The beats of a different Shakespeare

King Richard III (top) literally holds the throne as “Ricky 3” comes out of Intermission.

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a theme as old as theatre: An ambitious ruler steps on so many people on his way up, that those who aren’t killed make sure he has nothing on the way down, not even a horse. As William Shakespeare wrote such a history of England’s King Richard III, the Tudor lineage that violently dethroned him was in charge. So, no gray area with this character; our central figure not only acts as a villain but gleefully describes himself as one. As for everyone else? Lessons on power, complacency and misplaced trust abound, making this – like much of the Bard’s catalogue – a feature on stages again and again.

Now, we meet the ruthless monarch in “Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III,” presented outdoors by Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, which evolved from the former Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre that held annual Shakespeare in the Park productions.

“IndyShakes” Artistic Director Ryan Artzberger (a familiar face from numerous productions around Indy, including the IRT’s annual “Christmas Carol”) drew from his appreciation of the rhythms of both Shakespeare and Hip-Hop in working with local creatives including Nigel Long, Geechie, and director Mikael Burke, as the long drama was carefully trimmed, then the text’s beats and rhymes matched to carefully curated DJ grooves.

Comparisons to “Hamilton” are unavoidable, but this is not a musical. The flow and beat emphasize the poetry, as well as the nuances of the plot, making the show relatively easy to follow, despite most actors playing various roles. Artzberger notes this is not an “adaptation;” he took care that nearly every line is Shakespeare’s. It is not completely rapped-through, which I found intriguing. Still, I feel that, as a first venture into this melding, it leans more towards respecting the arts going into it than indulging what could be seen as a gimmick.

The classic beauty of the spacious Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park is juxtaposed by a simple but effective stage design by Sydney Lynn Thomas: a simple metal frame holds the Throne on high, surrounded by black cases that would hold its pieces at breakdown, hinting at the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of the royals’ reigns. This puts the visual focus on subtle (except moments when it isn’t) and effective lighting by Laura Glover, and the exquisite costumes by Tonie Smith, effectively blending the styles of Africa, Shakespeare-era England, and today’s Urban culture.

I don’t know who Shawnte P. Gaston tapped into to portray Richard, but I don’t want to be that person’s enemy. Imagine the worst anyone lied to your face, manipulated you, had you believing things aren’t as they are, used you for favors and discarded you – all with a big smile – and add the willingness to pay people to poke swords into you. It’s the positive empowered Black woman corrupted in the most tragic manner, and Gaston relishes the ride the whole way. Note that she seems to be this 21st-century female archetype portraying the 15th-century male Duke of Gloucester. The “deformity” of Richard is an allusion to the way a current woman of color may feel disrespected, discarded and ignored.

The rest of the company – LaKesha Lorene, Akili Ni Mali, Chinyelu Mwaafrika, Eric D. Saunders, Kerrington Shorter, Manon Voice, Milicent Wright, and young Quintin Gildon Jr. as the ghost of a murdered prince – acquit themselves very well in various roles. Wright’s powerful speeches as mad ex-queen Margaret sparked spontaneous applause.  

This unique cultural experience is worth your time and the effort to find it at 2441 N. White River Parkway E. Drive, Indianapolis (or north on East Riverside from 16th Street east of the White River, turn left at the park), and no cost at all to attend, though all are required to set up free tickets at indyshakes.com. See the site for details. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30, at 8 p.m.

Past pain reflects present in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “No. 6,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set in an early-21st-century American city where a white police officer has killed a black man, and violent responses to apparent injustice ensue.

Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?

That’s the problem, and that’s why the IRT chose this play by T.J. Young, inspired by this repeating narrative, centered on the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. A fully-produced stage performance, directed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, was captured by public television station WFYI and is available to stream at irtlive.com through April 4.

The steady progress of unrest has finally reached the storefront of the Anderson family’s laundry/cleaners, while proprietor Ella (Milicent Wright), with teen twins Felix (Jamaal McCray) and Felicia (LaKesha Lorene), shelter in the upstairs apartment. Felicia, who is on the autistic spectrum, dwells on her dinosaur obsession while Felix is out on the streets, scavenging for food from what past looters left behind. But he comes back with more than Spam – dragging in an unconscious white man.

Our mysterious houseguest (Michael Stewart Allen) has booze on his breath and a gun in his backpack, but as the others discover who he is, they find themselves in the very heart of the city’s issues.

Wright is a rock, as always, the mother-hen and conscience of this play. She has reasons behind her righteousness and shows real pain with her perspective that makes her feel genuine, not just a means to the drama’s message. McCray plays an emotional, impulsive idealist – like a teenager – but also reflecting the open spirit of his martyred father. Lorene gives a sensitive, endearing portrayal of an unconventional genius who has an uncanny grasp of the big picture at work here – big, as in global.

Allen hits all the emotional buttons as a man finding himself in a sort of Purgatory, never completely likable nor hateable. He is forced to deal with the perspective of those not like himself, while we must also acknowledge his. Still, what can one do when he is literally part of the problem?

“People across the globe take to streets and cry, ‘Never again!’” Young says in his program note. “And then it happens again. And again. And again.”

This play is important because it continues the much-needed conversation – but also see it because it is gripping drama with solid human performances, punctuated by sound (credit Matthew Tibbs) and light (Xavier Pierce) that makes the danger feel real and immediate, even in an otherwise comforting home (scene: Rob Koharchik). Support local professional theatre, and boot it up on the big screen.

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