Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Join IRT on a difficult, but enlightening journey

By John Lyle Belden

Indianapolis, Indiana, translates to “Indian City, Land of Indians,” where, ironically, the natives were forcibly removed.

Now, actor DeLanna Studi — a “card-carrying Indian” — has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where she has played Native American roles in the past, to share with us part of her personal journey. Specifically, it was that part that she chose to take because her recent ancestors were given no choice.

“And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears” is the culmination of a project exploring Studi’s Cherokee heritage. The tribe once occupied much of present-day Georgia, North Carolina and neighboring states, but at the order of President Andrew Jackson most were forced to travel by foot to lands in present-day Oklahoma, where Studi’s family settled. Her personal journey began in childhood, when her father, who brought Studi up to be proud of her heritage — a privilege he was denied growing up in a government-run boarding school — went to her elementary school to inform her teacher that American Indians are not “extinct,” as was being taught.

Recently, Studi had the opportunity to undertake her project, bringing her father and a videographer to Cherokee, N.C., to begin their “walk.” They visited numerous sites and conducted many interviews with the help of her father, who could speak the Cherokee language. 

It would be accurate, but misleading, to say that “And So We Walked…” is a one-person show. Studi stands by herself, but she is not alone. Through her careful acting, we can see her father with her, as well as many of the people she meets and travels with. In her dreams and quiet moments, she is accompanied by her grandmothers — and she is haunted by the Cherokee legend of Spearfinger, the wicked woman used to scare children into behaving, with whom Studi surprisingly feels a degree of kinship.

This story is rich with history you likely never heard in school — all true. You learn of the Dawes Rolls of tribal citizenship, and how some Indians don’t “count;” of the everyday ritual of “going to water,” and the sacred pool still kept from outsiders; of the Stomp Dance, and why Studi is always only a “guest” there; and of the proud nation that was, the forced removal that shattered it, and the betrayal by their own kin that sealed their fate.

“What you are looking at is a scar,” she is told at the beginning of the Trail of Tears. She shares with us the pain of that national wound, makes us feel it.

And this is a very personal story for Studi, as the spirits she has awakened force her to deal with unresolved mental trauma.

Directed by project collaborator Corey Madden, the performance is helped along with a simple but evocative stage design by John Coyne, lighting and projections by Norman Coates and beautiful soundscape by Bruno Louchouarn with Aimee Lynn Phillips, and music by John-John Grant and Sarah Elizabeth Burkey.

Performances are held through Nov. 10 on the IRT Upperstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

IndyFringe: A Thousand Words

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

C. Neil Parsons, bass trombonist and member of the comic ensemble, The Fourth Wall, presents a much more serious performance: a tribute to his father, Christopher Parsons, who served in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, and was tapped by the Army to take photographs of the war and those who fought it.

The elder Parsons was also involved in the arts. He was a theatre director when he was drafted in 1968. The discipline he had developed for the stage — the ability to be still, attention to detail — served him well as he would be on “point” (the vulnerable first soldier out) on patrols. While he miraculously avoided serious physical injury, he would come to understand that the war had wounded him in a far deeper fashion.

Neil presents a slide show of his father’s photographs, and reads from his letters. He also plays haunting music on his instrument and gives his own perspective by reciting essays on Pain Tolerance, Chronic Pain, Permanence, and Betrayal — autobiographical insights that allow us to see the father in the son.

“Someone must not forget,” he says. And as a reminder, Neil offers buttons with lines from his father’s favorite Shakespeare passage. But it’s unlikely anyone will forget the tragic beauty of this very personal story of one man that resonates with the loss of thousands.

Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

You might not have heard of her, but after you see this one-woman show you won’t forget her. Jeannette Rankin campaigned nationwide for women’s suffrage, helping to bring it about in her native Montana. She was also elected twice to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she pushed for peace and various reforms.

At times she seemed on the wrong side of history — she could not bring herself to vote for America’s entry into World War II — but especially with her resistance to war in Vietnam, she mainly proved to be a woman ahead of her time.

Written and performed by J. Emily Peabody for Thorn Productions, she puts an irresistible energy into her portrayal of Rankin. What could have been a dry recitation of history comes across more like a rally.

To help spread knowledge of this persistent American hero, Peabody offers copies of her script, with details beyond what she presents in the Fringe-length show, for sale after each performance. She will be at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave. on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 22, 24 & 25).

IndyFringe: And Then They Came For Me

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The Carmel High School theater program — practically a professional company, considering the quality of its shows — presents this historical drama, written by James Still (playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre).

Consider it a companion piece to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as it relates the stories of people who knew her, but with events she couldn’t have known about while in hiding. The focus is on two young people — Eva Geiringer and Helmuth Silberberg — whom we know much about because they survived the Holocaust. The acted scenes are intercut with audio and video footage of these two from recent interviews.

The student actors give stunning performances: Maddie Nagel as Eva, with Austin Audia, Kelsey McShay and Luke Vreeman as her family; Ryan Yauger as “Hello” Silberberg, with Kate Barthuly and Jack Sullivan as his parents; and Emily Chrzanowski as Anne, looking like she just stepped out of one of the old photographs. Sullivan also has the unfortunate but important role of a Nazi Youth, showing the contrast of the regular German’s life of indoctrination and exploitation of his naive faith in the Reich.

The narrative itself is riveting, with events of miraculous survival, as well as stories of those who perished so close to their potential liberation.

Direction is by Maggie Cassidy, with student assistants Madi Diehl (sound), Delaney Kibler (costumes and lights) and Gabrielle Marshall (projection, poster and logo design).

To see both the future of Indiana theatre, and a stark reminder of humanity’s past, remaining performances are 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair.