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.

Eclipse presents exceptional ‘Cabaret’

By Wendy Carson

When most people think of the musical, “Cabaret,” they consider Sally Bowles to be the main character. However, this is really the story of the writer, Clifford Bradshaw, and his quest to write a novel. It is, after all, based on semi-autobiographical stories by an actual writer living in 1930s Berlin.  

Yet, as crafted by Joe Masteroff (with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb), it is actually the Emcee who is the storyteller and master manipulator of the entire plot. We see him pulling the strings, putting all of the pieces into play, joyously watching the outcomes, and savagely commenting on it all through song. This has never been so utterly clear as it is in Eclipse’s current production.

From the first second he takes the stage, Matthew Conwell’s presence as our host enthralls. We can’t help but obey his every command. Fortunately for the rest of the cast, he directs us all to pay attention to the other performers who are equally outstanding.

The Kit Kat Girls: Rosie (Reagan Cole Minnette), Lulu (Peyton Wright), Frenchie (Cora Lucas), Texas (Julia Murphy), Fritzie (Lizzie Mowry), and Helga (Emily Lynn Thomas), are all at the top of their game. Their dexterity, balance, and skill bringing life to Alexandria Van Paris’s choreography (which in some cases would make even Fosse impressed) shows that they are all destined for promising stage careers if they choose to pursue them. They also bring a hint of joy to the jaded seediness of their roles.

The Kit Kat Boys, Bobby (Isaiah Hastings) and Victor (Jet Terry) are both athletic and charismatic to the point of making you sad that the script doesn’t offer them more stage time.

Cynthia Kauffman gives Sally Bowles a happier outlook. She keeps her character intentionally ignorant to anything around her that is not currently making her happy and promoting her career.

Donathan Arnold’s turn as Clifford Bradshaw makes the character as All-American as apple pie, while reminding us that apples can be tart, rotten, sweet and that all recipes have secret ingredients within them. Being an African American makes casting sense, as in the era Black ex-pats often found Europe more welcoming than back home. And he does seem to enjoy Germany – until he doesn’t.

Judy Fitzgerald and Charles Goad truly break your heart as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a couple so hopelessly in love but still wary of the dangers arising around them.

Mowry’s delightful turn as the dedicated “lover” of sailors, Fraulein Kost, helps bring some much-needed humor into much of the storyline outside of The Kit Kat Club. But her true loyalties are no laughing matter.

Scott Van Wye pours on the charm as the mysterious Ernst Ludwig. We almost don’t mind the true nature of his “work,” until it’s literally on his sleeve.

Eclipse is a program of Summer Stock Stage that gives the alumni of the youth program a chance to be part of a professional production. They not only learn from experienced director Carlos Medina Maldonado but also by working alongside Equity actors Fitzgerald (co-founder of Actors Theatre of Indiana) and Goad.

While I do admit that this musical is one of my all-time favorites, this production makes me feel like I have never actually seen it before. If I could, I would gladly watch every performance.

You can see it Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Little-known story of man’s American ‘Dreams’

By John Lyle Belden

While most know how the United States has failed to be a land of opportunity for natives and people of African descent, we might be less familiar with the manner with which Asian immigrants have been treated. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act made coming to America difficult, but in the 20th century, circumstances gave some hope by way of “paper families” – exploiting the loss of official records in events like the Great San Francisco Earthquake to claim relatives in the States.

This process, and the consequences of its necessary deception, are dramatized in “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” by Jessica Huang, on stage (after a two-year delay) at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It’s been one year since Laura (Anne Bates) departed, but still too early for the traditional month when the Dead come to visit – however, she’s not Chinese, so she haunts her daughter Sheila (Allison Buck) and husband Harry (David Shih) anyway. 

Her arrival takes Harry Chin back to past moments, meeting young Laura as he struggles with his English, yet managing enough to tell her an old story. The supernatural effect then takes him further back, to when he was Leong Cheung Yu, leaving behind his name and past life to become the alleged relative of a Chinese American named Chin, complete with backstory he must memorize to the last word. He coaches a fellow immigrant (Linden Tailor), who grows more nervous every moment. Reciting the papers exactly becomes literally the most important thing in their lives.

