Storefront: Listen to the ‘Voices’

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Down in the basement venue of the Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, we are visited by a Griot. In ages past, this storyteller class told the stories and shared the heritage of West African peoples. Neither the cruel Middle Passage nor the slavers’ whips could destroy their spirit, which lives on in people of color today, and channeled by playwright Angela Jackson-Brown into “Voices of Yesteryear: A Showcase of School #26.” This hour of important narratives is directed by Dena Toler, whose experience included bringing to life multicultural stories at the old Phoenix Theatre under Bryan Fonseca.

While you entered the theater at Broad Ripple, in this space you are on 16th Street, formerly Tinker Street. The area Griot (Saundra “Mijiza” Holiday) invites you to hear stories, told first-hand by those who lived them, about John Hope School No. 26 and its mostly African American neighborhood.

For those who don’t know or remember, this K-8 public school was open from 1920 to 2007 at 1301 E. 16th St., now the site of Oaks Academy Middle School. Named after John Hope, an educator, political activist, and the first African-American president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University, it is held in proud memory by its alumni, who went on to high school at Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks.

In “Voices,” we are transported to a different era, not much different from our own but in which we are reminded of the traditions and wisdom it feels we sorely lack in our current world.

We are at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle and a Teacher (Katherine Adamou) shows how the children of the time were taught not that they could succeed but that they WOULD succeed. Discipline, manners, scholarship, and moral integrity were the cornerstones of the classrooms. “Do not shame us,” she commanded, “Or yourselves.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached these principles and every child was expected to know and live them. 

Speaking of Dr. King, we hear from a Young Girl (Ari Casey) excited to hear him speak when he comes to Indianapolis in 1958. She not only loves his message, but also has quite a crush on the handsome minister. However, speaking of her feelings could make her mother take the switch to her for being fresh with a man of God.

We also meet one of the many Elders (Ennis Adams) who were leaders in the Neighborhood. They made sure that the children behaved, were respectful to others, went to church, learned their lessons, and parented them as needed. “I’m reminding you that you are a community,” he emphasizes. Everyone looked out for everyone else and while nobody’s lives were by any means easy, they were a bit more stable in a way that would be nice to see return to the world.

Rounding out the cast is Jamaal McCray, remembering as an Alumni and present as a Teenage Boy in the 50s, whose stories echo the change in direction that many youth took in stepping away from this upbringing and finding their own way in this burgeoning new world. 

Having grown up in a rural environment where folks likewise looked out for one another, we found these stories brought on a nostalgia for a simpler, more secure time. One where you could safely play throughout your neighborhood knowing that everything would be alright as long as you were home before the streetlights came on. Of course, we didn’t have the additional burden of race. Teacher and Elder understood this extra stress, and made sure John Hope students knew where they came from, that their history didn’t begin on the shores of America.

The children understand. “A lot of bad things have happened to our people,” the Girl muses. “Ain’t no place perfect,” the Boy says, reminding us that mid-century Indy was not all an idyllic location for Black residents.

Toler and the cast do an excellent job of bringing us people who are a little different, yet very much the same as us. “You know me!” Griot declares; the story of a people is told, she says, in every man, woman, boy and girl you see on the street.

Listen to their “Voices” through March 6 at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at www.storefrontindy.com.

IndyFringe: Do Jokes Still Work?

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“I saw a homeless guy with a laminated sign,” Stewart Huff says, “he put money back into the business!”

Huff is full of funny and off-the-wall observances, such as: It amuses him to no end that the replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky has a “No Animals” sign.

His show, “Do Jokes Still Work?” includes bits of storytelling, memories, and observances of the stupidity of fellow humans – “You can’t hate science, and love NASCAR!”

But he has a generally optimistic outlook, noting that noisy anti-science people are nothing new – relating various historical events in hilarious fashion. Huff believes that “all human beings are artists,” that the pinata is among our greatest inventions, and if Bigfoot is real, it’s better if we don’t find him.

When you see him take the District Theater stage, it’s a little surprising, as IndyFringe publicity materials have an old clean-shaven photo. With his salt-and-pepper beard and aging-hippie ponytail, Huff looks like your cool uncle who can tell you one hell of a story.

And he does.

Huff’s show is not for the easily offended – either by language or opinions – but otherwise an essential visit for any Fringe-goer.

