Dark side of humanity and academia explored in new play

By Wendy Carson

With “The Profession,” Marcia Eppich-Harris has written a play that encompasses our current political and social climate just a little too well. I was privileged to attend a staged reading of the script a couple of months ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Her script roots out not only the dark underbelly of male dominance and what men will do to protect their own, but also the appalling lack of power or support women have when confronting a system stacked against them. Needless to say, nobody emerges from this story unscathed.

Two main storylines intertwine here. One is about Valerie (Becky Schlomann), a dedicated literature teacher at a small, private university who is desperately fighting to keep her job. Secondly, we have Marina (Trick Blanchfield), the impassioned student every teacher longs for, just trying work her way through college no matter how she has to swing it.

Valerie’s nemesis in her plight is Mark (Brad Staggs), a dean still smarting from her questioning of his decisions last fall and ensuring that her future employability is forever doomed. Department chair Jill (Jeri Jackson) has no desire to ruffle feathers herself. Meanwhile, Theology professor Paul (Brian Stuart Boyd) is also relieved of his job, but with a much better settlement check, wonderful references, and a promising spot at a major university.

For her dedication to learning, Marina deals with the exorbitant fees and ends up working as a stripper in order to stay in school. At the club just off campus, she is mentored by the lovely, yet jaded, Lucy (Lola Lavacious) and watched over by the club’s tough but fair manager Flint (Tom Smith).

Seeing Valerie, her favorite teacher, getting a raw deal, Marina divulges to her the seedy goings on by college staff at the club. Valerie’s personal morality keeps her from using this dirt, at first. But as the situation gets ever more serious, and dangerous, she knows she will have to do something.

This drama pulls no punches in all it entails. It does contain vivid discussions of sex work and abortion. As I noted above, the abuse of power and workplace discrimination are rampant as well. Still, it shows vividly how gender politics, as well as other ills contained within, play out in a realistic manner. Eppich-Harris and director Elisabeth Speckman both drew on their experiences in academia in creating this work and bringing it to painfully vivid life.

The cast is sheer perfection with each one embodying the true soul of their character. While Schlomann and Blanchfield are easy to root for, and to understand the impulsive decisions they feel necessary to make, Jackson and Staggs come off so oily with corruption you may need to remind yourself they’re just good actors if you see them off-stage. Boyd has two faces to work with in his character, and plies them well. Smith, a natural at paternal roles, is no angel, but feeling no need to put on a façade, Flint comes off better than the learned men who frequent his club. Also, a shout-out to Ms. Lavacious – while she has years of stage performance under her belt, this is her first performance in a scripted show.

I cannot recommend this play enough. The concurrence of its opening on the same date as the state’s abhorrent anti-abortion law taking effect feels like a sign that maybe with enough encouragement, we can make some real and lasting changes for the good of all. I honestly hope you leave the theater in this frame of mind as well.

Presented by Southbank Theatre Company, performances of “The Profession” run through Sunday, Sept. 25, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org. (Note: Venue requires masks due to close proximity between audience and stage.)

Comedy with ‘Style!’

By John Lyle Belden

If an Asian playwright and Asian actors take on Asian stereotypes, is it still offensive? Is mocking these tropes this way self-effacing, creating awareness, or both?

You might find yourself pausing between bouts of laughter to consider these questions during Mike Lew’s comical cultural exploration, “Tiger Style!” on stage at the Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Third-generation Chinese Americans, Albert and Jennifer Chen (Sean Qiu and Kim Egan) are the products of what could be called “tiger parenting,” pushed by their parents (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) to excel to the point of perfection at music and STEM careers – Albert is one of the best computer coders, Jen is one of the best oncologists. But instead of super-functional adults, they grew up to be self-aware Asian caricatures.

In the tech world, Albert is passed over for promotion because he’s too good at his job, while goofball slacker Russ the Bus (Jacob Pettyjohn) is better at socializing and getting along with everyone, which boss Reggie (Cruz) sees as more valuable for a supervisor. Albert is boggled at the fact that his deferential attitude, hard work and productivity didn’t pay off, and is appalled that even his Asian employer likes the white guy more than him. The stress literally eats him up inside.

Meanwhile, Jen is dumped by her do-nothing boyfriend (Pettyjohn as another slacker) because she didn’t turn out as “exotic” as he’d hoped. She spirals at the fact her super-structured life plan is out of whack, and that she can’t even keep a man who is way beneath her. The therapist she sees (Herring) doesn’t respect her need for an immediate breakthrough, so she and her brother resolve the only way to fix things is a hard reckoning with their parents.