Flashing back from the present-day of the 1970s to decades past takes its toll, as his boss (Sam Encarnation) re-appears as his Immigration interrogator. Harry sees the face of the woman he left behind (Stephanie Soohyun Park) in the interpreter assigned at his questioning, and later in a surprise visit from Susan, the girl he had last seen as an infant.

The restless dead have a lot to teach Harry, Sheila (a person “of two worlds,” they note) and, most importantly, us. After all, “Haunting is helping,” as Harry’s old companion says. 

Be sure to read the historical notes in the play program, as they add clarity to what is happening on stage. Huang based this on the actual story of a man who lived in Minnesota after arrival via a “paper family,” so this dramatization contains a lot of discomforting truth, as well as the strength of character of a man trying to do the best he can for himself and his people – both those he left, and the new family he makes here.

Shih excellently gives us the fiercely proud Chin. Buck is both caring and curious, portraying a woman at the crossroads of immense possibility – not only in learning more about her true heritage (in shocking fashion) but also being in the “women’s lib” era with the openings that entails. Bates has Laura loving fiercely as well, to her limit and beyond. Tailor entertains in his supporting roles. Park catches our heart in softly tragic moments. Encarnacion is appropriately frightening as the face of cruel bureaucracy.

Jaki Bradley directs this otherworldly yet accessible story, set in the IRT’s intimate Upperstage, with clever set design by Wilson Chin. 

An important story, as well as a bold and fascinating drama, “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” continue through May 15 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

IRT presents powerful ‘Reclamation’

By John Lyle Belden

Names have power.

This is one of the oldest truths of both the supernatural/spiritual world and human society in general. A name is more than just a convenient personal label. You carry expectations and the weight of history in the words that signify your identity.

Thomas Jefferson was and is a very powerful name. It holds immense significance not only to the nation he helped create and lead, but also to the people whom he was related to, owned as property – and both.

The author of the Declaration of Independence and father of the University of Virginia is long gone when two men come to visit the grounds of Monticello, formerly the Jefferson plantation. While the new play, “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” by Charles Smith, in its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is a speculative recreation of the actions and conversations of James Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette Jefferson in 1866, these were both real men. They were born into slavery on that plot of land, and later, one freed by the former President’s will and the other by self-purchase, would come to reside near each other in Ohio. They gave first-hand recollections of their lives to a newspaper in 1873.

Another important name to remember is Sally Hemings, slave and “concubine” to Thomas Jefferson and mother of several children by him, including Madison.

In Smith’s play, Madison (Brian Anthony Wilson) and Israel (David Alan Anderson) have returned to Monticello, a run-down place with an absent caretaker – the only resident being the blind mule we hear braying offstage. Both have come looking for something. Israel hopes to find the lost grave of Sally Hemings, to thank her spirit for the kindness she gave him as a house-servant in his youth. He also hopes for news of his brother,* auctioned away from him, as were other family members, when Jefferson died deep in debt. Madison wants, at long last, something that is due to him. He thinks it must be inside that neglected mansion where he grew up, son of the master but still a slave.

A familiar face to IRT patrons, Anderson gives another wonderful performance, believably fitting into the skin and personality of Israel. He lends earnestness to his story of how he decided to assume the power of the name of the man who considered him property, and easily wears the pain of longing for a glimpse of his lost family – a brother, a child, any of them.

Wilson makes a welcome return to Indy as a man just as stubborn – and in his own way, blind – as the old mule. He portrays the firm confidence of a man on a mission, circumstance be damned. But will taking the mansion’s old wooden front doors, which he helped build but never had the privilege of entering the house through, be enough “reclamation” to soothe his soul?

Being light-skinned, Wilson reflects the fact that both Madison’s father and mother Sally’s father were white (odd irony for a society that supposedly abhorred miscegenation). In fact, other Hemings children opted to pass into White society. In their conversation, Madison and Israel refer to this as “passing over” – a euphemism we usually associate with death.   

Through bouts of November rain and cold, and flashes of anger and humor, we get these men’s story, their frustrations, and their desire to see something better from a country that has wronged them so deeply. The recent Civil War affirmed their freedom but granted little else. We also discover the power of other names, of the many people who built the estate and died on these lands, power that recharges with every utterance of their names out loud. In the end, we find these two men were never alone.

Veteran director Ron OJ Parson brings together a powerful performance. Scenic Designer Shaun Motley’s realistic rustic set is perfectly balanced by Projections Designer Mike Tutaj’s images of the iconic Monticello mansion that flow from impressionistic to photo-real as befitting the drama before them.

