and spoiled state, and being literally blinded by a head injury. Even without physical sight, he “sees” Timothy as “Black” as a cultural state of being, something fundamentally different than himself. Over time, Phillip’s inner vision is corrected as the old man teaches him lessons in self-reliance he will need in the coming tests.

Anderson is brilliant as always in his role, and Stewart is a revelation as he more than keeps up with his costar. A lot is put on his shoulders, being narrator as well as one of a two-person cast, and Stewart handles it with Tom-Sawyeresque charisma. (Or Huck Finn, if you wish, given the obvious plot comparisons.)

The other “star” of this production is Stew, the cook’s cat on Phillip and Timothy’s ill-fated ship, which ended up on the raft with them and as a companion on the island. Rather than wrangle a real housecat (with its own diva demands), scenic designer Eric Barker molded some common kitchen items into a metal cat which the actors move around as needed – sound designer and composer Matthew Tibbs provides violin-string “meows” when appropriate.

After the opening night performance, Roberts and Barker said the cat design inspired them to make other aspects of the set, including the towering palm trees and the fish the characters catch, constructed of the metal flotsam and jetsam of life that wash up on distant shores. The result is a strangely beautiful stage and unifying visual theme that fits the story perfectly.

Find the IRT downtown at 140 W. Washington St.; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.