Author Archive | Dan Wakefield

A New Theater Rises

The play was “The Brothers Paranormal.” The fact that it opened Friday night at the Fonseca Theatre Company’s sparkling and snappy new Basile Building on West Michigan Street in Haughville almost seemed to be a “paranormal” event in itself! In only a year and a half Bryan Fonseca, founder of The Phoenix Theatre, had created a new theater company committed to diversity and inclusion, completed an initial season of six plays (five staged at the art space Indy Convergence, one at The Linebacker Bar), and was opening a new season in the company’s own building (courtesy of Frank Basile, who was there to inaugurate the occasion, along with a full house of enthusiastic supporters.)

I am proud to be one of many “Collaborators” of the Fonseca Theatre Company, but I’m sorry to confess that I  struck out – fanned, dropped the ball, blew it, when Patricia Castaneda, President of the Board of Directors, asked me shortly before the ribbon-cutting if I knew any poems I could recite as a prelude to the occasion. I realized that the only poems I could recite in full were “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart/the center cannot hold. . ..”) by W,B. Yeats. Neither of those seemed appropriate, nor did a couple of others that came to mind – “With Rue My Hearty is Laden,” and “To An Athlete, Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. I need to learn some upbeat poems.

The ribbon-cutting, done jointly by Bryan and Patricia went off without a hitch, a dramatic slice that needed no poetic flourish.

Bryan Fonseca and Patrica Castenada, president of the Fonse

Bryan Fonseca and Patrica Castenada, president of the Fonseca Theatre Board, cutting the ribbon on the new Bastile Building, opening night of the theatre’s new season

Because of the title “The Brothers Paranormal,” I was expecting the play to be a straight comedy – I should have known better. There were comic moments, but the play was much more – a richly textured drama that illuminated levels of the current American experience of cultural and geographic displacement. Two Thai brothers start a business to investigate complaints of paranormal activity, and are asked to solve the haunting of an African-American couple who were forced to flee their home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. There are ghosts, real and imagined, originating in New Orleans and Thailand, and along with the ghosts are the real challenges that come from loss of home and homeland.

It’s a special experience in the theater when an actor or actress not only conveys the character she plays but also manages to convey a universality to the role, to have her performance resonate in a universal way. For me that happened with Diane Tsao,  playing the role of the (literally) haunting Thai mother. My own mother was a Midwestern WASP from Missouri, but I felt her attitudes, her techniques, her ability to “hover,” in the expressions and delivery of the Thai mother as played by Ms. Tsao. Mothers may come from different origins, languages and cultures, but they are mothers under the skin.

The play will run through November 10. For information and tickets, visit https://fonsecatheatre.org.

The theater is not the only gift the Fonseca company brings to the west side neighborhood. Next door is their combo cultural center/ classroom/ rehearsal hall/community center. Jordan Flores Schwartz, associate producing director of the company, will continue her popular classes for children, and direct her first play in March.

Fonseca announced that “Our programs will include a community theatre program for residents to act, the gathering of oral histories for production and preservation, and technical training.” On a Saturday in September, the theatre held a rice and beans festival for the neighborhood. They have come to stay.

If I’d had time to think of a poem appropriate for the ribbon cutting on opening night, I’d have picked a Maya Angelou poem that suggests the spirit of the whole Fonseca enterprise:

“Still I rise. . .”

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“Miss You Like Hell:” Art is Propaganda

The cast and collaborators of Miss You Like Hell, Fonseca Theatre Company

The cast and collaborators of Miss You Like Hell, Fonseca Theatre Company

I thought I would never feel again the kind of creative ferment that made New York in the Fifties so unique and exciting. It was centered in Greenwich Village, where Jose Quintero was directing “The Iceman Cometh” at The Circle in the Square Theatre. (I was sitting on an aisle when Jason Robards came past me to step on to the stage.) Those were the days when I met James Baldwin in The White Horse Tavern, a Columbia classmate introduced me to Jack Kerouac at Johnny Romero’s bar in an obscure Village alley, and I heard the great trombone player J.J. Johnson (from Indianapolis and Attucks) at The Village Vanguard.

Lorraine Hansberry met me for coffee at The Limelight on Sheridan Square to thank me for writing in her defense to a drama critic who said her hit Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun” was “propaganda.” I quoted my Columbia professor Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, who had told us “All art is propaganda” and I added that Hansberry’s play was “propaganda for humanity and survival.”

That kind of “propaganda” – the propaganda of art for humanity and survival – is being produced here in Indy, now, at the new Fonseca Theatre. Bryan Fonseca, who founded The Phoenix Theatre has opened up a vital new theatre in Haughville, on West Michigan Street. I am proud to be one of the theatre’s “Collaborators” and I’ve seen two of their first slate of plays – “Hooded: Or, Being Black for Dummies” staged at the art space Indy Convergence, and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” put on at The Linebacker bar for real authenticity. Each of these performances was riveting, memorable.

Their own theatre will open on West Michigan Street in the fall, and in the meantime they are staging a knockout drama called “Miss You Like Hell” that will open in a The Kinney Group warehouse at 2425 W. Michigan Street July 12 and run through July 26. As a “Collaborator” I was invited to the first read-through of the play at the small but productive “Hit City” studio of musician Tim Brickley on 54th Street, just around the corner from The Jazz Kitchen on College. Bryan Fonseca sat at the head of the table like a great Papa Bear tending his pack, the cast members arrayed around him. He made this work  seem like the kind of adventure you always hoped to be included in, explaining how the use of the large space of the warehouse was an opportunity to create a more exciting kind of theatre experience, for the audience as well as the actors.

You could feel the cast members coming together in the spell of the opportunity, the chance to make something special. When the reading began and the actors playing the immigrant mother and the daughter born in the USA began to sing, I felt the kind of stirring of the blood that makes you know this is something special – it reminded me of Odetta at The Village Gate, of Geraldine Page in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” at The Circle in the Square, and listening to the aspiring opera singers putting on “Aida” to the music of a single piano at The Amato Opera House, a converted movie theater.  

The other night I felt that spirit here – it’s a sense of communal excitement and commitment, the spirit of doing something meaningful in the arts, not just “art or art’s sake” but for the kind of “propaganda” I felt in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” – “propaganda for humanity and survival.”
 
Tickets for Miss You Like Hell are on sale now. Tickets are $25 for regular admission, $20 for 21 and under, and $15 for Near West residents. Performances are held Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.

Tickets for Miss You Like Hell and Flex Passes can be purchased by visiting https://fonsecatheatre.org/buy-tickets/ or by contacting our Associate Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz by email at jschwartz@fonsecatheatre.org or by phone at 678-939-2974.

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How an old white guy got woke

From a new piece published this month in Indianapolis Monthly:

Five years ago, a man called me and began with an apology. “I’m sure you get too many of these,” he said. “But I have to call you because I am writing a book on the Emmett Till murder trial, and you are the only one who was at the trial and is still alive.”

That has become my distinction.

The Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation in its 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that “separate but equal” education was not valid and no longer the law of the land. Everyone knew this was a major decision that would have a huge impact on American life. There was a feeling of national apprehension. What would happen? Would the South revolt? Would it be the start of another Civil War? It felt like the country was holding its breath.

Continue reading the longform piece at Indianapolis Monthly

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield