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.

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Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT drama sees current struggles through prism of famous poem

By John Lyle Belden

Omari is in trouble. He (young black student) lashed out at a (white) teacher, shoving him violently. This is Omari’s “third strike,” and aside from expulsion from his private school, he could face charges. This is a worst nightmare come true for his mother, Nya, an inner-city teacher who sees first-hand the path that young African-Americans too often take from school to prison, known as the “Pipeline” — the name of this play by Dominique Morisseau now on stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

This is a play about issues, but more importantly it is a play about people. Though there is a sense it takes place in New York, Morisseau cautions it is truly set in “any inner city environment where the public school system is under duress.” But this is the only point that is vague. To better show what happens to youths like him, she has crafted Omari, Nya and the others in this drama as specific individuals with real struggles who won’t find an easy answer within 90 minutes on the stage.

Omari, played with sincere charm and and a frantic uncertainty by Cole Taylor, has his reasons for what he did, but no one understands — including, to some extent, him. The question of what happens next bears down on him like Sisyphus’ stone.

Jasmine, Omari’s friend and schoolmate, played with an air of “real”ness by Renika Williams, is frustrated both at what is happening to him and her own experience of being regarded as little more than a token at Fernbrook Academy. She’s smart and ambitious, but misses her old neighborhood — she once muses of running away with Omari and writing a book about it, “Ghetto Love.”

Nya’s friend and fellow educator, Laurie — another excellent performance by Constance Macy — rails against the expectations of being the white woman to “save” the school, like Michelle Pfeifer in “Dangerous Minds.” As she approaches the end of her career, the pressures are becoming too much to bear.

Toussaint JeanLouis is Dun, a school security guard who likes to joke with the staff, but takes his thankless job very seriously.

Nya, “Ms. Joseph” to staff and students — a steely performance by Aime Donna Kelly — finds her educator’s tools for organization and control failing her in what seems a hurricane of circumstances. She is both angered and deeply saddened when others don’t trust her.

One of her lessons, shared with us all, is on the poem “We Real Cool” by Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The verse is printed in the play program, and is frequently repeated — its words projected on the walls. The poem’s meaning starts to hit home for Nya; she hears her son shout its lines in her head. Its last three words — “We – Die soon.” — crash upon her like a collapsing ceiling.

Finally, we meet Omari’s father, Xavier — played by Andre Garner with cocky confidence. He has it all figured out, and just needs Omari to get with the program, even if the boy hates him.

But as Xavier and Nya discover, just because you’re “woke” doesn’t mean you have all the facts.

The projected words are part of many brilliant audiovisual enhancements to the deceptively simple stage set, helping to place this drama in today’s world. Also, the story confronts our Youtube reality in which the mistakes we make are forever online, and going viral. Done in one movie-length act, the play’s flow and use of space help suggest its several settings but never release the tension — until the end, when Omari finally has his say.

And at that point, we are all ready to listen.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, “Pipeline” is thought-provoking drama, solidly delivered, giving current events a human face. Performances are through Nov. 11 on the Upperstage at IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (just west of Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.