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Reviews: Onyx Fest at IndyFringe Theatre

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The inaugural Onyx Fest, billed as the city's first and only festival dedicated to the work of African-American playwrights, opened last weekend at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre with a slate of three plays. The lineup was selected by Nicole Kearney, a professor of English and drama at Martin University, whose play, re-entry, was one of the three on the bill. The plan is to institute a juried selection process for next year's festival; this year, it was all about getting things off the ground with the resources available.

***

There was much to admire in re-entry, a didactic play about the reintegration of ex-offenders directed by Jerome Davis and starring Jermaine Woolery, in a low-key, mostly convincing performance as ex-con George Jackson. As the play begins, Jackson is trying to reconcile with his family, find a job and battle crack addiction after spending half his life behind bars. There were nicely-rendered, sometimes surprising details embedded in mini-monologues by Jackson, who told the audience, at one point, about his reticence to take a job filling out a police lineup because it would take him so close to a prison. And the play's explicit plea for a more humane treatment of ex-offenders, while not always threaded into the script in an organic way, was convincing.

Those points being made, re-entry was, on the whole, rather choppy and gloomy. Woolery's performance was even and carefully modulated; one wonders if the character was meant to be deep in a clinical depression, which could well have been the case, though moments that would traditionally call for more emotional volatility (say a family's intervention after Jackson hits a crack pipe) were acted with the same intensity as, say, Jackson's trip to the unemployment office. And the play itself matched Woolery/Jackson's gloomy tone, with blackouts interrupting scenes before they picked up steam, creating a probably unintended dream-like feel, as if Jackson were reliving fragments of his life, closing his eyes at unexpected moments to be transported to another hazily remembered scene.

Kearney notes that she's already at work on a longer version of re-entry which will give more details on Jackson's relationship to his daughter, among other changes. Talking with her after the show, she noted that while she hopes her play is successful as a work of theater, she's equally concerned with the play's political and social impact, and plans to re-mount her longer version at the Central Library, with a talkback after the play and other complementary programming.

***

Maybe re-entry could have used a little of the energy that informed Betsy on E. 10th Street, a two-hander by the Indianapolis Urban Theater and Dance Company featuring Arthur Jordan as a Vietnam vet named August Winston who has become a first-time homeowner, and Jaron Marquis Garrett as a neighborhood kid, Deon, who's barely scraping by. Where re-entry was quiet, laconic, controlled, Betsy aimed for the rooftops, its characters shouting their war stories about Vietnam and the streets of Indianapolis.

Jordan played a character that very much resembles himself; according to Garrett, who also directed the play, much of the rehearsal process was taken up with trying to find a structure which could accommodate Jordan's life stories about his service in Vietnam and subsequent membership in the Black Panther Party. They arrived at the conceit of having Winston and Deon come across a box containing memorabilia from his life, including a Black Panther glove that Deon puts on for a time before Winston warns him, in the gruff tone of the crochety old dude down the lane who possesses the wisdom of experience and won't put up with the hijinks of young whipper-snappers, to take off what doesn't properly belong on his hand.

Jordan isn't yet a seasoned enough storyteller to enrapture an audience, but he came off as honest and funny, becoming more comfortable with every minute spent on stage. Garrett tried to knock it out of the park with his monologue - a tale of hardship, foster homes and children committing murder - but ended up giving a little more (maybe, a lot more) than the play and the space called for. Betsy had the right idea, though; would that more plays (or other works of fiction) drew their stories more directly from real life, so as to avoid the tone-deafness or banality that can (but, of course, doesn't always) inform work invented out of thin air.

***

I had the sense that When You Least Expect It was leading up, all along, to the payoff, when a teenaged girl, Tequila, who at first appeared immature and standoffish, ended up being the voice of reason/God, helping family members to surmount their problems by prescribing common sense and prayer. As such, the play's appeal was somewhat limited to those looking for an illustration of the power of Christian faith. Still, there were some convincing performances; that teenage cousin who helped the family find its way brought needed gumption to the proceedings and was given some of the play's funnier lines ("Lord, I'm not sure why you sent me here in the midst of all this drama; this family's a trip!")

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