Performances of this powerful work run through April 16 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.


*CORRECTION: Original post gave incorrect relation to the character

Beautiful genius returns to Indy stage

By John Lyle Belden

A couple of things I learned about Hedy Lamarr: Her first name (derived from Hedwig) is supposed to be pronounced with a long “E” – “heedie.” Also, she was not amused at all by her name being used as a running gag in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

Actually, the “Hedley” joke was all I knew of her growing up, as her classic films like “Samson and Delilah” weren’t in movie houses at the time. By then, the actress had retreated from Hollywood and the world in general. Later, I found out about her invention – “frequency hopping” technology meant to help the military in World War II that now serves everyone in our WiFi and cell phones. So, I always thought of her as a genius first, then a movie star.

For an earlier generation, she was “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (a fitting title hung on her by movie mogul Louis B. Meyer), the sexy Austrian in the controversial film “Ecstasy,” and later numerous leading roles with stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and as Delilah with Victor Mature. It also seemed there were nearly as many marriages as hit films.

So where did I learn the facts at the top of this story? From the lady herself – sorta.

“HEDY! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the one-woman show written and performed by Heather Massie, returned to Indianapolis recently for a brief engagement at The District Theatre on Mass. Ave. The original under-an-hour production was featured in the 2016 DivaFest and won the audience award at the 2017 IndyFringe. Massie also performed it to widespread acclaim across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Massie has since added more well-researched material to give us the 90-minute performance Indy audiences saw March 18-20.

From Beyond, Ms. Lamarr comes to visit us. She is drawn by our curiosity – not about all the unsavory elements of her biography (though she gives us a bit of those) but about how a part of her came to live in every person’s pocket or purse.

She tells of childhood in Vienna, where her father Emil would interest his “ugly duckling” in the workings of machines and encourage her to think for herself. Of course, doing so resulted in her headstrong insistence in becoming a film actress. After being “tricked” into an infamous movie nude scene, she sticks to stage work, where she is wooed and wed by a rich arms dealer. Her husband’s customers, including Italian and German officials, ignore the beautiful girl in the room as they talk openly about “the torpedo problem,” something she will remember after escaping Austria, just ahead of the Nazi takeover, to Hollywood, with a new name, glamour and fame.

As for glamour, she says all one has to do is “stand still and look stupid.” She definitely does neither as she tells her story.

Massie also channels notables from Hedy’s life including Mayer, Gable, good friend Stewart, and a starstruck G.I. who dances with her in the Hollywood Canteen – all in entertaining fashion.

We get the story of the Secret Communication System, created with composer George Antheil – it uses 88 radio frequencies, a salute to George’s piano – which is awarded a U.S. Patent that she turns over to the U.S. Navy. The military does use the technology – in the 1960s. During World War II, they thought the pretty starlet was better suited to selling War Bonds, which she also did in genius fashion.

This show is gloriously entertaining and inspiring, while presenting a very human woman with her own flaws and setbacks. Even showing this side of Hedy, Massie manages to make endearing. Whether you have never heard of Lamarr, or been a lifetime fan, you will adore “HEDY!”

For more information on the show and upcoming performances, visit www.HeatherMassie.com. In a continuing salute to women in science, Massie is also working on a show on the life of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space). Given her good relationship with Indianapolis, here’s hoping we will be seeing it soon.

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.

Important ‘Mountaintop’ in the hills of Bloomington

By Wendy Carson

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by assassination, he gave one of his most famous speeches. Known as, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, it encourages people to wonder what would happen to them if they didn’t act in service to others, rather than what would happen to them if they did. 

He speaks of traveling through history and witnessing numerous times of oppressed peoples overcoming their struggles. He reminds us of what we have already been through and how we can continue to overcome poverty and injustice by working together to support one another. 

However, he also speaks about his near-death experience from a knife attack years earlier and how a mere sneeze could have killed him. He references the constant barrage of death threats that he endures each and every day. He acknowledges that he will not always be there to continue the fight for justice and equality. Yet, he assures us that he knows that what he has begun will continue on after he is gone.

This speech, its message, and King’s life are the inspirations for Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington. 

