Changes around us come into focus on Fonseca stage

By John Lyle Belden

Gentrification is a word and concept that gets brought up a lot — how it’s bad, how it has benefits, how it is inevitable. Indianapolis has seen aspects of it in play in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, Mass Ave./Chatham Arch, Irvington, and Fountain Square.

This phenomenon is at the heart of “Salt Pepper Ketchup,” a drama by Josh Wilder now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company in Indy’s near-westside — an area starting to see the effects of redevelopment.

The play is inspired by the recent real-world transformation of Point Breeze community in Philadelphia’s infamous South Side. “Salt, Pepper, Ketchup” is how longtime local residents, mostly African-American, order the popular fried chicken wings at Superstar Chinese Restaurant, and owners John and Linda Wu (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) are happy to fill the orders as they save up for their American Dream. They had just been granted citizenship, and with improving credit, hope to buy their building.

But changes are already under way. New apartments sprang up, occupied by young white people seeking affordable rent. There is a coffee shop, and at the center of it all, the Co-Op grocery. 

Paul (Robert Negron), a leader at the Co-Op, is trying to sign up new members among the locals. John Wu, reflecting the worries of his regulars, suspects some sort of scam. Paul’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf manner isn’t helping. Still, Linda sees hope for life beyond their “Chinese joint.” Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter) see the Co-Op as a threat, a danger to the ‘hood they grew up in, and they are prepared to take drastic action. CeCe (Chandra Lynch) is trying to see all sides of this, as she works at a daycare and wants the area to get better. She even likes the idea of the Co-Op, until she discovers that a single apple costs $2.50.

We also meet the enigmatic Boodah (Dwuan Watson Jr.) who is street-smart, emphasis on both. A little older and wiser than Tommy and Raheem, he avoids conflict and criminal solutions, but when he senses injustice, he takes action.

Finally, Megan (Lexy Weixel) is a perky Co-Op worker who finds herself thrust into an unfamiliar world, struggling to make the best of it.

Seeing the events play out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for being white. Paul is such an overbearing caricature, reeking of privilege even as he remarks on it dismissively, that it is easy to understand the backlash that overwhelms him midway through the show. Eventually he takes a more corporate attitude — or was that behind his facade all along? While this can be difficult to watch from my seat, and generating nods of agreement from minorities around me, this portrayed example of how not to gentrify can help start the conversation of how best to positively deal with the changes coming to our own streets. It helps that this important drama brings out the best in all its players.

The play is directed by Tom Evans, with a set designed by Daniel Uhde including a clever way of changing between acts. Founder Bryan Fonseca designed the lighting and Tim Brickley the soundscape, which includes hip-hop by Gritty from his upcoming EP.

As an epilogue, the play program includes a recent article on the real Point Breeze, providing more food for thought. 

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is served up through Feb. 2 at the FTC Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan Street. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

NoExit’s ‘Birds’ flock to Central State

By John Lyle Belden

We’re a long way from Bodega Bay. Members of NoExit Performance have speculated what happened in the years after the events of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and crafted a theatre experience that tells a story from the animals’ point of view.

The bird uprising came at a time of nuclear conflict, leaving avians and humans alike struggling to scratch out a living in the resulting wasteland. Rapid evolution has given the birds speech, and the ability to think tactically and plan, but this leaves them struggling to hold on to their instincts. 

The Midwest flock has gathered at the former grounds of Central State in Indianapolis, where we, the audience, are the few humans allowed to witness their proceedings. The birds don’t trust us, and herd us (as we would them) from scene to scene in this unusual drama.

All are worried about their prospects for survival. Food is in short supply, eggshells are dangerously thin, and though there have been gains in the war against the humans, they come at a cost. Hadrian (Ronn Johnston) reluctantly carries the role of leader, as fellow raptors Antinious is dead and Ikarus (Dave Pelsue) is missing, assumed to be a traitor. His advisor Grebe (Becky Lee Meacham) tries to bouy his confidence, while fellow Council member Krone (Callie Burk-Hartz) has drastic plans of her own. 

