Even when history is changed, have we?

By John Lyle Belden

From time to time, we all consider what the world would be like if certain historical events didn’t happen – or if others did. These kinds of thought experiments take on a particular point of view in “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You too, August Wilson),” by Rachel Lynett, presented live in the space behind Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jamaal McCray.

“This exists in the mind of every person of color,” says Lynett through a cast member. Welcome to Bronx Bay, an all-Black state created after the just-completed Second Civil War. We who are White, Latinx, etc., are granted a brief stay to see how the story before us plays out.

Alice (Chandra Lynch) is a struggling restauranteur – the problem being that since she is a quarter Asian, she’s attempting a “Korean fusion” eatery. Her husband Lorenzo (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) is supportive, though privately believes tofu has no place in gumbo. Their close friend Jules (Latrice Young) has a new partner, Yael (Aniqua Sha’Cole), recently approved to live in Bronx Bay. We also meet their freind Izaak (Josiah McCruiston).

Everyone on the stage looks like they belong there, but a stunning revelation threatens friendships, relationships and the tranquility of this new utopia. “People died to make these rules,” Alice reminds the others. But does that make what is happening right?

In the second act, we find ourselves in another imagining of Bronx Bay, a place for families like couples Alice and Jules, and Lorenzo and Izaak. So, how does Yael fit in?

The thesis statement of this absurd drama is literally written on the set pieces: “Blackness Iz Not A Monolith.” The “apologies” of the title allude to the tendency to see a playwright’s telling of a Black experience as “the” Black experience. The five persons we see before us are actually speaking Lynett’s words; so, being Black is the perspective of a young queer African-Latinx woman from California who lives in Arkansas?

To the credit of the writer, as well as McCray and the cast, rather than being confusing – even when going totally meta – this darkly comic journey is entertaining and thought-provoking. There’s even an alternative-history game show.

Scenic Designer Bernie Killian provides an interesting stage for an immersive “in the round” experience. Seating is properly spaced around the stage, however, there is no tent or awning so sunscreen and/or hats are recommended, especially during afternoon performances.

One weekend remains of this World Premiere production, May 28-30, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan, west of downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at fonsecatheatre.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.

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.

Hard lessons continue at Fonseca Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The setting of the play “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by acclaimed playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, is “Today.” Says so right there in the program. So this examination of our understanding of race in early 21st Century America is taking place in 2020. Just add masks on all the characters – sadly, no need to change any of the story.

Fonseca Theatre Company brings back this drama from its first season (I wrote about it then, too), again directed by Ben Rose, in the wake of the real-world drama of this tumultuous summer. Rose noted that actor preparation took on a more serious tone this time, and he was grateful to also have Chinyelu Mwaafrika and Joshua Short return to star.

Marquis (Mwaafrika), a suburban teen from posh (mythical) Achievement Heights, outside Baltimore, has gotten caught up in the latest online challenge and is in a police holding cell for trespassing. His cellmate, Tru (Short), fits the conventional African-American stereotype, and is amazed that Marquis doesn’t. Eventually, Marquis’ adoptive limousine-liberal mom Deb (Megan Ann Jacobs) arrives to spring them from the clutches of Officer Borzoi (Keegan Jones). Tru then gets to experience Marquis’s world, with his nice home and all-white classmates at Achievement Preparatory Academy: jocks Hunter (Joseph Mervis) and Fielder (Maverick Schmidt), and top girls’ clique led by Meadow (Vicki Turner) with Prairie (Jacobs) and Clementine (Sarah Ault).

Seeing Marquis as “too White,” Tru fills a notebook with “Being Black for Dummies” in the hope of connecting him with his racial heritage. But the book falls into the wrong hands, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Marquis dreams of visits by ancient gods – fair-skinned Dionysus (Schmidt), who wants him to take the easy life; and dark-skinned Apollo (Jones), who whispers to him a dark secret.

This show is spiced with a surprising amount of humor, and the production does include a “laugh light” to let you know when it’s safe to react without being racist. However, there are a lot of hard questions and uncomfortable discussions. Also, the characters make an embarrassing number of assumptions, including the fateful conclusions drawn by school Headmaster Burns (Mervis) that sound a lot like your “I’m not a racist, but…” friend when telling you the “truth” about a Black victim of a shooting. Thus does this fictional story connect solidly with our real world; Chisholm’s characters are each simultaneously flesh-and-blood and living metaphor. You know this person; you’ve met this person; you’ve seen this person on the news; you are this person.

The cast do a great job of communicating all this to us through their cloth masks, and with the intimate (yet with seating properly distanced) stage in the backyard of the FTC building, we even hear clearly when the mic-packs sputter. This was an important and enlightening drama already, and today it feels more vital to make the effort to experience. Fonseca staff even have nice masks available for a donation.

All performances are 8 p.m., continuing Saturday, Sunday (Aug. 22-23), and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at 2508 W. Michigan, Indianapolis. Details and tickets 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.

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.

Monument presents classic commentary on racial tension

By John Lyle Belden

“Dutchman,” presented by Monument Theatre Company, is a play, but it feels like a poem. It is a verse that surrounds you, confronts you in the intimate staging at Indy Convergence. 

On a subway train, in which the audience find ourselves to be passengers, traveling in New York City towards New Jersey, a handsome young black man, Clay (Jamaal McCray), sits reading. A beautiful young white woman, Lula (Dani Gibbs) enters, eating an apple. Is she Eve, the Serpent, or both? 

The monologues and conversation between them roll out like verse, dense with meaning. She teases, both in the sexual and bullying sense of the word. They move together and against one another — a dance rich with subtext. But, what is more shocking: the moments of violence, or the fact that she keeps saying n****r with impunity?

The play by Amiri Baraka is set in the year it was first presented, 1964, but could happen today, with passengers capturing it all on phones. Her short, slinky dress is a hot retro style; his buttoned suit still the best armor to reassure the whites around him that he is “civilized,” that his black life matters. And the tense banter would still apply — even with 56 years of “progress.”

Under the direction of Shawn Whitsell, Gibbs and McCray deliver Baraka’s words with cutting precision. We feel this play as we observe it, as the fascinating drama plays out in one intense hour. Dont’a Stark completes the cast in a quick but essential role.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Feb. 21-23, at 2611 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at monumenttheatrecompany.com.

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

ATI tells important ‘Story’

Update, Jan. 18, 2021: This production is available online pay-per-view through Feb. 14. See atistage.org for details.

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.