Changes around us come into focus on Fonseca stage

By John Lyle Belden

Gentrification is a word and concept that gets brought up a lot — how it’s bad, how it has benefits, how it is inevitable. Indianapolis has seen aspects of it in play in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, Mass Ave./Chatham Arch, Irvington, and Fountain Square.

This phenomenon is at the heart of “Salt Pepper Ketchup,” a drama by Josh Wilder now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company in Indy’s near-westside — an area starting to see the effects of redevelopment.

The play is inspired by the recent real-world transformation of Point Breeze community in Philadelphia’s infamous South Side. “Salt, Pepper, Ketchup” is how longtime local residents, mostly African-American, order the popular fried chicken wings at Superstar Chinese Restaurant, and owners John and Linda Wu (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) are happy to fill the orders as they save up for their American Dream. They had just been granted citizenship, and with improving credit, hope to buy their building.

But changes are already under way. New apartments sprang up, occupied by young white people seeking affordable rent. There is a coffee shop, and at the center of it all, the Co-Op grocery. 

Paul (Robert Negron), a leader at the Co-Op, is trying to sign up new members among the locals. John Wu, reflecting the worries of his regulars, suspects some sort of scam. Paul’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf manner isn’t helping. Still, Linda sees hope for life beyond their “Chinese joint.” Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter) see the Co-Op as a threat, a danger to the ‘hood they grew up in, and they are prepared to take drastic action. CeCe (Chandra Lynch) is trying to see all sides of this, as she works at a daycare and wants the area to get better. She even likes the idea of the Co-Op, until she discovers that a single apple costs $2.50.

We also meet the enigmatic Boodah (Dwuan Watson Jr.) who is street-smart, emphasis on both. A little older and wiser than Tommy and Raheem, he avoids conflict and criminal solutions, but when he senses injustice, he takes action.

Finally, Megan (Lexy Weixel) is a perky Co-Op worker who finds herself thrust into an unfamiliar world, struggling to make the best of it.

Seeing the events play out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for being white. Paul is such an overbearing caricature, reeking of privilege even as he remarks on it dismissively, that it is easy to understand the backlash that overwhelms him midway through the show. Eventually he takes a more corporate attitude — or was that behind his facade all along? While this can be difficult to watch from my seat, and generating nods of agreement from minorities around me, this portrayed example of how not to gentrify can help start the conversation of how best to positively deal with the changes coming to our own streets. It helps that this important drama brings out the best in all its players.

The play is directed by Tom Evans, with a set designed by Daniel Uhde including a clever way of changing between acts. Founder Bryan Fonseca designed the lighting and Tim Brickley the soundscape, which includes hip-hop by Gritty from his upcoming EP.

As an epilogue, the play program includes a recent article on the real Point Breeze, providing more food for thought. 

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is served up through Feb. 2 at the FTC Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan Street. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

A little ‘Chrystmas’ magic

By John Lyle Belden

Bryan Fonseca returns to his tradition of the holiday show he had nurtured for a dozen years, with Fonseca Theatre Company’s “A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas.”

(That original series is also continued at the Phoenix Theatre, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

Bryan’s cast of Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Jonathan Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor, and Dorian Wilson, with the help of Tim Brickley (music director) and Mariel Greenlee (choreographer), bring us 12 scenes of music, comedy and dance. The works of five local playwrights are featured: Eric Pfeffinger and Mark Harvey-Levine’s modern takes on the Nativity; John P. Gallo’s hilariously macabre holiday tradition; Kenyon Brown’s tale of new Grinch mischief; and Cassandra Rose’s bittersweet scene of family dysfunction. Music includes songs by Tish Hinojosa, Pete Townshend, and Tim Minchin, as well as a mix by DJ QueVee.

For those who remember, Fonseca brings back the ultimate Jewish Mother with Harvey-Levine’s “Oye Vey Maria,” but most of the bits are new, such as Brown’s “Mistletopriation,” which acts out the show’s title statement, with Hansen as the Christmas-hating terrorist. And Taylor shows her knack for playing practically any age, especially in her sweet performance of Hinojosa’s “Arbolito.” 

Throughout, this show is a little irreverent and a lot of fun. Performances run through Dec. 22 at the new Basile Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Restless dead haunt Fonseca Theatre drama

By Wendy Carson

Inspired by the recent trend of ghost investigations, a new drama, “The Brothers Paranormal,” appears on the new stage of Fonseca Theatre Company.

Delia is haunted. She is convinced that her new apartment is haunted by a Thai ghost. For the past six months she has heard whooshes, floorboard creaks, footsteps, and has now seen apparitions of a creepy young girl. While her loving husband, Felix, has not shared in any of this phenomena, he supports her decision to blow all of their savings to hire the titular service to find proof of this and hopefully restore their lives, still coming together after losing their New Orleans home to Katrina and relocating to the Midwest.

Max is haunted. The son of Thai immigrants, he and his older brother, Visarut, are just barely scraping by. Delia’s request is the first job they have attained. Max has had to leave college, his West Coast home, friends and girlfriend behind to help Visarut care for their schizophrenic mother, Tasanee. Max also worries about Visarut’s drinking problem, made worse by what their mother did.

Felix is haunted. He works as a paramedic and thought his job would be constantly saving lives. However, he feels the truth is that more often than not, he is just trying to keep them alive for a little bit longer. The ones that die under his care weigh heavy on his soul.

Can the brothers find proof of Delia’s ghost, or is her own family history of schizophrenia to blame for these manifestations? What is real? What is an illusion? Why do some cultures celebrate death and others fear it? These are among the questions posed by Prince Gomolvilas’s engrossing script.

Sean Qui is excellent as Max, running the gamut of feelings, especially towards his family. Ian Cruz is a steady presence as Visarut. Diane Tsao is charming as mother Tesanee.

Dena Toler is also in fine form as Delia, her performance putting her fright into the audience. Ansley Valentine, as Felix, delivers as a man slowly realizing he can only evade the truth for so long.

And a shuddering salute to Kim Egan as the spectre. Director (and company namesake) Bryan Fonseca uses her and the cleverly designed set to accomplish a rare feat – to make a horror stage play truly frightening. There were moments audience members were practically jumping out of their seats.

There is more to this play than the scares, of course. It fulfills the FTC objective of showing and making us consider different cultural and ethnic perspectives. But it also makes one hell of a Halloween-season experience. Performances run through Nov. 10 at FTC’s newly-remodeled Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St. in Indy’s near-Westside. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Fonseca Theatre’s journey through America with ‘Miss You Like Hell’

By Wendy Carson

In the style of an organization willing to challenge conventions, Fonseca Theatre Company stages it’s latest offering, “Miss You Like Hell,” in a garage-warehouse. The sets surround the audience and a trail divides it into four sections, which are mostly filled with rolling and swiveling chairs to help viewers follow the action.

This musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is the spiritual and physical journey of a mother and daughter as they travel across the United States. While on the surface this sounds like a cliche plot, there are a lot of story elements twisting and turning so that you are never quite sure exactly how you feel about the main characters at any time.

Beatriz (Sarah Zimmerman) says she has come to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Olivia (Sharmaine Ruth), who she has not seen in years. She seems genuinely worried about Olivia’s mental state after finding a blog post threatening suicide, but Beatriz has her own needs and agenda as well. Zimmerman does a skillful job meting out her character’s motivations in a way that makes you understand that no matter how many mistakes she has made, she is still a parent and ultimately loves her child, even if her actions don’t always seem that way.

Very reluctant at first, Olivia eventually embraces this adventure with her mom and discovers more about her family history, including the background of major events in her life. Ruth deftly swerves from belligerent brat to scared child to young adult seamlessly. Her performance shows the truth of what growing up means to a person as well as what it takes out of a child.

The rest of the cast compose a Greek chorus as well as their individual roles.

Paul Collier Hansen and Patrick Goss delightfully provide some much needed comic relief as Mo and Higgins, two best friends from Arkansas on a meaningful journey of their own. Ian Cruz is in rare form as Manuel, a possible love interest and convenient rescuer. Bridgette Ludlow charms us as Olivia’s most active blog respondent, as well as the strong dose of reality that she needs to grow. Paige Scott plays up her fierce side playing the various officers of the law that are encountered throughout the trip. Yolanda Valdivia is solid as Beatriz’s attorney, taking on her difficult immigration case. Dan Scharbrough gives his curmudgeonly best as a South Dakota bureaucrat and a Wyoming hotel manager. Some scenes are punctuated with a dancing ancestor, portrayed with bold grace by Camile Ferrera. Company founder Bryan Fonseca directs. Tim Brickley leads an excellent on-stage band.

The story begins in Philadelphia, our cradle of freedom, and ends in southern California, where part of the “wall” we hear so much about now stands. This examination of the American dream dwells on questions of heritage, culture, justice and rights. But above all, it is about family, the one we are born to, and the fellow travelers who become just as important to us.

This road trip is worth the journey, playing through July 28 at Kinney Group, 2425 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just a block from Fonseca Theatre’s new home, now under construction). Enter at the back doors. The venue gets rather warm in the summer weather, so dress light. Find info and tickets at FonsecaTheatre.org.

Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

Fonseca presents a new song of old pain

By John Lyle Belden

Director Bryan Fonseca plays “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” — a musical by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook — with Dwuan Watson and Lekesha Lorene as his very talented instruments, accompanied by music director Tim Brickley on bass and the chiming electric piano of Jon Strombaugh.

Even when they’re not singing, the words flow like poetry, like Langston Hughes or Gil Scott-Heron as soul diva. This verse is proclaimed by Klook (Watson), who has in a life long-lived by street standards played beyond the third strike and fears “I am unlikely to live another day,” and much younger old-soul Vinette (Lorene) who sees “a man dragging disaster around by the tail” and loves him anyway.

She has a past herself — “Taking a mask off can burn if you do it too fast,” she warns — and a desire to write stories. But “we don’t tell stories; stories, they tell us,” Klook sings. Past mistakes and injustices confound the desire to change for the better, then collide with the taint of white privilege and male entitlement, making this a tragic ballad. But there are notes of hope here.

There is mature language and mature sentiments. Just as they make love by blending the senses, this is a song to see, a dance to hear. Experience it with Fonseca Theatre Company at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan Ave., through Feb. 17. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

 

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.