One of three plays selected for the third annual OnyxFest, which runs through this weekend at IndyFringe Theatre, Tom Cat by Jamie Rhodes is about a man named Tommy (played by Benjamen Benjamen) who grew up in Kincaid, Mississippi but who got in trouble and fled north to Indianapolis ten or fifteen years ago. Now it is 1951 and Tommy has a life he more-or-less enjoys with a "drank girl" in a jazz club on Indiana Avenue, working for his uncle.
Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart, Rubyanne (played by J'Taun Tiara) has become the mistress of a white man named Riley (played by Joshua Blanton.) She has lived for several years in a house he built for her on the edge of his father's plantation, but she is ready for a change. Maybe.
By the end of Act One, Tommy has killed a white police officer and is headed back to Mississippi to lay low for a while. His first stop, even before he visits his father's house, is Rubyanne's.
In some ways, OnyxFest, a festival of new plays by African-American playwrights that is presented by the Indy Fringe and sponsored by Alan K. Mills, is a workshop situation. Some of the plays that win a spot in this festival have never been produced anywhere else and are still a work in progress. The people working on them will probably learn a lot about what they want to change simply from having the show produced and hearing a large, live audience respond to it. I think Tom Cat is such a play.
For example, I suspect the playwright's screenwriting background influenced his decision to have the action move back and forth a lot between four or five locations. This is no problem for a screenplay but it creates challenges for a stage play.
The team that staged this play decided to use the whole stage for each scene. This means the poor crew is lugging a recliner and sofa on and off stage and resetting a bunch of props every few minutes while the audience members twiddle their thumbs. The crew members for this show are quick but the many and complicated scene changes slow down the show. One alternative would be to divide the stage in half or thirds, have two or three sets of furniture, leave it in place, and use lighting to show when we are in one place or the other.
Also, some of the dialogue in the scenes is repetitive, so the script could use some editing. The plot unfolds slowly, too, but I liked knowing a lot about the main characters' back stories.
In any case, even with the slow pace of this particular production, the show is funny, intense, and heartbreaking. I left the theatre feeling as if I had been on a journey with people I cared about.
If you go the second weekend, you should be ready to hear the "n" word a lot. There is also a very believable knife fight scene. The program doesn't list a fight choreographer so perhaps the credit for that goes to director Matthew Officer.
I also left the theatre feeling curious about the rest of the festival. I notice from the program that all three of this year's OnyxFest plays have relatively large casts, which is a nice change. Many Fringe shows are solo shows.