By John Lyle Belden
The Naptown African American Theatre Collective made an impressive debut with its opening one-night production of Austin Dean Ashford’s “Black Book,” directed by Dexter Singleton, on May 13.
NAATC is Indianapolis’s first Black Equity theatre company. A 501c3 nonprofit organization, it is dedicated to diverse employment and speaking to the Black experience in all its forms.
We hear from many such voices in “Black Book,” written and performed solo by Ashford, a many-times national champion of Forensics (the art of speech and debate) who expanded to theatre while pursuing his masters degree. (He is presently earning a PhD at Texas Tech.) The central character is based somewhat on himself, a Forensics expert spending a summer as debate coach for a high school in a mostly-Black inner-city neighborhood. He tells his own story, how he elevated himself from a rough childhood and young adulthood mainly through speech and debate. We also get many glimpses of his coach and mentor, based on famed educator Tommie Lindsey.
We then meet his students, who naturally want to be anywhere but in class, but need summer school credit to graduate. There are four, but there should have been five. Just days earlier, one was shot by a gun-wielding teacher. One of our students caught the incident on his phone and the viral video only managed to get the teacher fired, not prosecuted. Another was a close friend, and the trauma of witnessing the death exacerbated his stuttering.
Prior to the first class, Ashford’s character asked that the students watch the 2007 Denzel Washington film, “The Great Debaters,” about the life of Melvin B. Tolson, whom the school is named after. In turn, the kids call him out for trying to be some sort of outsider teacher-savior from a popular movie. “This ain’t ‘Dead Poets Society’!”
As he proves to his charges, and us in the audience, this is a more genuine story of how oratory arts can lift up young men and bring about changes individually, and hopefully beyond. He assures them that this isn’t his bid for sainthood, and speech and debate won’t eliminate the thousand little cuts of racism the youths will endure through their lives, but will give them the tools to assert their dignity and heal.
It also opens the spectrum of what it means to be successful: “You can be a champion, and never touch a ball.”
This drama, with plenty of amusing bits and portrayals, does follow the genre storyline to a degree as the coach mostly wins over the kids, and we end with a triumphant exhibition. However, it feels natural, not contrived, and results in the kind of local small victory that such characters can build on. And the way to that “happy” ending is, of course, a bumpy road. One irony that the teacher comes to grasp, and should stab at the hearts of adults watching, is that the one who would have been the best student in this class lies in his grave. We have a long way to go for true victory.
Ashford’s style is captured energy molded in numerous ways, aided by contorted body movements apropos to each character. Being first a master of speech and persuasion infuses his natural acting with commanding power. We are briefed before the performance that the audience should react freely and respond to any question tossed through the thin fourth wall. This we did with almost a feeling of obligation, giving the show the uplifting air of a traditional African-American church service.
During his instruction, Ashford asks, “What’s your big ‘Why’?” What is the purpose that drives you? We get the answer for his various characters, and a major clue as to the whole endeavor of NAATC. This illuminating look at contemporary culture, how it fails our young men, and a possible way to help remedy the situation, is part of a bold premiere season.
Next, Naptown embraces Motown with “Detroit ‘67,” by Dominique Morriseau, opening Aug. 25. In spring the company swings to August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” scheduled to open March 8, 2024. Then, on May 3, NAATC asks us to look into “The Light,” by Loy A. Webb. All performances are at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St.
The Collective is led by the hard work of LaKesha Lorene, with Ms. Latrice Young and board president Camike Jones, editor of the Indianapolis Recorder, along with Mariah Ivey of the Madame Walker Legacy Center, Flanner House executive director Brandon Cosby, Ron Rice, and AshLee Baskin.
Please visit naatcinc.org to learn more.