Phoenix: Coming of age in home haunted by history

NOTE: “The Magnolia Ballet” is not a “ballet” in the conventional sense. The Google/Oxford definition of ballet is “an artistic dance form performed to music using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures.” This drama, the world premiere of a new play by Terry Guest at the Phoenix Theatre through April 10, is neither a musical nor danced-through, but displays its own rhythm as it deals with codified steps in a society long steeped in restrictive tradition. — JLB

By Wendy Carson

Ghosts exist, whether you believe in them or not. They are especially prevalent in the South where so much pain and struggle caused by slavery, racism, and general prejudices have caused countless souls unrest.

Young Ezekial (Isaiah Moore), “Z,” the sixth of his name, knows these ghosts all too well. Descended from slaves who bought freedom, only to be pressed into servitude again, they haunt his days and nights. His best friend Danny (Andrew Martin), has different issues — a mix of pride and shame in his family heritage of slave-owners, lynchers, and KKK members. 

The two families have long lived next to each other in rural Georgia in a tentative peace, but the current generation are close enough to be brothers. In fact, Z and Danny have apparently shared a lot.

Ezekial’s widower father (Daniel Martin), doesn’t think his son should be spending so much time away from the homestead and the endless chores needed for upkeep. While he’s not an outwardly affectionate man, he tries to do his best for his son. 

As the boys are working on a school project about the Civil War, Z is urged by his father to look through the shed for some of his grandfather’s old papers to help out. There he finds a trove of love letters that will forever change his life, showing him he has much more in common with Grandfather Ezekial than he imagined.

Floating throughout the story is an Apparition (Eddie Dean), ever-present and mostly observing rather than interfering. 

Moore is superb in his portrayal of a gay youth who just wants to enjoy his life and childhood. He brings out the joys and frustrations of the character, especially his quest to discover the truth of the letters and their author.

Daniel Martin gives a delicate performance as a father trying to do the best for his son by instilling in him a fierce work ethic while hardening him to the truth of the world. He also makes a delightful cameo as Danny Mitchell’s (white) father. 

Andrew Martin shows Danny as a simple country boy who, while not ashamed of his racist background, seems to not even notice that his best friend is black. While insisting he is not gay in the slightest, he does have a deep love for his friend that challenges his admonitions.

Dean ably takes on the role of the glue that holds this narrative together, the spirit of past and present that, in their own way, calls the tune of this “dance.”

In the first step of a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere (it will later be staged afresh in New York and Michigan), director Mikael Burke makes both subtle and bold choices, from the way Z shifts his demeanor between having to “man up” and being himself, to the thematic use of “outrunning the fire.” Kudos also to fight/intimacy choreographer Laraldo Anzaldua, and set design by Inseung Park. 

Designated “Part 1” of a planned trilogy, this “Magnolia Ballet” is a complete story with much to say, think upon, and discuss. Find the Phoenix at 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis; find information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

IRT drama of how stories are told, and remembered

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Mrs. Harrison,” by R. Eric Thomas, has nothing to do with either past U.S. President with Hoosier connections. What this two-person drama, presented online by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is about are issues we struggle with today, and the stories that connect us.

In a posh restroom at an elite university, two women meet. Aisha (Celeste M. Cooper) doesn’t seem to remember Holly (Mary Williamson), who definitely knows her – and not just because of Aisha’s very popular Off-Broadway play. As they converse, at first they seem to feel each other out, get a measure of what they had been doing in the decade since they were classmates in a playwriting course. Proud African-American Aisha’s writing is serious and issue-driven. Average-looking white woman Holly works in humor, from a few years spent in stand-up comedy to her present modest success as a storyteller. It’s her way of dealing with the issues in her life – all her issues, except one.

Thus do we arrive at the heart of the matter, revealing in both women feelings of betrayal and righteous anger.

The IRT promotes the play as a story of how we remember our pasts, but of course it goes much deeper than that. In the women’s tense exchange is the question of who has the rights to a memory, and the story it tells, especially when it points to a deeper truth.

Directed by Mikael Burke (who directed last year’s “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963”), Chicago actors Cooper and Williamson make a stunning IRT debut. Aisha wears her supreme confidence like a shield, ever ready to go on the defensive, while using her intense need to know everything about others as a sort of disarming charm. Holly is no sheltered maiden, but still gives flashes of the naive student who too easily trusts. As for the woman of the play’s title, she seems to become present like an invisible third character – her story revealing much about the two women we see, perhaps more than they are aware.

Needless to say, there is a racial element at play. It is not explicitly spelled out, but rest assured it would have been a totally different show if both women were Black, or White – but that’s not the story we are presented. The social issues and assumptions underlying these characters and their relationships, and even the modification of a familiar fable that Aisha tells, are fertile seeds for audience discussion.

“The conversations you’ll have after the play are as important as the story you’re seeing on stage,” Thomas says in his program note. “To me, that’s one of the best parts of theatre.”

And with the show, recorded by WFYI Public Television, streaming at irtlivevirtual.com, you can have those talks in the comfort of your own living room.

“Mrs. Harrison” is available through May 30.

Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com