“Secrets will be revealed that will threaten to tear the family apart” – or not.

I won’t say where this all leads, but Cruz also plays characters named “Tzi Chuan” (pronounced Schezwan) and “General Tso.” Herring adds a Chinese Matchmaker, and self-sacrificing Cousin Chen.

Lew crafted this play so that the more serious it gets, the more silly it gets, like life-and-death moments in a Monty Python sketch. In this, Cruz’s comic flair comes into full flower, as does Herring’s improv-honed skill for rolling through situations, smiling through the absurdity. As for Qui and Egan, rarely has naive overthinking been so entertaining. Pettyjohn committing to the White stereotype is just icing on the cake.

The lessons here, I suspect, are different depending on if you are Asian-American. Still, there is a lot to draw from this look at a culture both different from and intertwined with mainstream America.

Performances run through Aug. 14 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just west of downtown), on the newly named C.H. Douglas and Gray Wealth Management Stage. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

That old Black ‘Magic’

By John Lyle Belden

The term “Magical Negroes” was popularized by celebrated film director Spike Lee as a critique of how non-white characters were still being used in movies just as they had been in stories throughout history. The trope has its roots in racism and the historic identification of the “other” as something different than regular humanity – when not a lesser-than, such as “lazy” stereotypes, they ironically become stronger, wiser, or actually magical compared to the Whites around them, with their sole purpose in the story to help the “normal” protagonist to win the day. Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Bagger in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” are cited as prime examples, as well as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” and even Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae in “Ghost.” Note how Hollywood has rewarded such roles with Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Black queer playwright Terry Guest can’t help but mess with old tropes, revealing the much older, darker and more powerful magic that lies beneath. Southbank Theatre Company presents Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes,” directed by Kelly Mills. Just as arguably the White majority distorts history, a “Tribe” of embodied Black stereotypes twists it back the other way. “This is not history!” the troupe declares, but between their prism and the one we were exposed to in school, maybe we’ll see the light of truth.

Marie (Haley Glickman) and her husband King Louis XVI (Josh Cornell) of France were actual historical figures. Remembered unkindly, they weren’t necessarily evil, just very spoiled and inept. If anyone could use a dark-skinned savior, it’s these two – but magic doesn’t necessarily work that way.

The Tribe are: carefree Jim Crow (Ron Perkins), crafty Sambo (Bra’Jae’ Allen), nurturing Mammy (Kellli Thomas), ambitious Sapphire (Anila Akua), and aggressive Savage (Tommy Gray III). Being timeless, they hop around the time stream a bit, so we see the Crow in President Kennedy or the Mammy in Ida B. Wells. In the Court of Versailles, Mammy is Marie’s faithful lady-in-waiting and fellow noble Anna de Noailles; Sambo is Anna’s lady-in-waiting Charlotte, a put-upon servant aching to join the protests outside; Sapphire is Catherine, the idealist who believes she can rise thought the palace ranks and effect change from the inside; and Crow is Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, in love with the Queen and seeking to aid her escape.

The magic here is subtle, though the cast did get some tips and a couple of props from local magician Taylor Martin. More important than a couple of visual tricks, there is the spirit of Mother Africa, and when the Tribe dances and turns – well, don’t be surprised if someone loses their head.

Glickman is exceptional in giving the many sides of a figure misunderstood even in her own day, from the child bride to the woman in a gilded cage. Marie didn’t actually say, “let them eat cake,” but she very well could have – a sentiment more borne of cluelessness than disdain. In an ironic reversal of the Black characters lacking depth or backstory, poor Louis is the most two-dimensional character in the piece, but Cornell does a good job of expressing the monarch’s constant frustration with his job and the lack of respect his hard work (in his view) gets.

The Tribe members each work outward from their archetypes to give us persons rather than caricatures – an antidote to the overdone stereotypes where they’re usually found. Thomas as Mammy/Anne isn’t just being motherly and wise for its own sake, or Marie’s; she wants to save her own life as well. Perkins as Crow/Axel isn’t self-sacrificing, either, showing genuine concern as he presents a way out, but with a price. Allen exudes the only-taking-so-much-of-this attitude, and when the dust is finally settled, trickster Sambo has the last surprise. In other eras, Akua brings the Haitian Revolution to life, and Gray reminds us, for any who still haven’t gotten the message, that Black Lives Matter.

