By Vernon A. Williams
The first place that comes to mind when you think of Black theater is New York City and the bright lights of Broadway and off-Broadway dreams. Proudly laying claim to Second City, Chicago’s rich and thriving African American theatrical community gives the Big Apple a run for the money, per capita.
Stretching beyond these two metropolitan areas in the quest for significant Black theater, you might choose to go to the energized arts mecca of the South – Atlanta – or make a mad dash to the popular west coast to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
While that captures the north, south, east and west of the Black theatrical conversation, there are myriad locations in either direction – such as D.C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Houston and Memphis – where African American artists and writers are continuing, resurrecting or building a rich tradition of stage productions.
Arguably one of the last places that might come to mind for Black theater is the Midwest municipality that proudly boasts being the capital of amateur athletics – and the home of several professional franchises – Indianapolis.
The first factor that might dissuade such thinking is perceptions or the image of the city and Southern Indiana. Those who live beyond the Circle City have long viewed it, more or less, as an overgrown Mayberry, a large population (ranked 11th in the nation) jammed into a small town mentality and personality. Despite being the home of the most successful Black Expo in the nation and one of the longest-running annual HBCU football classics, it has been difficult for Indy to shed the “Naptown” mantra.
Fact is, in 2013, it was announced that African Americans in Indianapolis reached a new milestone: a total population of 300,000, an increase of 3.9 percent over the 2010 Census data. The city and county in which it is located are now 29.3 percent African American, but the metropolitan area is 16 percent Black; 1 in 8 people living in Central Indiana is African American.
Another underpublicized reality is that a 2010 study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that Indianapolis is the least segregated city in the northern U.S., with 25 percent of its population living on a block with both Black and white residents. With increased gentrification, that mix of ethnicities in neighborhoods has likely increased substantially.
So when Black plays are produced, the audience is as integrated as the community – even though productions with themes specific to African American culture are far more likely to draw the same demographic. A talented group of local Black directors in Indianapolis this year enjoyed sold out performances, validation of high interest for Black theater.
This weekend, the talented Dutchez Duvall – who has produced plays since the 90s – is returning her highly-successful summer production of The Wiz at the Athenaum Theater. Four performances over three days are already sold out, beams the California native who is part of KaidyDid Productions of Indianapolis.
Millennial director Shandrea Funnye will this weekend stage an original stage play “Home for the Holidays” at the IndyEleven Theater at IndyFringe. Joyce Licorish is another highly talented director and performer whose last show was a musical, “Birth of Soul.”
Highly touted Indianapolis director DP Demarco not only fills the house with his soap opera style dramas but draws national talent to the Indy stage for his work. His third incarnation of the popular play, “Her Lies,” featured Bernadette Stanis (Thelma on the hit TV show “Good Times”) and Emmy-winner Brian J. White along with model-actress Claudia Jordan.
For the lighter side of the craft, actor-producer Daniel Martin is just as comfortable in a serious role at the Indianapolis Repertory Theater as he is with his role with the hilarious improvisation troupe called Act a Fool.
There are too many others to mention and that’s the whole point. It has been a long time since Black theater in Indianapolis was nearly this busy, vibrant and relevant. It is the perfect time for the birth of Africana Repertory Theater of IUPUI – a new concept emanating from that downtown urban campus.
The concept of ARTI is to promote and facilitate theater that embodies myriad perspectives of the complexity and beauty of the Black community and Afrocentric culture. ARTI may serve to help establish an umbrella organization for Black theater in Indy; a move designed to identify resources, sustain relative messages, uncover talent and enhance theater production viability for the Indianapolis Black community.
Finally, look for the historic landmark Madame C.J. Walker Theater to reopen in 2020 after a two-year, $15 million renovation that will sustain the iconic venue for generations to come.
The point is, the next time you think of visiting Indianapolis, think of more just-for-fun options than the Colts or Pacers; there’s even more than the city’s famous signature speedway. Flip through the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper or Indy Star entertainment sections to see what Black-theme theater is going on any weekend you’re in town.
You may be pleasantly surprised at your options!
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].