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).

Returning to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Things are starting to look more “normal,” and that includes the central Indiana stage scene. Of course, the pandemic is still around, especially with Covid-19 variants still infecting and killing many. But with improving numbers of the vaccinated and taking common-sense measures by all of us, we can still celebrate our arts.

Alas, even though I’m vaccinated against diseases, I’m still not immune to Gremlins. One such critter has affected the Stage Schedule page on this site. So, until we get it fixed, check out the list below for ongoing and announced shows. In addition, check IndyFringe.org for more events leading up to the festival in mid-august.

See you in the audience; Curtain Up!

***

Last updated: July 25, 2021

Schedules subject to change, especially with changes in public health conditions.

See websites or call for Covid-19 safety policies.

2021

June 24 -Aug. 15

“The Sound of Music,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

July 23-Aug. 2

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Ricks-Weil Theatre Company at H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40), Greenfield; fb.com/RicksWeilTheatreCompany

July 28

“Sleepaway,” Summit Performance Indianapolis at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; (Free tickets) summitperformanceindy.com

July 30-Aug. 7

“Anton in Show Business” (all-female) Betty Rage production at Outback Stage at The District Theatre, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis; IndyDistrictTheatre.org

Aug. 5-7

“Godspell,” Eclipse Summer Stock Stage at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 6-7

“Tuesdays With Morrie,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/tuesdays-with-morrie/

Aug. 6-13

“Crazy For You,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Aug. 6-14

“Alice In Wonderland,” Mud Creek Players (outdoors), 9740 E. 86th St., Indianapolis; mudcreekplayers.org

Aug. 8

Sam C. Jones w/ Hank Ruff, in concert at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 13-14

“The Silent War,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/the-silent-war/

Aug. 13-22

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Zach & Zack productions at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; tickets.zachandzack.com, phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 19-Oct. 3

“Newsies,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Aug. 19-Sept. 5

INDYFRINGE (Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival) Mass. Ave. area, Indianapolis; http://www.indyfringe.org

Aug. 20-Sept. 5

“The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Aug. 20-21

“Ripcord,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/ripcord-2/

Aug. 26-28

“Under the Big Top,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-Oct. 3

“Always, Patsy Cline,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-19

“Boeing Boeing,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Sept. 16-26

“Arsenic and Old Lace,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Sept. 17-Oct. 3

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Sept. 18-Oct. 3

“1980 (Or, Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis; storefrontindy.com

TBA

“King Liz,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Oct. 6-31

“The Book Club Play,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Oct. 7-17

“Dracula,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Oct. 7-31

“Alabaster,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Oct. 7-Nov. 21

“Phantom,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Oct. 8-23

“The Color Purple: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

Oct. 8-17

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Bard Fest production at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 9-10

“Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Oct. 22-31

INDY BARD FEST (Shakespeare Festival): “Measure for Measure” at IndyFringe (downtown Indy), “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Love’s Labors Lost” at the Cat (Carmel), “Macbeth” at Theater at the Fort (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 28-30

“There’s No Place Like Home,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Oct. 29-Nov. 21

“Lombardi,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 5-14

“Rosie the Riveter,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

“Elizabeth Rex,” Indy Bard Fest at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com.

Nov. 19-Dec. 12

“Holiday Inn,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Nov. 26- Dec. 18

“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 26-Dec. 26

“A Christmas Carol,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Nov. 27-Dec. 19

“Bakersfield Mist,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Dec. 2-12

“The Christmas Express,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Dec. 3-4

“The Nutcracker,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at Pike Performing Arts Center, Indianapolis; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 3-5

“Holiday Shorts,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Dec. 3-24

“Elf: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 9-19

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Dec. 10-19

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

2022

Jan. 26-Feb. 20

“Fahrenheit 451,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Jan. 28-Feb. 20

“The Big Bang: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

“Love Bird,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Feb. 4-13

“Good People,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Feb. 4-19

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Feb. 7-27

“Calendar Girls,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Feb. 10-20

“Of Mice and Men,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Feb. 12-27

“The Black Dahlia,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Academy of GHDT, Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org

Feb. 25-March 6

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

March 11-26

“Wait Until Dark,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

March 17- April 10

“The Magnolia Ballet,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

March 23-April 10

(TBA), Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

March 31-April 10

“Flaming Idiots,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

April 1-10

“Fly Babies,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

April 7-9

“Exodus,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 20-May 15

“The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

April 21-May 1

“Becky’s New Car,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

April 22-May 8

“The Fantasticks,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

April 27-May 22

“Working: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 28-May 22

“No AIDS, No Maids, or, Stories I Can’t F*ckin’ Hear No More,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

April 29-May 14

“Matilda: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

May 10-June 5

“Steel Magnolias,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

June 2-12

“Rumors,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield;; westfieldplayhouse.org

June 3-19

“Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com0

June 9-11

“Antony and Cleopatra,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

June 10-19

“A Medley of Murders,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

June 16-26

“Now and Then,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Aug. 12-21

“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

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.

Fonseca returns with reflection of our ongoing racial struggle

By John Lyle Belden

Current and recent events compelled Fonseca Theatre Company to stage “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play” as its first production while live theatre starts to return to central Indiana. But more telling of the persistent seriousness of its issues is that this drama by Idris Goodwin was written over two years ago.

Image
From left, Aaron “Gritty” Grinter, Grant Byrne, and Paige Neely in the Fonseca Theatre Company production of “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play”

In a large, racially diverse, American city, in a time not long before 2020, up-and-coming white rapper Pinnacle and his Black hype man Verb wait on the creator of their beats, Peep One, to arrive at the studio so they can rehearse for their appearance on the Tonight Show. She enters, telling them she was delayed by traffic around a police chase. Minutes later, social media alerts give the full story: An unarmed black teen was killed, shot 18 times by cops while attempting to surrender.

The show must go on, as Pinnacle is focused on his national TV debut and upcoming tour, but as his hip-hop hit, “The Boy Shine,” gets its ovation, Verb makes a gesture for racial justice that throws their lives into chaos.

Local recording artist Grant Byrne plays Pinnacle, “born between a rock and a Glock,” blind to the fact that despite the disrespect he gets from uptown whites, his fair skin gives him a veil of privilege – and as a member of the hip-hop community, responsibility. Byrne manages to keep him likable, but driven and too focused on his “brand,” needing to learn to get out of his own ego and his fear of getting bogged down by serious issues like injustice. Still, his stage style is tight, as, with a wry smile, he spins Goodwin’s rhymes like they’re his own.

Local entertainer and the show’s music director Aaron “Gritty” Grinter is Verb, Pinnacle’s childhood best friend and long-time collaborator. The most complex character, his TV moment was to be a personal comeback, after past (unspecified) incidents had him in court-ordered therapy. The young man’s shooting affects him deeply, “I was that kid so many times!” Grinter is well-suited to the role, a natural motivator channeling the fire awakened within the Hype Man.

Indy native Paige Neely is Peep One, who tries to walk the middle path between the others’ bold personalities. Having been adopted by an apparently middle-class family (likely white), she doesn’t deny her blackness but identifies mostly as a woman in hip-hop, which is struggle enough. She understands Pinnacle’s fixation on the business of showbiz, but knows what Verb wants to accomplish is even more vital. Neely makes her more three-dimensional than the script seems to suggest, ably going from referee to friend, to a girl with her own mind and dreams, as the story demands.

This play is the directing debut of Daniel A. Martin, who is experienced with more comic fare, but as (among other things) an improv artist, does well with a trio in a very collaborative, sharing environment. The drama feels as real as the latest TV and online news, and though the death described is fictional, it has occurred in one form or another numerous times (including here in Indianapolis). The play doesn’t exploit, make light of, or preach on the issues, but helps to continue our local and national conversation.

In consideration of the ever-present health issues, FTC producing directors Bryan Fonseca and Jordan Flores Schwartz, and company staff, are taking the Covid-19 threat seriously. The stage (excellently designed by Daniel Uhde) is outdoors, behind the Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St., with plenty of parking at the adjacent park. There is appropriately-spaced seating, hand sanitizer handy, and all (except for actors while acting) are required to wear face masks (this was policy before the Mayor made it mandatory countywide). Local artist Kathryn Rodenbach made and donated some nice cloth masks, which can be picked up for a donation of whatever you want to give.

“Hype Man” runs through July 26. Get details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org. To delve deeper into the issues of the play, Fonseca added this page as well.

FTC: ‘Cake’ a complex confection

By John Lyle Belden

Though every aspect of a thoroughly-planned wedding seems critical, the most important thing is still the people involved.

That is the approach playwright Bekah Brunstetter brought to “The Cake,” now presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by founding staff member Jordan Flores Schwartz. In this “issue play” tackling recent conflicts of homophobia, religious freedom, and free commerce, while a bakery avoiding making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage is at the center of the story, it is the people and their very human feelings that we explore.

Della (Jean Arnold) appears to have her life in order. Her shop, Della’s Sweets of Winston, N.C., is doing well and she has been selected for the “Big American Bake Off” television show. She is a stickler for following the directions, whether it be with a generations-old recipe or the centuries-old wisdom of the Bible. We meet her speaking on this to a young freelance writer, Macy (Chandra Lynch), who, while working on her next story, has an ulterior motive. This is revealed when Jen (Kyrsten Lyster) arrives. 

Jen grew up in this neighborhood and is friends with Della. She is also Macy’s fiance. After first insisting on making the wedding cake, before finding out it is for “two brides,” Della suddenly remembers how busy she will be around the wedding date and changes her mind. 

At this point you might expect characters to dig in their heels as they take sides, each individually convinced they’re right, and maybe even go to court. But the consequences are more nuanced. 

Della, who has known and loved Jen since babysitting her years ago, almost immediately feels regret over her decision. While her husband, hard-working plumber Tim (Adam O. Crowe), supports her on it, she finds herself haunted by the voice of the Big American Bake Off host George (Dwuan Watson) questioning her motives and methods. Also, she can’t help but notice the true love between Jen and Macy, a feeling she struggles to find between her and her dutiful but distant spouse.

Meanwhile, a rift forms between our engaged couple. Macy, a New Yorker, sees all she feared from the South coming true, and wants to strike back, or at least give up the fancy nuptials for a simple civil ceremony — elsewhere. Jen, on the other hand, is determined to have her dream wedding. It turns out you can take the lesbian out of North Carolina, but you can’t take North Carolina out of the lesbian.

As with all genuine stories, no matter how serious things get, some of it you just have to laugh at. There are plenty of comic moments in this play, especially when Della tries to rekindle her own jaded romance.

Arnold makes Della surprisingly sympathetic, given the spot events have put her in. Though playing a staunch conservative, Crowe gives Tim enough heart that we can see what she saw in him.

Lynch and Lyster make a good couple, as in their roles their yin and yang of protector and nurturer balance each other out. Still, neither woman is all hard or all soft. Is it enough to save the wedding? (And will there be cake?) You’ll just have to see to find out. 

Performances run through March 22 at FTC’s home, the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan St., west of downtown Indy. Call 317-653-1519 or visit FonsecaTheatre.org.

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.