Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Millicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.