OnyxFest: Black is My Color

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In a bookstore and coffee shop called I Take It BLACK, two “sistahs” meet. The millennial (Paige Elisse) shares her personal frustrations with an older poet (Marlena Johnson), who shares the wisdom and verse of Mari Evans.

“Who’s that?!” the young woman asks. 

For many of us watching “Black is my Color,” by journalist and playwright Celeste Williams, this is sadly a common question. Evans, who resided in Indianapolis until her death in 2017, was a world-renowned poet, author, and activist. Today, a full-body portrait of her looks down on us from a wall on Massachusetts Ave., but she is not as widely and readily known as other people so honored around Indy. This play helps to introduce us to the woman in the mural.

“Who can be born Black and not exult!” The young reader is puzzled at this declaration. To reach understanding, we step back in time to a cluttered living room where Evans (Ellen Price Sayles Lane) grants a rare interview. She seems to both resent and welcome being considered a “troublemaker” – “I look at everything through a Black lens.”

As Evans speaks, “Who I am is who I was at (age) 5,” her young spirit (Amani Muhammad) appears. She and Elisse dance to accompany the poetry. Evans speaks fondly of the lost community around Indiana Avenue, and frankly about her adopted hometown – “The contradictions are more seething here in Indianapolis.”

Directed by TaMara E’lan G. and Manon Voice, this show is a much-needed lesson in local history, especially of the lives and perspective of African Americans, as well as an insight into a brilliant woman who lived among us, dedicating her life to Black – and therefore human – empowerment. Lane as Evans radiates both power and a generous spirit, holding no malice but accepting no compromise. Muhammad and Elisse are an artful chorus of movement, and Johnson happily gives us entry to this important figure’s world.

As this work develops through its performances, hopefully we will see more of “Black is My Color” at future events.

IndyFringe: ‘Free the TaTas’

By Wendy Carson and John L. Belden

Even though it sometimes seems the whole world is pink, we still must understand that awareness of breast cancer — and all cancers — includes knowing that it affects real people, including those you know (or even yourself).

Set in an atypical breast survivors support group, this show touches on how various people deal with cancer in their lives. These women are trying to overcome their grief and be upbeat, but it is no easy task.

Miss Bettye (Sandy Lomax), the octogenarian leader of the group, is outright hateful, dismissive and rude to everyone, yet you sense she feels for them. While she insists on honesty in dealing with disease, she hides the fact they could soon lose their meeting place.

The members of the group range from a starry-eyed dreamer (T. Studdard), an overworked cleaner (Tamara E’lan G.), and a desperate woman just trying anything to get by (Georgeanna Anthony). The women are trying to support each other, but Bettye keeps them at each other’s throats more often than not.

Enter into this group the indomitable presence that it Bass (China Doll), so named because her fishing-obsessed husband thinks she’s his best catch of all time. Bass tries to get everyone back on track but is met with resentment and venom at every turn. Meanwhile, she masks her own pain with humor.

Can these women turn their personal drama into a loving and supportive environment?

As they open up their journals to share with each other (and us), the true beauty of this piece is revealed. Much of the play’s content is in fact based on actual people and events. Taken as a whole, this is a hot mess that transforms into a heart blessing.

At the end, there is a short talkback session for the audience and actors to discuss their own personal journeys.

Remaining performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 26-27, at the Firefighter’s Hall, corner of Mass. Ave. and St. Clair.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.