OnyxFest: Black is My Color

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In a bookstore and coffee shop called I Take It BLACK, two “sistahs” meet. The millennial (Paige Elisse) shares her personal frustrations with an older poet (Marlena Johnson), who shares the wisdom and verse of Mari Evans.

“Who’s that?!” the young woman asks. 

For many of us watching “Black is my Color,” by journalist and playwright Celeste Williams, this is sadly a common question. Evans, who resided in Indianapolis until her death in 2017, was a world-renowned poet, author, and activist. Today, a full-body portrait of her looks down on us from a wall on Massachusetts Ave., but she is not as widely and readily known as other people so honored around Indy. This play helps to introduce us to the woman in the mural.

“Who can be born Black and not exult!” The young reader is puzzled at this declaration. To reach understanding, we step back in time to a cluttered living room where Evans (Ellen Price Sayles Lane) grants a rare interview. She seems to both resent and welcome being considered a “troublemaker” – “I look at everything through a Black lens.”

As Evans speaks, “Who I am is who I was at (age) 5,” her young spirit (Amani Muhammad) appears. She and Elisse dance to accompany the poetry. Evans speaks fondly of the lost community around Indiana Avenue, and frankly about her adopted hometown – “The contradictions are more seething here in Indianapolis.”

Directed by TaMara E’lan G. and Manon Voice, this show is a much-needed lesson in local history, especially of the lives and perspective of African Americans, as well as an insight into a brilliant woman who lived among us, dedicating her life to Black – and therefore human – empowerment. Lane as Evans radiates both power and a generous spirit, holding no malice but accepting no compromise. Muhammad and Elisse are an artful chorus of movement, and Johnson happily gives us entry to this important figure’s world.

As this work develops through its performances, hopefully we will see more of “Black is My Color” at future events.

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.

Dig it! Phoenix breaks ground on its new site

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, a downtown Indy arts institution for more than 30 years, took its next step in relocating to a bigger, better building with its Groundbreaking Ceremony on May 2 at the now-vacant site on north Illinois Street by the Cultural Trail.

Construction will begin soon, with grand opening of the new facility in spring of 2018. In the meantime, the Phoenix continues its full season of performances in its longtime Chatham Arch home, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass Ave.).

“This will be the first free-standing theater (not part of a school or other institution) built (downtown) in the last 100 years,” said producing director (and one of Phoenix’s founders) Bryan Fonseca. He added that the multi-million dollar capital campaign, largest in its history, had nearly reached its goal, with plans to continue fundraising for contingency funds and other future needs.

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While breaking new ground, the Phoenix Theatre “broke” its old logo, in the form of a pinata.

With two state-of-the-art stages, meeting areas and full costume and prop shops, the planned building will not only host full year-round Phoenix seasons, but be available to other community theatre and arts groups.

“We want to eradicate the distinction of ‘underserved groups,'” Fonseca said, “and become one community.”

The Groundbreaking drew numerous dignitaries, including Jeff Bennett, Deputy Mayor of Community Development for Indianapolis, who said the new Phoenix building “will transform this neighborhood, and it will transform lives.”

City-County Councilor Vop Osili was pleased with the location, just a block away from Meridian Street.

“This is located literally at the crossroads of commerce and culture,” he said.

Brian Sullivan, managing partner of Shiel Sexton contractors and member of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail Board of Directors, declared it a “happy day” and “a groundbreaking day for a groundbreaking theatre.”

“Today, it has never been more important for our community to hear from our artists,” he added.

Fervent supporter, donor and Phoenix board member Frank Basile, who proudly noted he had seen practically every one of the theatre’s productions over the years, declared, “We’ve really just begun.”

Local actors and Phoenix founding artists Deb Sargent-Shaver and Gayle Steigerwald praised Fonseca for his leadership and thanked all who contributed to the building campaign.

“We are so grateful that our legacy, and our tribe, will continue in this new building,” Steigerwald said.

Among the many past and present actors and crew members in attendance was Charles Goad, who was featured in the very first Phoenix show in 1983, as well as the present production of “The Open Hand.”

The traditional chrome-shovel ceremony featured Fonseca, Bennett, Sullivan and other dignitaries, but in true theatre community fashion, the shovels were handed over to any actors, crew, friends or supporters who wanted a photo opportunity. Several thespians eagerly turned spades of dirt, as if to speed the process of bringing in a new stage for their work.

To conclude the festivities, the Phoenix had its old bird-from-the-flames logo symbolically “destroyed” with an appropriately-decorated pinata, full of candies wrapped in the new logo, and prizes supplied by sponsors — including tickets to upcoming Phoenix shows. Several in attendance took got swings in before the party favor shattered to cheers all around.

For information on present and future shows, as well as the new location and Capital Campaign, go to www.phoenixtheatre.org.KIMG0575