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Black History Month play spotlights “Harlem of the Midwest” at IUN/Gary

By Vernon A. Williams

Black theater has monumental significance in telling our stories in our voices. We rebuke the mammy and buffoon imagery popularized by whites for the enjoyment of white audiences unwilling to accept the multi-dimensional composition of Black America. Though we love unity, we are not a monolith. Though levity has sustained us through pain, we are not a joke.

In Chicago, thank God for the iconic Black Ensemble Theater led by the genius of Jackie Taylor; the influential ETA Creative Arts Foundation; the Congo Square Theater Company; the innovative MPAACT, the PACT Theater, and others.

In Indianapolis, there is the Asante Children’s Theatre under the leadership of founder Debra Asante. KaidyDid Productions, DP DeMarco Plays and Films, Shandrea Funnye Presents and the Freetown Village Players also stand out.

IMG 7311Gary has a legacy of Black theater that peaked in the 1980s with troupes like the William Marshall Players, the Jontue Dancers, the Gary Creative Theater Ensemble, and Morning Bishop, which is still going strong thanks to the daughter of the founding – McKenya Dilworth-Smith – embellishing and carrying on the tradition.

Few have sustained theater in the Steel City as effectively as the West Side Theater Guild, led for decades by Mark Spencer. And State Representative Vernon G. Smith enables professional and community stage access to the Glen Theater.

Without this energy, we would be forced to rely on people telling our story from the outside looking in or ignoring Black culture, issues, challenges, exultations and life altogether. That is an unacceptable proposition.

In the spirit of the Broadway megahit, “Hamilton,” one such play is based on a seminal era in Black history spotlighting an Indianapolis community dubbed “The Harlem of the Midwest” and it will come to life on stage at the Indiana University Northwest Fine Arts Auditorium Friday, February 18 and Saturday, February 19.

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Full disclosure, this columnist was blessed to write “The Price of Progress: The Indiana Avenue Story,” as part of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis 50th Anniversary in 2019. It chronicles half a century of a fabled Naptown neighborhood locals affectionately embrace even now as “The Avenue,” and the rise of a major urban campus on that land, generating dialogue on gentrification, urban renewal, as well as interstate and campus displacement.

Though it is a serious matter, audiences have been mesmerized by the previous 11 performances as they witness what happens on stage during the telling of this far too seldom told story, accented by engaging stirring drama, side-splitting comedy, spirited dance, finger-popping jazz instrumentals and moving vocals. It’s nothing like any history course any scholar remembers.

And yet after an evening of pure exhilarating entertainers, theater goers realize how much they have learned in less than two hours. Who knew that segregation could result in such a dynamic community after Indianapolis African Americans, most of whom migrated from the miserable South, would forge experiences from virtually every walk of life into the sweetest imaginable lemonade.

That neighborhood was the closest thing to Black Wall Street, created in the Midwest with doctors, lawyers, government leaders, inventors, manufacturers, educators, and entrepreneurs – including the first female U.S. self-made millionaire, the incomparable Madam C.J. Walker.

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“The Avenue” was best known for a jazz legacy that produced greats like guitar legend Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, David Baker, J.J. Johnson,  The Ink Spots and Slide Hampton along with songwriters Leroy Carr and Nobel Sissle. That kind of music prowess permeates “The Price of Progress.” 

The IUN production will feature a combined Gary-Indianapolis cast directed by McKenya Dilworth-Smith who commented: “Hybrid rehearsals bridging actors in the two cities has been a welcomed challenge. Technology for virtual rehearsals has been an asset as we continue to build momentum toward bringing authenticity to the stage. To say that we are excited about bringing this important story to Gary would truly be an understatement.”

The Gary cast members include local media personality Eve Gomez, Angel Knight, Tiffany Dilworth and Dannon Gorham; Indianapolis performers are Jay Fuqua, Curtis Rogers, John Brennan Hayes, Dominique Shelby and former Gary Emerson School of Performing Arts Valedictorian Latrice P. Young. The featured vocalist is Sandy Lomax. Choreographer is Larry Brewer, former Gary Emerson arts coordinator and lead dance instructor. Brewer is currently executive director of the South Shore Dance Alliance.

In addition to performances for the general public at 7 p.m. Friday, February 18 and 4 p.m. Saturday, February 19, IUN will provide a private morning matinee exclusively for Gary children. Tickets are free to the general public but are required for admission. They can be obtained online at or

COVID safety protocols include distanced seating and mask requirements throughout the performance.

For more information, contact Dr. James Wallace Jr., Ph.D. Director of the IUN Office of Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs at 219.980.6601 or [email protected].




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