This is one of those theatrical experiences that’s supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – those involved would be concerned if you weren’t. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure how this unconventional history lesson was going to come together to an appropriate conclusion. But when the lights finally came up, I reflected on it all and thought, OK, I see it now.

You should see it, too. “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes” runs through Sunday at the Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Fade,” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, is not a true story, but contains an immense amount of truth.

It is based on the experiences of playwright Tanya Saracho, who, like her character Lucia, is a Mexican-born writer who worked in Chicago and got an opportunity to write for television in Los Angeles. Saracho went from being a “diversity hire” in the room that wrote cable series “Devious Maids” all the way to Shondaland, a writer and co-producer on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

We meet Lucia (Lara Romero) at the beginning of that journey, where the all-white-male writing team call her “Loosha” (not “lew-see-ah”) and think of her as little more than the coffee-fetcher and a translator for show-runner John to talk to his maid. We don’t see the co-workers but know them through Lucia’s conversations with janitor Abel (Ian Cruz; by the way, the Latinx character is pronounced “Ah-beel”).

People are people, so rather than have an instant “you and me against the world” bond, Lucia and Abel initially clash, each making class and ethnic assumptions about the other. She grew up with wealth, which he immediately senses, but she doesn’t consider herself “rich,” especially now in starving-writer mode. And Abel has a far more complex backstory than she could have suspected. In fact, Lucia realizes, it’s the kind of story that would look great on TV.

The play is a sly commentary on class, stereotype, tone-deaf Hollywood, and its ambitious culture. Lucia wants to change this place, but how much will it change her?

Romero ably portrays the likable go-getter feeling out of her element from the get-go. She comes across as smart yet needing to absorb some hard lessons. Cruz channels his paternal side (he’s the Dad of his “zoo” offstage) to bring an earnest gravatas to a surprisingly complex character. He knows what life can do to a person, now he’s witnessing the dark side of showbiz.

Assistant stage manager Chris Creech appears briefly, and as a Maintenance worker executes smooth scene changes.

Note the play is in “Spanglish,” reflecting natural conversations between two bilinguals in a mixed culture. However, Spanish phrases are translated or understandable in context. Direction is by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Performances of “Fade” run through June 12 at the FTC Basile stage, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

ALT: ‘Living’ not easy in award-winning drama

By John Lyle Belden

This is a story about entrapment. It is people trapped by situations, accidents, choices – even their own bodies. What you pay to deal with that is the “Cost of Living,” a play by Martyna Majok presented by American Lives Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre.

Eddie (Clay Mabbitt) seems to be stuck in the Twilight Zone. To deal with loss, the former trucker leaves texts at an old number that has mysteriously texted him back. And now, the trap has snapped on you in the audience. This isn’t the main plot point, and as we get into the next scene, we’re not even sure where what we just saw fits. Hold on, though, it’s worth working our way back out.

John (Preston Dildine) has a mind that’s making him rich, and a body with cerebral palsy that requires him to hire someone to bathe it. In a manner like pelting with stones, he questions Jess (Teneh Karimu) to see if she is of the mettle to do the undignified job. Also, he finds it intriguing that she is Ivy-educated, yet works all night waitressing at bars. 

Ani (Olivia Mozzi) really doesn’t want to deal with Eddie right now. She’s managing well enough since the accident that shattered her spine, and would rather have someone other than her ex taking care of her. But he, babbling attempts at kindness and bouncing like a hyper puppy, really wants to help. 

This Indianapolis premiere of the 2018 Pulitzer-winning drama is directed and stage-managed by ALT founder and Artistic Director Chris Saunders, who made a point of casting people with disabilities in the two chair-bound roles (their actual conditions are different than what is portrayed). Don’t look for heroic uplift from them; they portray genuine people trying to live as best they can – like those of us without wheels. This helps give the actors meat to work with, lending dimension to John and Ani that contrasts with the binds that able-bodied Eddie (mental) and Jess (economic) find themselves struggling against. 

The chemistry between Dildine and Karimu is compelling. Mozzi takes someone who is a bitter pill and makes us love her. And Mabbitt has the chops to keep a character that means well but overtalks in that likable lane between pathetic and comic caricature. 

Where will these characters be when the “bill” comes due? “Cost of Living” runs through April 30 at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org.

Fonseca: Story of family stuck in ‘Mud’

By John Lyle Belden

The magic of live theatre is such that more than persons become characters in the drama. A house, for instance, can have a role, or even the concepts of time and culture.

