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.

Summit’s ‘Crew’ a bold workplace drama

By John Lyle Belden

You see the signs, and not just the unusual ones on the bulletin board. Management holds a lot of private meetings; rules start tightening up; workers leave and are not replaced; rumors circulate. The writing is on the wall, perhaps literally when notices go up: people are going to lose their jobs, and perhaps the entire workplace will soon close. 

What had been unthinkable in times of booming industry and union strength has become too common now. I went through a similar situation, perhaps you have, too. And in a recent era, this was the fate of Detroit auto workers in Dominique Morrisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the drama presented by Summit Performance at the Phoenix Theatre.

Faye (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) is within months of 30 years at the plant. She is also: a proud UAW rep; a feisty cancer survivor who can’t – won’t – give up smoking; stubborn protector of her crew, especially Shanita (Akili Ni Mali) and Dez (Kerrington Shorter); practically a mother to the foreman, Reggie (Daniel A. Martin); wise and philosophical, always with something to say; eager to take your money in cards, but not always successful; and a multi-skilled worker who never seems to leave the factory. The fact that she is gay is honestly her least significant trait. 

Shanita is the best on the production line, proud of following her father and helping build something others will be proud to own. She doesn’t even let pregnancy slow her down. As for Dez, he’s got big plans, nice shoes and a gun in his bag. He talks smooth and means well, but the fire within him isn’t always under control. He and Reggie don’t get along, as they seem to assume the worst of each other. Then again, Reggie is right that Dez has been gambling on the premises. 

And as word swirls around that the plant is doomed, someone is quietly stealing from the plant – taking their severance one metal part at a time.

Needless to say, there is a lot of drama and tension as the uncertainty builds. But Morisseau has sprinkled in a healthy dose of workplace humor, and a bit of feeling among the members of this workplace family. It doesn’t take much digging nowadays for these skilled actors to bring the emotions – from concern to frustration – to the surface. Lampkin is a rock. Mali radiates confidence. Shorter gives substance to the angry-young-(black)man archetype. And Martin, known to many for his comic skills, again shows his true range.

Director Melissa Mowry strikes the right balance in the look and feel of the play. The stage (designed by Mejah Balams) is a plant break room, a temporary respite from the noise and stress just outside the back-wall door. Opaque windows show images of industry, and at transitional points in the story, silhouettes of cast members moving rhythmically – men as machines – choreographed by Mowry with the actors. It’s a brilliant visual element that sticks with you.

Powerful drama with strong performances, “Skeleton Crew” has two weekends remaining, through March 13 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. For tickets, visit phoenixtheatre.org or go to summitperformanceindy.com.

Past pain reflects present in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “No. 6,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set in an early-21st-century American city where a white police officer has killed a black man, and violent responses to apparent injustice ensue.

Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?

That’s the problem, and that’s why the IRT chose this play by T.J. Young, inspired by this repeating narrative, centered on the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. A fully-produced stage performance, directed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, was captured by public television station WFYI and is available to stream at irtlive.com through April 4.

The steady progress of unrest has finally reached the storefront of the Anderson family’s laundry/cleaners, while proprietor Ella (Milicent Wright), with teen twins Felix (Jamaal McCray) and Felicia (LaKesha Lorene), shelter in the upstairs apartment. Felicia, who is on the autistic spectrum, dwells on her dinosaur obsession while Felix is out on the streets, scavenging for food from what past looters left behind. But he comes back with more than Spam – dragging in an unconscious white man.

Our mysterious houseguest (Michael Stewart Allen) has booze on his breath and a gun in his backpack, but as the others discover who he is, they find themselves in the very heart of the city’s issues.

Wright is a rock, as always, the mother-hen and conscience of this play. She has reasons behind her righteousness and shows real pain with her perspective that makes her feel genuine, not just a means to the drama’s message. McCray plays an emotional, impulsive idealist – like a teenager – but also reflecting the open spirit of his martyred father. Lorene gives a sensitive, endearing portrayal of an unconventional genius who has an uncanny grasp of the big picture at work here – big, as in global.

Allen hits all the emotional buttons as a man finding himself in a sort of Purgatory, never completely likable nor hateable. He is forced to deal with the perspective of those not like himself, while we must also acknowledge his. Still, what can one do when he is literally part of the problem?

“People across the globe take to streets and cry, ‘Never again!’” Young says in his program note. “And then it happens again. And again. And again.”

This play is important because it continues the much-needed conversation – but also see it because it is gripping drama with solid human performances, punctuated by sound (credit Matthew Tibbs) and light (Xavier Pierce) that makes the danger feel real and immediate, even in an otherwise comforting home (scene: Rob Koharchik). Support local professional theatre, and boot it up on the big screen.