Traveling to Indianapolis for a basketball game in the sixties, Coach Louis “Bo” Mallard called our opponents – Crispus Attucks High School – the ‘first cousin’ of Gary Roosevelt High School. Coach was giving us an impromptu history lesson to inform us that the same segregation that led to the creation of The Velt precipitated the formation of our all-Black counterpart institution in Indy.
Crispus Attucks is nestled in the heart of the Indiana Avenue/Ransom Place community in the state capitol – the comparison of Midtown in Gary, the South Side in Chicago, Greenwood/Black Wall Street in Tulsa, U Street in Washington, D.C., Sweet Auburn Historic District in the ATL, the 10th Street Historic District in Dallas and, most notably Harlem.
The distinct relation of this Indianapolis neighborhood to Harlem is illustrated on stage in the play, “The Price of Progress: The Indiana Avenue/IUPUI Story,” which traces a timeline of 50 years before and after the 1969 opening of Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which sits where this legendary neighborhood once proudly stood, nourishing a wealth of Black talent.
Indiana Avenue is the anchor of a district that stretches between the Central Canal and White River in Naptown. It is the embodiment of Black history, culture, intellect, affluence, and most notably, music. As early as the 1800s, the area was a vibrant social, commercial, residential, economic community anchored by Attucks and the Madam C.J. Walker Theatre, which in perpetuity honors the nation’s first African American female millionaire.
In its 1930s through 1950s heyday, some of the nation’s most prominent jazz clubs and restaurants lined Indiana Avenue – filled with the music that attracted a “who’s who” of American jazz greats like Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dinah Washington.
During this time, iconic talent from Indiana Avenue that made a mark on the music scene throughout the nation and around the world included the greatest jazz guitarist of all time, Wes Montgomery, along with Dave Baker, J.J. Johnson, the Ink Spots, Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton, Flo Garvin, Larry Ridley, Jimmy Coe, Pookie Johnson and Noble Sissle, long-time collaborator with Eubie Blake.
The play “The Price of Progress” carries the music, dance and color of those times and continues through the first half century of progress at IUPUI, examining its role to the Avenue.
This will be the first play at the Historic Madam Walker Theater since the closing of that national landmark venue several years ago for major renovations. Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, November 4, Friday, November 5, and Saturday, November 6.
Tickets are available beginning today! Sponsors IUPUI and the Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) will make all three performances free to the public- while tickets last – to celebrate the reopening and to make the production accesible to the broadest possible audience from Central Indiana and beyond. Tickets are available at onyxfest.com and through Event Brite.
ARTI manager Dr. Les Etienne said the host organization will specifically target former residents of the community in which the play is set, as well as students throughout the region, to better acquaint them with a critical part of their heritage and the cultural experience of theater. The hope is adults and young people alike from the Chicago area and throughout Northwest Indiana will attend.
“The Price of Progress” is a two-act stage play originally produced to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of IUPUI in 2019. It was conceived by IUPUI Multicultural Center Director Khalilah Shabazz who granted me the honor and privilege of writing the script.
Several participants in the production were born and raised in the Indiana Avenue/Ransom Place neighborhood – including lead actor Al “Doc” Watson and musical director/jazz musician Al Finnell. Both are Crispus Attucks alumni.
Several past and current folks involved in “The Price of Progress” have Gary roots, including original artistic director Charla Booth, former director Marvin Bardo, and current director McKenya Dilworth.
The production showcases the vivid heritage of an Indianapolis community dubbed “The Harlem of the Midwest,” for its thriving culture of Black-owned businesses, performing arts, educational influence, and a jazz legacy that attracted the most renowned musicians of the 20th Century. “The Price of Progress” also explores the impact of displacement and gentrification in Indianapolis.
The play candidly ascribes perceived and actual complicity on the part of IUPUI in the eventual demise of “The Avenue” but also highlights healing measures designed by campus leadership in recent years to acknowledge and honor that past with meaningful related initiatives for the present and future. IUPUI and Indiana University were driving forces in the acquisition of $15 million for the Walker Theatre renovation. In addition, the campus has established a scholarship program for descendants of Indiana Avenue.
Finally, IUPUI is committed to ongoing dialogue as well as informing students, faculty, staff and constituencies about the importance of rapport between the campus and that prestigious culture. “The Price of Progress” also celebrates the impactful first 50 years of IUPUI, one of the nation’s leading urban research campuses, chronicled through entertaining drama, comedy, music, dance and historical video. Earlier this year, IUPUI established the Center for Africana Studies through the School of Liberal Arts to broaden the scope of existing Africana studies.
“The Price of Progress” is as entertaining as it is informative. For more on the stage play that salutes and revives the memory of one of the most unsung stories in Black history, contact me at [email protected] or call either 317.274.8710 or 317.457.8779. For complimentary tickets, visit Event Brite or OnyxFest.com. It will be a “feel good” night of theater that will leave you smiling.
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].