‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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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.