IndyFringe: How I Got My Warts Prayed Off

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Mandee McKelvey grew up in a trailer park in rural South Carolina. Her family was so poor that she had to take a bath with her brother well into her teens to conserve hot water.

During her teen years she began having warts all over her hands and feet. After suffering both physically and socially for more than two years, her mom asked her if she wanted to see a doctor about them. However, she ended up in a dry cleaners with a guy named Bob praying that she would be alleviated of her burden.

While that may have worked, at 13 she became aware that she was developing another physical deformity, and prayer was not going to help this out at all. In fact, she is still coping with this situation. Yet her story is light, funny and hopeful, even if she has become the basis for medical research due to the uniqueness of her plight.

You should definitely come and witness her saga, and learn the truth of the “Pumpkin Nut Foundation.”

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.

For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Storytelling Arts opens season with sentimental journey

By John Lyle Belden

At the root of all the theatre we love to see is the ancient art of telling a good story, celebrated often by Storytelling Arts of Indiana, which opened its 2019-20 season on Sept. 21 with “Come Dance With Me in Ireland: A Pilgrimage to Yeats Country,” performed by Patrick Ball.

Ball was born in California, but since exploring his Irish heritage while in college decades ago, he became a master of playing the Celtic harp and telling tales of the Emerald Isle. Since 2016, he has been in intensive study of the celebrated Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and now calls Ireland home. 

Yeats (1865-1939) is not only a national treasure in his native Ireland but his works have given us such widely known idioms as “the center cannot hold,” “this is no country for old men,” and the sentence used as this show’s title. Ball tells of working with a tour company that gives immersive visits to “Yeats country,” starting his story with going to the airport to pick up a couple, well into their senior years, returning from the U.S. to visit the homeland of their youth.

Based on some of the tourists Ball has met, these are very interesting characters — Ellie, surprisingly full of joyous energy; and Jim, who only speaks in Yeats verse — and whose mental cobwebs clear while back in familiar surroundings.

Ball describes in beautiful detail the various landmarks — from the stunning Irish countryside and coast to the cozy village pubs — and the people the tour interacts with, as well as the guide’s faithful wolfhound, Houligan, which takes a shine to Jim. All this is interwoven with lines from Yeats poems, and pieces of music played on a traditional harp.

The audience gets swept up in this journey, as Ball shares the spirit of Ireland, and Yeats, with the power of great storytelling.

It’s unknown when Ball will be back to share another evening with us in Indy, but this was just the start of a full season of stories to be told at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St. The next date, however, is a mile or two up the road, the popular “Ghost Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery” on Oct. 12. 

The next storyteller at the Indiana History Center will be Kim McCann with “Gin Girl,” on Nov. 3. The season has stories with interesting titles such as “Growing Up Black and White in America” (by Charlotte Blake Alston and Bill Mettler, on Jan. 11) and “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner” (by Regi Carpenter, on Feb. 8). Familiar names include storyteller Lou Ann Homan, who has done a number of IndyFringe shows, with “If These Walls Could Tell” on Feb. 16 at the Indiana Landmarks Center; and local arts icon Deborah Asante telling “A Story About Madam C.J. Walker” on March 8 at the Indiana History Center.

For more information and tickets, visit storytellingarts.org or call 317-232-1882. 

IndyFringe: Behind Every Great Mariska Hargitay is a Great Kurt Fitzpatrick

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

One often hopes to go from treading the boards at little festivals like this to eventually working in Hollywood and on television. Careful what you wish for?

Kurt Fitzpatrick was hoping to get his acting career off the ground, but auditions were exercises in frustration. Then after a failed attempt at a commercial gig, he heard from a friendly stripper (and fellow aspiring actor) that there was a lot of work in being a non-union extra on TV crime dramas.

As it turns out — having been a face in the background of numerous shows and movies, playing cops and bartenders, working invisibly for four Oscar-winning directors — that Fitzpatrick can’t help but see the parallels between what he’s been doing and sex work.

See this fascinating one-man show to find out what he means, and why possibly his face looks familiar (aside from his past IndyFringe appearances). An excellent storyteller, he reflects on his unusual path to quasi-stardom in entertaining fashion

However — he frames the show with a flight of fancy about the “Jungles of the Sahara” that I found hard to follow. It frustrates me that I miss what metaphorical or other purpose it served, and it made for an abrupt and confusing ending. Still, the rest of the content is strong and worth your while.

See the “Great Kurt Fitzpatrick” this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave.,

IndyFringe: The Adventures of Crazy Jane & Red-Haired Annie

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

This show is subtitled “New Fairy Tales for the Playful, Witty, and Wise,” and that aptly represents what this evening will be about.

In “Crazy Jane and the Faerie Queen” we are presented with our titular characters and encounter with the Queen of the Faeries, who is not a force to be trifled with. This tale also lays out the relationship between Jane and Annie as well as showing insight into their daily lives. What starts as a question of whether Fairy wings are more akin to a butterfly or dragonfly, ends with a deadly fight for survival and escape.

The next adventure, “…and the King of the Butterflies” has Crazy Jane and Red-Haired Annie splitting up to retrieve two magical items in order to free the King of the Butterflies children from the grasp of the Evil Winter Witch. Annie searches in vain to find the heart of a Stone Giant, even though such creatures are extinct. Meanwhile Jane must locate a scale from the serpent that encircles the earth. This is also where we are first presented with the origin of her transformation into “Crazy Jane”.

Our final tale, “Crazy Jane Goes Sane” offers insight into the truth of what the most valuable thing in your life truly is. While Annie is off on her own (we all need to get away by ourselves sometimes), Jane plays a game of dice with a stranger and is then transported to a world in which she is a hardened businesswoman living a typical life. Annie shows up with a story of her own to tell, and the friends are again together.

Laura Packer weaves these tales with the skill of a spider. You are instantly transported to your childhood, when just sitting at the feet of a storyteller was the greatest feeling in the world. Packer’s amazing talents are well showcased her and the numerous awards she has won throughout her career are self-evident.

While the program recommends the show for ages 16 and up, I feel that it would be very suitable for any child with the attention span to listen to and enjoy a good story. After all, it is through these shared experiences that our imaginations are honed and our true selves are fed.

Remaining performances are 9 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday at the District Theater, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: Jan of All Trades

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In what Jan Shirley Ann calls her “autobiocomedy,” our stand-up and seminarian presents a clean family-friendly show. In fact, when I saw it, a good number of family and friends were in the audience. But you don’t have to be related or have grown up with her in Gary, Ind., to understand and laugh along with her stories of life’s road that led her here.

Yes, she’s from the hometown of the Jacksons, and even was in a singing group that called itself The Jacksons’ Five (note the placing of the apostrophe to avoid confusion). She tells of dissecting frogs in Vacation Bible School, using a Jamaican accent for no reason, learning Japanese, teaching the Japanese to speak English (badly), and of the exceptionally handsome man the Lord used to persuade her to attend Butler University. 

Not often you see a comedian-storyteller who is also a minister in training, but that could explain why an hour with her feels like such a blessing.

She only has so many relatives and bff’s; y’all need to come out and enjoy this show, too. Performances are Friday through Saturday nights at ComedySportz, 721 Massachusetts Ave. 

IndyFringe: Tasty Bits – The Magic and Stories of Taylor Martin

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Locally-based magician Taylor Martin — popular for his historical and drag characters — has accumulated a lot of interesting experiences. He has been posting them on Facebook, each under the title “There’s a Story to be Told.” One reader said the snippets of his life are like “Tasty Bits,” and thus Martin had a title for his latest Fringe Show.

That’s also a story he told.

I know Martin well enough to recognize that was his Jethro Tull album playing as we entered the venue. We are totally in his element. 

We meet Rodney the Younger, Rodney the Elder, and Madame Esmarelda, but what’s more unusual, we get to know Taylor Martin himself.  He has so many “Bits” — from touring, his past as a singing telegram, and all the interesting and famous people he has met — that he has placed many of them into envelopes. In true magician style, audience members are asked to pick the next one he will tell. These he will only tell once during the run of the show, so each performance is different. Others he will tell every time, like how he came to be friends with Penn & Teller. 

Martin has performed and produced in nearly every IndyFringe, but this show is unlike any other he’s done. There will be illusions, such as his 100-year-old magic box; but you also get the story of how he now has a 100-year-old magic box. 

If you know him at all, you know this is going to be good. If you don’t, well, he has some stories to tell you. Performances are today through Friday and Sunday by the Indy Firefighters’ Museum, 748 Massachusetts Ave.