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.

OnyxFest 2021

This last very busy weekend, aside from various production openings, was opening weekend of the two-week OnyxFest: A Celebration of African American Voices, presented by IndyFringe with performances at the IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis. We (John and Wendy) were unable to make the shows, but a friend of the site, a member of Indiana Writers Center, gifted us the following review. Opinions are the author’s. Get festival information and tickets at indyfringe.org/onyxfest-2021.

By Celeste Williams

That Day In February,” Janice Morris Neal’s OnyxFest play, directed by Dena Toler, tugs at all of the strings.

One of five productions in “Indy’s first and only theatre festival dedicated to the stories of Black playwrights,” Neal’s play returns 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, at IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd.

The three siblings, portrayed by Ennis Adams, Jr., Katherine Adamou, and Lakshmi Symone Rae, perform an intricate, emotion-laden word-dance on stage, as they navigate relationships laced with trauma of their mother’s love, but grounded in love.

Neal wrote the play with true events at its core. Even if audiences did not know the specific story behind the production, they would recognize parts of themselves, through the nuanced performances led by Adams and enhanced by Adamou and Rae.

The actors’ interplay brings the background story to life. The presence of the liquor bottle on a table subtly hints at the older brother’s internal fight — to separate himself from his father’s act, even as he fears he has inherited some his ways.

The sisters’ presence brings the brother’s insecurities to light. The more insecure he becomes, the more pours and sips. The middle sister’s anxiety is illustrated expertly by Adamou, whose leg jiggles nervously throughout. Rae, as the younger sister, is the picture of young rebellion.

The fact that it is the younger, rebellious sister, who could not have remembered the events at the heart of the story, is the one to bring the narrative to a head, is a brilliant turn. The father is an invisible presence throughout.

There is a last line (no spoilers) that leaves a viewer satisfied and wanting even more.

In interviews, Neal has said that she wanted to convey “the perspective of adult children who did not grow up with their parents.” The play also touches strongly on issues of domestic violence and the resulting traumas.

“They all grapple with different issues and how to reconcile them,” Neal said. “Even things that happen to us as children can affect us as adults.”

It is a good thing that the ending leaves one imagining what comes next. And, “That Day in February” rightfully leaves appreciative audiences wondering what playwright Neal has in store for us next.

We’ll be eagerly waiting for that day.

Thanks again to Williams, and IWC board member Mary Karty, for the assist. The other festival shows are (descriptions provided by OnyxFest):

1200 Miles From Jerome” by Crystal Rhodes, directed by Deborah Asante, 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14

In the 1940’s, during World War II, a mother, her two daughters, a young school teacher and a 14-year-old Japanese-American fugitive from an internment camp are forced to leave the town of Jerome, Arkansas, and flee over 1,200 miles to New York City. The journey is filled with danger, a daunting experience in which “driving while black” could mean the difference between life and death.

Fly Blackbird Fly/Voices We Can’t Unhear” written and directed by Latrice Young (Distinctly Unique), 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, and 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A choreopoem recounting traumatic experiences of several Black women. Each woman is at her breaking point and desperately wants to escape the cages they’re in, but this can only happen if they’re willing to relax, relate, and release.

Ranson Place” by Jameel Amir Martin, directed by Shandrea Funnye, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15

Two unlikely companions holding on to a precious thing, reluctant to leave a special place, must contend with forces that would spur their belated departure.

This Bitter Cup” written and directed by Charla Booth, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A Black family in the rural south in the 1950’s struggle to find balance in their lives. A son who wants an education to rise above the limitations of the Old South, and a daughter whose dreams are thwarted by being Black and a woman and loved by the wrong man, in a complicated entanglement that leaves us wondering if this family can find peace.