King (Michael Aaron Pogue) retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to try and get some rest while working on his next speech. He sends a friend to get him some cigarettes to help with this mission. After calling down to the front desk for room service, his coffee is delivered by Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), a beautiful maid on her first night of her new job. She also brings with her the next day’s paper. With the storm raging outside and his reluctance to be alone, the two engage in a spirited discussion of King’s life, the Civil Rights struggle, and the future. 

Hall pulls no punches in portraying King as an honorable but flawed man. Pogue proudly shows us King’s many great achievements while also regretfully acknowledging his indiscretions and moral failings. He also shows us flashes of future inevitability in his panicked reactions to the claps of thunder which, sounding to him like gunshots, rattle King so.

Baskin shows Camae as a mater-of-fact woman who has no time or desire to mince words and always clearly speaks her mind. She manages to keep the character’s expletive-laden rants light yet never denies the meaning and power behind them. She also skillfully keeps Camae sympathetic once we learn the truth of who it is she is actually working for. 

Director Ansley Valentine brings us a story that reminds us not just of the loss of a great leader for change but also that the struggle is not a sprint, but a relay race, and we are all responsible for our part in it. So, take up the baton, and see this show. 

Performances run through March 20 at the Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Storefront: Listen to the ‘Voices’

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Down in the basement venue of the Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, we are visited by a Griot. In ages past, this storyteller class told the stories and shared the heritage of West African peoples. Neither the cruel Middle Passage nor the slavers’ whips could destroy their spirit, which lives on in people of color today, and channeled by playwright Angela Jackson-Brown into “Voices of Yesteryear: A Showcase of School #26.” This hour of important narratives is directed by Dena Toler, whose experience included bringing to life multicultural stories at the old Phoenix Theatre under Bryan Fonseca.

While you entered the theater at Broad Ripple, in this space you are on 16th Street, formerly Tinker Street. The area Griot (Saundra “Mijiza” Holiday) invites you to hear stories, told first-hand by those who lived them, about John Hope School No. 26 and its mostly African American neighborhood.

For those who don’t know or remember, this K-8 public school was open from 1920 to 2007 at 1301 E. 16th St., now the site of Oaks Academy Middle School. Named after John Hope, an educator, political activist, and the first African-American president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University, it is held in proud memory by its alumni, who went on to high school at Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks.

In “Voices,” we are transported to a different era, not much different from our own but in which we are reminded of the traditions and wisdom it feels we sorely lack in our current world.

We are at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle and a Teacher (Katherine Adamou) shows how the children of the time were taught not that they could succeed but that they WOULD succeed. Discipline, manners, scholarship, and moral integrity were the cornerstones of the classrooms. “Do not shame us,” she commanded, “Or yourselves.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached these principles and every child was expected to know and live them. 

Speaking of Dr. King, we hear from a Young Girl (Ari Casey) excited to hear him speak when he comes to Indianapolis in 1958. She not only loves his message, but also has quite a crush on the handsome minister. However, speaking of her feelings could make her mother take the switch to her for being fresh with a man of God.

We also meet one of the many Elders (Ennis Adams) who were leaders in the Neighborhood. They made sure that the children behaved, were respectful to others, went to church, learned their lessons, and parented them as needed. “I’m reminding you that you are a community,” he emphasizes. Everyone looked out for everyone else and while nobody’s lives were by any means easy, they were a bit more stable in a way that would be nice to see return to the world.

Rounding out the cast is Jamaal McCray, remembering as an Alumni and present as a Teenage Boy in the 50s, whose stories echo the change in direction that many youth took in stepping away from this upbringing and finding their own way in this burgeoning new world. 

Having grown up in a rural environment where folks likewise looked out for one another, we found these stories brought on a nostalgia for a simpler, more secure time. One where you could safely play throughout your neighborhood knowing that everything would be alright as long as you were home before the streetlights came on. Of course, we didn’t have the additional burden of race. Teacher and Elder understood this extra stress, and made sure John Hope students knew where they came from, that their history didn’t begin on the shores of America.

The children understand. “A lot of bad things have happened to our people,” the Girl muses. “Ain’t no place perfect,” the Boy says, reminding us that mid-century Indy was not all an idyllic location for Black residents.

Toler and the cast do an excellent job of bringing us people who are a little different, yet very much the same as us. “You know me!” Griot declares; the story of a people is told, she says, in every man, woman, boy and girl you see on the street.

Listen to their “Voices” through March 6 at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at www.storefrontindy.com.