This house on a street in the Mud Row area of West Chester, Penn., has a lot to say, through the people who occupy it. While the means to buy it was less than honorable, it sits firmly in the hands of a pair of sisters at a time when African Americans owning anything was an accomplishment. Each woman takes a different approach to improving their chances of future prosperity – Frances by joining the Civil Rights protests, and Elsie Mae by marrying her unborn child’s father, a member of the “Talented Tenth” – a designation for those meant to uplift fellow Blacks, but here, ironically, a form of elitism.

The daughters of Elsie’s girl, Regine and Toshi, today find themselves with a complex relationship to the old house, as gentrifying developers come around, money in hand, to turn it into a parking lot.

This is life on “Mud Row,” the play by Dominique Morisseau at Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by Josiah McCruiston.

Frances (Lakesha Lorene) and Elsie (Jacquelyn Owens) Jeter are each critical of the other’s intended actions, seeing confronting the police by one, and high society by the other, a fool’s errand — even dangerous. Still, they are family, bound by love and fierce pride. Lorene and Owens also imbue these women with unflagging optimism, foremothers to be honored alongside their ancestors. Their scenes cut in from time to time among modern moments, giving context and fleshing out the “character” of the home.

Regine (Aniqua ShaCole) is no longer a Jeter, having married Devin (Marcus Elliott), and glad to have gotten away from the Mud Row house to live in Philadelphia. However, Grandma Elsie’s Will gave it to her, which she only found out when notified of the cash offer from the developer. Now, the couple has returned, she to resolve difficult memories and he to get an appraisal for a higher price.

Having been abandoned for years, the home is eerily well kept. The reason, at least for the last few months, is a pair of squatters: Toshi (Anila Akua), who abandoned the family years ago for a life of crime and addiction, and her fellow recovering-addict boyfriend Tyriek (Brenton Anderson).

Morisseau’s funny-in-context humor gets quite a few laughs as each couple grouses about “who’s occupying MY house?” as well as the inevitable and mildly violent first encounter.

Akua gives an excellent portrait of a woman struggling with addict-brain, wanting to do good and feel she’s better than the streets, while part of her insists that’s where she belongs. She’s uncomfortable with trust, making her seem even more unreliable. Tyriek, bless his simple soul, has been thug so long he hardly knows any other way to act, though he desperately wants to strive for respectability. Anderson lets us see the flashes of street wisdom and noble eagerness that make him ultimately likable.

ShaCole and Elliott portray Regine as a woman gone bougie, while Devin always had been. Though likely a concept she only heard of in a college history class, she finally managed the family’s Talented Tenth dream, but felt resented by her grandmother for achieving it. Toshi, though, doesn’t remember things the same way.

McCruiston imbues this play with what he calls the spirit of “Sankofa,” a West African word meaning “to retrieve,” in this context to go back to a place and time to recover something important. Fonseca producing director Jordan Flores Schwartz notes she chose this play to begin a 2022 Season of Healing. These characters will need plenty of that.

To further give context to the play, McCruiston set up viewings of “West’s Neighborhood: A Black Woman’s View of the Suburbs” videos by Rachel West, an educator living in the Chicago area. One is shown pre-show, while the second is screened during intermission.  

To paraphrase an unrelated song, will they pave over the past to put up a parking lot? See “Mud Row” through March 20 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; tickets and information at fonsecatheatre.org.

Diamond’s rough drama gets Monument-al treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Two academics, an actor, and a doctor walk onto a stage.

Thus begins the drama “Smart People” by Lydia R. Diamond, presented by Monument Theatre Company at the Fonseca Theatre Company’s Basile Theatre. We are introduced to our four characters each finding themselves in frustrating circumstances: tenure-track Harvard professor Brian White (Maverick Schmidt) berates his students for not getting the gist of what he sees as obvious conclusions; psychology prof Ginny Yang (Kim Egan) tries to present her research findings, interrupted by trivial questions; aspiring actor Valerie Johnston (Barbara Michelle Dabney) struggles to apply her MFA-informed approach to a Shakespeare role while the director gives her inconsistent, illogical instructions; and Dr. Jackson Moore (Jamaal McCray) answers to an administrator berating him for taking life-saving initiative with a patient over his supervisor’s instructions. Ever feel like people just don’t get what you are trying to say?

Over the course of these two long acts, their four lives somehow weave together (how small was Cambridge, Mass., in 2008?), leading up to a borderline-intervention dinner with the whole cast late in the play. While each person’s niggling frustration continues through the plot, the big controversy is in White’s research, in which he publicly presents that he has biologically quantified “white privilege” (Diamond abandoned subtlety; the professor’s name is only Exhibit A).

The play has a lot to say, and says it, as things progress mainly because that’s how Diamond wrote them, which means I have to give a lot of credit to this foursome in giving their individual characters dimension and some degree of credible life.

It’s an interesting comedy that includes jokes the characters themselves point out aren’t funny. Yet there are some bits of humor, mostly in the same vein as Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (but without the singing). Mainly we get a series of interesting scenes with thought-provoking points. For instance, White’s rants point out well-meaning white liberals’ self-imposed blindness to their passive racism. But flaws in the research, such as the near-impossible task of defining a singular “white” culture to have this inborn bigotry, get brushed aside. Non-whites other than African-Americans get token mention. In one moment, Yang counsels an off-stage Japanese-American woman who identifies as white – apparently the psychologist’s insistence in this unseen person embracing an Asian identity eventually leads to a suicide attempt, but this plot thread leads nowhere.

One can tell that this play looked awesome in the scripts given to the cast and director Rayanna Bibbs. There’s so much “meat” to chew on as an actor, a wide range of emotions, controversial moments to make your audience do a “wait-what?!” And it all caps off with the then-improbable election of Barack Obama (not a big spoiler). For those reading this who really dig such drama exercises, and the big-issue conversations you’ll have on the way home, “Smart People” could be a smart choice. Even better, Monument is doing a pay-what-you-can season.

So, whether you want to give a donation for the company’s artistic efforts, or you are just a fellow starving artist who can only give what’s in your pockets at the moment, make your reservation at monumenttheatrecompany.org. The play runs through Aug. 15. Find the stage at 2508 W. Michigan, indoors (box office staff are masked).

Mother and daughter go the distance in ’26 Miles’

By John Lyle Belden

Olivia is a precocious teenager living in the 1980s, when every car has a cassette player and, since the Internet is not a big thing yet, she expresses herself in a hand-made paper ‘zine. She is also a child of divorce, and of two worlds – her father a white carpenter, her mother a Cuban immigrant.

On a day she feels especially troubled – can’t reach her father, gets indifference from stepmother, and is constantly throwing up – Olivia calls the Mom she hasn’t talked to in years. Within an hour, Beatriz is there to pick her daughter up, but rather than drive to her home in nearby Philadelphia, she impulsively drives west. And keeps going.

This sets up the adventure of “26 Miles,” the coming-of-age drama now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company. It was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, co-writer of “In the Heights” (with Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Pulitzer winner for “Water by the Spoonful.” Hudes also adapted this play into the musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” which was presented by Fonseca just a couple of summers ago.

Whereas “Miss You…” tackles the issues of immigration and personal identity, in “26 Miles,” the focus is more on Olivia, a high school sophomore played endearingly by college sophomore Lily Weidenbach. She perfectly channels teen angst, without coming off whiny, and the naive optimism of youth. While barely realizing it, this one who embodies the “melting pot” puts herself on a very American visionquest, headed to the historic frontier in search of the embodiment of wild native spirit. But how and where will she belong when she returns to Pennsylvania?

Beatriz, played with maternal gusto by Lara Romero, is not as imperiled as her character in the musical, and, while impatient with others, a calm mentor to Olivia, awakening her to her full heritage.

Doug Powers has many roles, especially Olivia’s father, Aaron, a former free spirit who now obsesses over wood finishes and the perfect material for shingles. He’s a devoted, loving father, but struggles with being a Dad. Also in various characters is Ian Cruz, mainly as Beatriz’s beau in Philly, and a tamale seller the women meet on the highway (he played a similar role in the Fonseca production of “Miss You…” as well).

Directed by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz, the play makes use of the in-the-round set-up of the stage in the lot behind the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan (west of downtown Indianapolis). Live performances, with distancing and other measures, run through June 27. Get tickets and info at fonsecatheatre.org.

Even when history is changed, have we?

By John Lyle Belden

From time to time, we all consider what the world would be like if certain historical events didn’t happen – or if others did. These kinds of thought experiments take on a particular point of view in “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You too, August Wilson),” by Rachel Lynett, presented live in the space behind Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jamaal McCray.

“This exists in the mind of every person of color,” says Lynett through a cast member. Welcome to Bronx Bay, an all-Black state created after the just-completed Second Civil War. We who are White, Latinx, etc., are granted a brief stay to see how the story before us plays out.

