Sunday, October 25, 2015

IRT's new play by James Still fleshes out a moment of Indianapolis greatness built on a national disaster

Nearly 50 years ago, an aide to Robert F. Kennedy told Andrew Kopkind, a leading journalist of the time: "One of the questions we ask is what the political consequences of a speech will be. But it is very rarely the first question."

The first question on the minds of RFK and his circle on the night of April 4, 1968, cannot adequately be framed. Whatever it was, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination answered it superbly. Perhaps a version of that question is answered in James Still's new play.

What Kennedy said in just over five minutes in that crowded park at 17th and Broadway has gone into history as balm to a deep wound — balm that was effective notably here in Indianapolis, if not elsewhere across a nation boiling up in black rage at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Whatever the speech's political consequences might have been in the short run, they were snuffed out with the New York senator's assassination two months later.
John Henry nuzzles Addie before the day's calamity.

Still has used Kennedy's address to the shocked crowd as a fulcrum for "April 4, 1968," which opened this weekend in an Indianapolis Repertory Theatre production. If the subtitle "Before We Forgot How to Dream" anchors the play too firmly in a certain view of history, it's only because the mythic stature of the drama works so well and does not close off any dreams. And it does this in part by not offering any pat answers to America's racial problems.

Longtime playwright in residence at IRT, Still has the gift for taking real stories and presenting them with a sort of aura that emphasizes their transformative effect on people's lives. In "April 4, 1968," he focuses on a black Indianapolis family named Fields — mother, father, and two young daughters, Geneva (Christina D. Harper) and Johnna Rose (Nia Simmons) — and their reasonably well-grounded hope for a better life.

John Henry Fields (James T. Alfred) is a musician and doting family man frustrated by the difficulty of profitably pursuing what he loves. The family clings to the lower middle class through wife Addie's (Tracey N. Bonner) job at the airport. Their tolerant, folksy landlady, Miss Davine (Cathy Simpson), is an elderly household spirit capable of giving a homespun perspective to the complex struggles and simple pleasures of black life in America.

In the confusion and sorrow following Kennedy's announcement to the dazed, dispersing crowd, a white college student is left stranded. RFK volunteer Geneva impulsively invites him to come home with her and her mother. Matt (Nick Vidal), a business major at IU finding his real passion satisfied by his literature courses, thus balances Miss Davine's insider perspective with an awkward, but politically engaged, outsider's viewpoint.

Geneva, Addie, Matt, and Johnna Rose catch their breaths on a difficult night.
The six characters spend a long night together, surrounded by an eerie quiet outside, framed by a deejay (Michael Keck) playing soul music over WTLC and chatting like everyone's favorite streetcorner pal with his audience in between Motown and Stax songs.

Still's gift for creating three-dimensional characters makes the lengthy second act enthralling, and director Courtney Sale moves the actors around on IRT's Upperstage with a sure sense of what movement best suits the dialogue from point to point. True, the breadth and depth of the characters' reflections on the day's linked events in Indianapolis and Memphis threaten to turn individuals into composites. Still's extensive research into memories of that time and place shows almost too much. But the cast reins in any hints of overreach through its focus and passion.

Still is deft at placing insights, clarity, and simple human connection in the right places. When Miss Davine starts singing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and is softly joined by others in harmony, for example. Or when the female three-fourths of the host family plus Matt, uncomfortably side by side on the couch, slowly clasp hands.

Best of all, and the crowning indication that Still is more a dramatist than a documentarian, is the significance of the jar. Addie relates at one point the family tradition of passing around a jar filled with cream and a bit of salt to be shaken into butter during family discussions; the exuberant Johnna Rose playfully wants to do that now, even though there is no cream in the house. Her mother agrees, and the ritual is enacted.

The Kennedy-King Memorial at the park where Kennedy spoke.
The empty jar becomes a focal point, a symbol of community, the ghost of an inherited domestic project designed to override division, yielding a desired product. Oddly apposite to its meaning is a poem by Wallace Stevens, a poet fairly insensitive to American social turmoil, one of whose otherwise good poems even has an offensive title. But the one I want to bring in here is "Anecdote of the Jar."

Recalling King's death in Memphis, the day after his "I have been to the mountaintop"  speech, I'm reminded of the poem's first of three quatrains: "I placed a jar in Tennessee, /And round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill." The jar the martyred civil-rights leader placed in Tennessee and elsewhere throughout his brief career held the ingredients of rich, social-justice butter.

The jar "took dominion everywhere," Stevens writes of his surrealistically bare container. The hill King stood upon, like the flatbed truck from which Kennedy delivered his imperishable speech, was surrounded, at unsurveyable distances, by the slovenly wilderness of racism.

But when Geneva lifts up her bare jar in "April 4, 1968"'s last scene and it catches the light, you feel the dream that it reflects might still be viable.

"The wilderness rose up to it / And sprawled around, no longer wild," Stevens writes. The Fields family, including Matt (to whom Still gives the same last name), does not have an easy or predictable way forward. But the path through that tamable wilderness has to be there.

[IRT production photos by Zach Rosing]