New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.

Rwandan genocide haunts its survivors

By John Lyle Belden

There can be no forgiveness without confession, and confession not only gives others the opportunity to forgive, but also allows one to forgive himself. This theme is explored powerfully in “Dogs of Rwanda,” a new one-person drama by Sean Christopher Lewis at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

David stands before us, telling us of a rite of confession used in Africa in which the whole village must hear a person’s sin. He informs us we are now his village.

In his teens, David eagerly followed a girl all the way to Africa on a mission trip. They were on the border of Rwanda in April 1994, when one tribe turned on another and tried to wipe it out – every man, woman and child – a hundred-day genocide that killed at least a million people. David and the girl found themselves caught up in it, while aiding a young Rwandan named God’s Blessing. Back home in Ohio, David worked through the traumatic events he had witnessed by writing journals, which many years later he turned into a book.

God’s Blessing saw the book, and sent David a note, saying it did not contain the whole truth.

Resisting the idea that he had to return to Rwanda, David seeks out a forgiveness rite in Hawaii, but it only makes his situation worse. So he goes back to Africa.

“Around here nothing stays dead very long,” he is told as he accompanies God’s Blessing on what David refers to as a “tourism of atrocity,” arriving at a place neither of them want to go, but both need to revisit.

Rob Johansen gives voice to David – and through him, God’s Blessing – in a powerful story inspired by the actual events of 1994 and their impact on the people who survived them. Johansen disappears into the characters, helping us to feel the suffering of their souls and their need for understanding and absolution.

As it gives a perspective on world events even those who saw the news in the ‘90s didn’t know, this play can raise many questions. After every performance (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday) there is a talkback discussion with Johansen and director Bryan Fonseca, open to questions and comments from the audience.

The Rwandan genocide is also a theme in the Phoenix’s next play, “How to Use a Knife,” also starring Johansen, opening Jan. 19.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.