Alice (Chandra Lynch) is a struggling restauranteur – the problem being that since she is a quarter Asian, she’s attempting a “Korean fusion” eatery. Her husband Lorenzo (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) is supportive, though privately believes tofu has no place in gumbo. Their close friend Jules (Latrice Young) has a new partner, Yael (Aniqua Sha’Cole), recently approved to live in Bronx Bay. We also meet their freind Izaak (Josiah McCruiston).

Everyone on the stage looks like they belong there, but a stunning revelation threatens friendships, relationships and the tranquility of this new utopia. “People died to make these rules,” Alice reminds the others. But does that make what is happening right?

In the second act, we find ourselves in another imagining of Bronx Bay, a place for families like couples Alice and Jules, and Lorenzo and Izaak. So, how does Yael fit in?

The thesis statement of this absurd drama is literally written on the set pieces: “Blackness Iz Not A Monolith.” The “apologies” of the title allude to the tendency to see a playwright’s telling of a Black experience as “the” Black experience. The five persons we see before us are actually speaking Lynett’s words; so, being Black is the perspective of a young queer African-Latinx woman from California who lives in Arkansas?

To the credit of the writer, as well as McCray and the cast, rather than being confusing – even when going totally meta – this darkly comic journey is entertaining and thought-provoking. There’s even an alternative-history game show.

Scenic Designer Bernie Killian provides an interesting stage for an immersive “in the round” experience. Seating is properly spaced around the stage, however, there is no tent or awning so sunscreen and/or hats are recommended, especially during afternoon performances.

One weekend remains of this World Premiere production, May 28-30, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan, west of downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at fonsecatheatre.org.

Hard lessons continue at Fonseca Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The setting of the play “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by acclaimed playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, is “Today.” Says so right there in the program. So this examination of our understanding of race in early 21st Century America is taking place in 2020. Just add masks on all the characters – sadly, no need to change any of the story.

Fonseca Theatre Company brings back this drama from its first season (I wrote about it then, too), again directed by Ben Rose, in the wake of the real-world drama of this tumultuous summer. Rose noted that actor preparation took on a more serious tone this time, and he was grateful to also have Chinyelu Mwaafrika and Joshua Short return to star.

Marquis (Mwaafrika), a suburban teen from posh (mythical) Achievement Heights, outside Baltimore, has gotten caught up in the latest online challenge and is in a police holding cell for trespassing. His cellmate, Tru (Short), fits the conventional African-American stereotype, and is amazed that Marquis doesn’t. Eventually, Marquis’ adoptive limousine-liberal mom Deb (Megan Ann Jacobs) arrives to spring them from the clutches of Officer Borzoi (Keegan Jones). Tru then gets to experience Marquis’s world, with his nice home and all-white classmates at Achievement Preparatory Academy: jocks Hunter (Joseph Mervis) and Fielder (Maverick Schmidt), and top girls’ clique led by Meadow (Vicki Turner) with Prairie (Jacobs) and Clementine (Sarah Ault).

Seeing Marquis as “too White,” Tru fills a notebook with “Being Black for Dummies” in the hope of connecting him with his racial heritage. But the book falls into the wrong hands, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Marquis dreams of visits by ancient gods – fair-skinned Dionysus (Schmidt), who wants him to take the easy life; and dark-skinned Apollo (Jones), who whispers to him a dark secret.

This show is spiced with a surprising amount of humor, and the production does include a “laugh light” to let you know when it’s safe to react without being racist. However, there are a lot of hard questions and uncomfortable discussions. Also, the characters make an embarrassing number of assumptions, including the fateful conclusions drawn by school Headmaster Burns (Mervis) that sound a lot like your “I’m not a racist, but…” friend when telling you the “truth” about a Black victim of a shooting. Thus does this fictional story connect solidly with our real world; Chisholm’s characters are each simultaneously flesh-and-blood and living metaphor. You know this person; you’ve met this person; you’ve seen this person on the news; you are this person.

The cast do a great job of communicating all this to us through their cloth masks, and with the intimate (yet with seating properly distanced) stage in the backyard of the FTC building, we even hear clearly when the mic-packs sputter. This was an important and enlightening drama already, and today it feels more vital to make the effort to experience. Fonseca staff even have nice masks available for a donation.

All performances are 8 p.m., continuing Saturday, Sunday (Aug. 22-23), and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at 2508 W. Michigan, Indianapolis. Details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.