After Tragedy, an Indianapolis Theater Stages a Comeback

INDIANAPOLIS — On a breezy, 80-degree evening, the sun still in the sky, the actor Chandra Lynch walked to the center of the Fonseca The...

INDIANAPOLIS — On a breezy, 80-degree evening, the sun still in the sky, the actor Chandra Lynch walked to the center of the Fonseca Theater Company’s outdoor stage-in-the-round. At her back was a semicircle of oversized blocks, each with printed words that together formed the sentence “Blackness iz not a monolith.”

She turned to face a section of a dozen mostly white audience members, part of the sold-out opening night crowd of 50.

“White folks call what I’m about to do ‘exposition,’” she said, her mouth visible through a clear face shield. “But the Black folks in the audience know I’m about to preach.”

The Fonseca Theater, located in a working-class neighborhood on the city’s west side whose actors are more than 80 percent people of color, staged its first show on Friday night since its founder, Bryan Fonseca, died from complications from Covid-19 last September.

And not just any show — the world premiere of Rachel Lynett’s play “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson),” a metafictional meditation on Blackness that was recently selected as the winner of the 2021 Yale Drama Series Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for playwrights.

“This play allows us to just be 100 percent, unapologetically Black,” said Latrice Young, who plays Jules, a young queer woman who chafes at the regulations of her all-Black community. “There aren’t a lot of spaces outside the home environment where I can do that.”

Friday’s sold-out premiere, held in the theater’s parking lot, was the culmination of a nearly nine-month journey back to the stage after Fonseca’s death — and one of the first shows to be held in Indianapolis since the pandemic closed theaters across the country in March 2020.

And it was far from easy. The theater’s 27-year-old producing director, Jordan Flores Schwartz, had to adjust to taking on a top-dog role she hadn’t been expected to assume for years. Then the comeback was pushed back by two weeks after rain delays put the theater behind on set construction — and two of the actors tested positive for the coronavirus four days before opening night.

“It’s been a journey,” said Schwartz, who is juggling her new role with coursework for a master’s degree in dramaturgy from Indiana University. “But there was never a question of whether we would continue. We had to.”

Fonseca had long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most daring producers in the Indianapolis theater scene. He co-founded the Phoenix Theater in 1983, which became a home for productions that might never have found a place on the city’s half-dozen more mainstream stages.

His shows included Terrence McNally’s exploration of a group of gay men, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” — which attracted picketers — “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, which deals with female circumcision, and offbeat musicals like “Urinetown” and “Avenue Q.”

“His personal mission was to bring diverse work to Indianapolis, because he firmly believed we deserved that, too,” Schwartz said.

She and Fonseca had been a team since 2016, when he hired her at the Phoenix as a summer intern while she was working on her master’s degree in arts administration at the University of Oregon — one of the few paid internships available in the industry, she said.

And when he left the Phoenix in 2018 after 35 years following a dispute with the board, she became a collaborator on his next venture: the Fonseca Theater Company, a grass-roots theater in a working-class neighborhood that champions work by writers of color. The theater, which has an annual budget of roughly $180,000, still often plays to majority-white audiences, though Schwartz said the share of people of color who attend is growing.

Fonseca envisioned one day creating a community center in the building next door, with a coffee shop, free Wi-Fi, space for classes and gatherings, and laundry and shower facilities open to anyone.

“He really wanted to give the neighborhood a seat at the table,” said Schwartz, who said 10 percent of the company’s audience members come from the surrounding Haughville, Hawthorne, Stringtown and WeCare communities.

Fonseca became one of the first producers in the city to resume performances during the coronavirus pandemic last July, when he staged a socially distanced production of Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play,” which centers on the police shooting of an unarmed young Black man, in the theater’s parking lot.

“He always believed theater had the power to unite people,” Schwartz told The New York Times last summer. “He wanted to be part of the conversation around the Black Lives Matter protests.”

Fonseca took precautions, such as requiring masks and situating actors and audience members six feet apart, but “Hype Man” was forced to close a week early after one of the actors became ill. He was tested for the virus, but the theater declined to divulge the results, citing privacy.

Fonseca became sick in August, Schwartz said. He died a little over a month later, a few weeks after the theater wrapped a second production, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies.” (She said it was unclear how he contracted the virus.)

He had already planned for the theater to take a hiatus, a decision that proved prescient when Schwartz, who had just begun her master’s program, took on the role of interim producing director.

But there was never a question as to whether the theater would continue after his death, maintained Schwartz, who is Mexican-American and Jewish and has long worked in community and children’s bilingual theater.

She began plotting a four-show outdoor season of ambitious plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Fernanda Coppel and Carla Ching, all women of color. One script in particular jumped out at her — Lynett’s “Apologies,” a play she’d first read in March 2020, and which seemed newly relevant in light of the racial justice protests and reckoning in the theater industry.

The play is set after a second Civil War, in the fictional world of Bronx Bay, an all-Black state devoted to protecting “Blackness.” Five residents debate what makes someone Black enough to live in their community — conversations that allow Lynett to emphasize that Blackness is not a monolithic experience.

But unlike “Fairview” or “Slave Play” — two works Lynett said she admires — hers is not aimed at white viewers. It’s about finding Black joy, she said in a video discussion hosted by the theater.

“What does it mean to be a Black woman who’s sexually assaulted onstage every night in front of a mostly white audience?” she added. “I wanted to write a play that really avoided the trauma.”

In April, the theater’s board voted to promote Schwartz to full-fledged producing director, Fonseca’s former role. And the company has raised about half of the $500,000 it needs to create the community center, which it hopes to begin construction on by the fall.

But the biggest milestone has already been achieved: returning to the stage.

The play’s ending, according to the script, is the most important part. It calls for the five actors to each answer the question, as themselves: “What does Blackness mean to you?”

On Friday night, Josiah McCruiston, whose character, Izaak, often supplies comic relief, picked up one of the blocks, labeled “Monolith,” and carried it to the center of the stage.

“I feel this play helps me scream at the top of my lungs about who I am,” he said. “That because I’m Black, I have a story, that I am rich, complex and deep. But I still think some white eyes will say I was funny.”

Aniqua Chatman, another actor, said, “I can say ‘Blackness is not a monolith,’ but I still feel the white stares looking at me.”

Then Chinyelu Mwaafrika said, “White people, raise your hands.” Thirty hands went up.

“I say racism, you say sorry,” he said. “Racism.”






With that, the play ended, and the chorus was replaced by applause.

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Newsrust - US Top News: After Tragedy, an Indianapolis Theater Stages a Comeback
After Tragedy, an Indianapolis Theater Stages a Comeback
Newsrust - US Top News
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