Meanwhile, young Ave (Gaby Padilla) is the only one to whom the spirit bird Horus (a large shadow-puppet, likely a gull as it refers to the first attackers from the film) will speak. Inquisitive and empathetic, she is told she is the key to the future of all birdkind. This worries her sister Poly (Stephanie Wilson).

Also notable are worrisome Moa (Tracy Herring), presumptuous Asha (Audrey Stonerock) and war-party leader Apollo (Tristan Montgomery). Other members of the flock are played by Nicole Kelter, Katie Carter, Owen Harp, Jenny Allan, Ashley Youmell, Kimmie Icenogle, Katherine Boyles Ogawa, and Lesli Butler. Horus is presented by Tracy Herring, Wilson, Stonerock and Pelsue.

The story, written and directed by Ryan Mullins, has the feel of great Greek and Shakespearean dramas. But its presentation is restrained from full anthropomorphization. Just as cast members of the musical “Cats” have to go to “cat school,” so have the NoExit players apparently gone to “Bird School” — their movements are constantly birdlike, squawks and other bird cries are mixed in their speech, when idle they peck and scratch at their surroundings, and each player stays true to a particular species in its actions. They never break character, even during intermission. 

Makeup and loose costuming, designed by Kat Robinson, Traci Snider and Asha Patel, which involve fabric strips rather than feathers, aid their motion and suggest their form, letting the characters within hold our attention rather than be distracted by artificial beaks or other obvious bird-features.

Even more effective than their look is their sound, as the actors effectively emulate the fluttering, flapping noise that was so unnerving in the movie.

The play is set mostly outdoors, with the occasional real bird observing from the rooftops. Audience members are advised to bring lawn chairs — much of the play takes place in one area — but a limited number are available on site.

“The Birds” have a lot to teach us, and some hard lessons to learn. Performances run through Oct. 13 at the Power House on the grounds of Central State Village off West Washington Street. For information and tickets, visit noexitperformance.org

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.

Review: ‘Spoonful’ has unexpected depth

Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from "Water By The Spoonful," presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. -- Wisdom Tooth photo
Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from “Water By The Spoonful,” presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. — Wisdom Tooth photo

By John Lyle Belden

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project likes to present thought-provoking plays, and “Water by the Spoonful” definitely digs into your noggin.

Director Ronn Johnston confessed he “fell in love” with this drama by Quiara Algria Hudes. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s about addiction,’” he said, “but then I found it was so much more than that.”

Marine veteran Elliot (Mauricio Miranda) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn) find themselves dealing with the death of her mother and his aunt, the woman who raised them. It doesn’t help that he is also shadowed by the ghost of a man he killed in Iraq (Sunny Arwal).

Meanwhile, Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa (Dena Toler), has become “Haikumom,” the admin for an online forum for fellow recovering crack cocaine addicts. She keeps the peace as the harmony between her, Chutes&Ladders (Butch Copeland) and Orangutan (Tracy Herring) is disturbed by Fountainhead (Scott Russell), a man clearly not being honest with anyone, especially himself.

What is presented as a simple family and relationship drama gains a number of layers as our characters deal with their demons, confront truths and test how far they would truly go for each other – to the hospital? To Japan? And are some acts truly beyond forgiveness, beyond redemption? These questions, and how the characters struggle to answer them, echo beyond the play’s curtain call.

The title refers to events in Elliot’s childhood that led to his being raised by his aunt, and a lifesaving act that takes place one small spoonful at a time – a process those in recovery understand all too well.

This cast is strong and believable. Toler is beautifully tragic; Miranda keeps Elliot’s emotions at a low boil throughout, helping us feel his pain; Russell makes us dislike, then admire his conflicted character; Copeland and Herring get us rooting for their unlikely yet inevitable friendship; Atwal is the glue of the plot; and Rohn perfectly embodies the person who is involved in the story, yet feels like a bystander because she is not an addict herself.

“Water by the Spoonful” has two more weekends at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.