What Toni Morrison told me

I met Toni Morrison, the Nobel prize winner who passed away a few days go, when I was on a committee of the Unitarian-Universalist Association to choose the winner of The Melcher Book Award in 1988.

The award is given by the UUA to the book that most contributes to “religious liberalism.” It is more often given to the book that the people on the committee find the most moving and  significant –  that year was the first time it was given to a novel – Morrison’s Beloved.

I had a chance to speak with her at a party before the award presentation and I will never forget something she said. We were talking of the many statues of soldiers of assorted wars and when we spoke of the statues of generals of the Civil War she said

There is no statue of a slave, or anything commemorating those who were enslaved –  not even a bench on the Mississippi river.

The words were seared in my mind.

 

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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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Jim Powell as Witness

Jim Powell, the longtime IUPUI professor and founder of The Indiana Writers Center, has published a book of short stories with a very fitting title: Only Witness.

That is the true calling of the writer – to be a witness to the people and the world around him or her – not to judge, not to praise or condemn or flatter or berate –only witness. It is a noble calling and Powell serves it well.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Night Train to Vienna,” in which a woman is with a man who doesn’t really see her, doesn’t see that she has needs of her own, but seems to feel her job is to fill his needs (sound familiar?) They are sharing a tiny room on a train with two bunks.

“They had become so. . .static, their boundaries, like the two bunks in the same room but unaligned.”

By chance she encounters a dark man who gives a greeting in Arabic; it’s obvious he is a refugee and she helps him avert a confrontation with police at a border crossing. At another stop, police escort him from the train. The woman feels a kinship with the man, and hoping for his escape, she begins to imagine her own escape from an unfulfilling relationship.

“Her chance would come.”

The story is so nuanced, so layered with meaning, it has the feel and weight of a condensed novel.

Powell gives us swift, telling portraits of a range of men, women and children, as they balance lives in the midwest, make brief escapes to try to lose their familiar selves in Mexico or Europe; a son contends delicately with a mother losing ground to dementia, a woman returns from California to pit old boyfriends against one another in an Indiana bar, a married couple tries to negotiate “the middle of the journey” of their married life.

Most of all, I treasure “Tigerville” – not a place, but a state of mind and heart, where a man comes to settle himself in the newly-found territory of life with a woman and her cats, her presence. The story teller watches her “puzzling over words at her desk, leaning back in the chair she chose for its uncomfortable uprightness. You wonder at her focus, her distance. She is near, but her self-absorption is power. . .”

Reading this quiet, attentive story, I think of the poet Mary Oliver’s line “I don’t know how to pray, but I know how to pay attention.”

In these true, insightful stories, Jim Powell knows how to pay attention.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield