Monday, August 21, 2017

Day Four of IndyFringe festival: Four shows on characteristically American struggles, lightened by ballet at the end

 [Post interrupted by attempt to view the eclipse: my apologies to early readers!]

An inadvertent commentary on what made the late Dick Gregory special came through in the one-man IndyFringe festival show "Black in the Box," which I saw at the Phoenix Underground Sunday afternoon.

Gregory pioneered direct talk about race in stand-up comedy, departing from the expectation that black funnymen would for the most part keep it light and well away from racial troubles.

In this disturbing, captivating show, Marlon Andrew Burnley devotes part of his overview of the African-American experience to the need to keep post-Emancipation troubles at arm's length. The genesis of black entertainment — at first a matter of hard-won temporary relief from oppression, later formatted into minstrelsy to amuse whites — was just one of "Black in the Box"'s memorable episodes.

The ghettoizing of the black man as entertainer was among the confinements that Gregory burst through. Burnley similarly emphasizes the Jim Crow-era adjustments that had to yield to direct confrontations with white racism, whose effects persist.

Burnley takes the audience from the horrors of capture and the Middle Passage into slavery. Escape under great risk toward the illusory promise of freedom is among the show's many poignant scenes.

Burnley's representative African-American drags a battered trunk around with him, drawing various props from it to mark each difficult stage of setbacks and advancement. The pathos of black contributions to the Union effort in the Civil War yielding to a long era of continued marginalization and disrespect is vividly displayed. Slide projections and a graphic soundtrack accompany his performance, wordless until near the end, when passionate civil-rights oratory is punctuated by an assassin's gunshots.

To conclude, the performer speaks in his own voice, thus drawing his wide circle of implied narrative into a more personal orbit. The intimacy of such an ending keeps what has gone before from staying too much on the overview level. The waves across four American centuries of black punishment and pride that he embodies are so focused on his dancing and acting skills (plus the show's creative cohesiveness)  that the artistic message remains uppermost.

We don't feel we are in "Eyes on the Prize" or Ken Burns territory, but rather on a higher plane of urgent testimony, refracted through the use of a series of well-designed masks. Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask" clearly is an animating force behind this device.

There are plenty of documentary touchstones in the show, but the context in which they are set makes "Black in the Box" stand out among the festival's more serious and adventurous offerings.

What might be called an all-caps approach to a stage show addressing racial justice in America is a multi-character one-act play at the Firefighters Union Hall. "Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" is loaded with crackling dialogue issuing from the mouths of heavily drawn characters. The dramatic tension is guaranteed with the generating premise: Kates, a black civil-rights crusader from the North, is thrown into a hamlet's jail cell with Buell, the ne'er-do-well town drunk, a reflexive white racist.

"Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" takes place during Freedom Summer (1964), perhaps the most perilous short period in the civil-rights history, when registering blacks to vote in Mississippi was worth the life of anyone who tried.

Garret Mathews' play darkly assumes that no softening of the troubled white man's hostility to blacks would be allowed to go unchecked in such a milieu. There are signs that the plight of black Southerners is getting through to Buell as he considers his
Historical photo of Freedom Rider solidarity.
own mistreatment; he's in constant pain from a police beating that may have broken some ribs. The process toward understanding is certain to be interrupted, however. And, without revealing the ending, I think it's worth reminding readers of the old theater axiom that if a gun is mentioned in Act 1, it will be fired in Act 3.

Thus, Mathews inserts a blustering Ku Klux Klan leader into the action, with free access to the jail and no official objection to his being armed and  brandishing his weapon undisturbed. Would a civic authority, even if wary of the Klan, countenance the possibility of murder by a visitor to his jail? Regardless, the thug will have a way of cutting short any burgeoning sympathy between the civil-rights worker and Buell. Secondary characters are a brain-damaged neighbor of the drunk and a jail guard. Directed by Susan Nieten, the cast certainly lives up to the starkly drawn contrasts and conflicts the playwright wants to hammer home.

There's no doubt the peril faced by the Freedom Riders was severe, so I'm not alleging implausibility on realistic grounds. It's simply that when you make a work of art out of such circumstances, you have to consider the shackles you may be putting on your creation of human beings in having them act in such a DayGlo-paint-by-numbers fashion.

The town is deep in benighted provincialism, backward in every utterance of the white inhabitants we meet and in the corn-pone local radio station that Buell tunes in from time to time. In contrast, Kates is a Chicago law student so fastidiously well-spoken that he never says anything plainly that can be spontaneously fancied up. When provoked, it's true, he gets in the Klansman's face, but it's not his general manner. It's hard to believe Kates can be a capable motivator of his people. He has a grasp of the issues at stake, as he makes clear when he interrogates Buell and reveals the system's pervasive injustice, but the character lacks the salt-of-the-earth quality you'd think would be necessary for the work he's committed to.

The performances are ripe with conviction and energy. Clay Mabbitt is Buell, Donovan Whitney is Kates, Kevin C. Robertson is the Klan boss. Sam Fields (Tadpole, the slow neighbor) and Dustin Miller (the jail guard) round out the cast. "Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" takes a dark summer of our national discontent and wrings its neck. Bringing it to life in a more nuanced fashion might have done more justice to the issues it raises.

Demanding choreography is executed with aplomb in "Beyond Ballet Remix."
Another show with a social-justice edge is "The Fight for 52 Cents." Speaking in the person of heroic Minneapolis labor leader V.R. Dunne, Howard Petrick recalls the bloody 1934 truckers' strike in that city, imaginatively set 25 years later and recalled with steady pride and just a trace of bitterness.

Petrick holds the attention on Theatre on the Square's intimate Stage II in a monologue that takes class warfare seriously. An entrenched ruling class made the eventual labor victory quite hard-won. Petrick's folksy yet steely demeanor in the role of Dunne is bound to have you rooting for his cause, no matter your politics (I hazard a guess!). We may rightly think we live in polarized times now, but there is precedent for them in such struggles as the one Petrick brings to greater awareness through this show.

The day ended on a more buoyant note as I visited the main stage at TOTS for "Beyond Ballet Remix," performed by dancers  with Indianapolis Ballet and the Indianapolis School of Ballet. Victoria Lyras has fashioned a school and nascent professional company with many capable dancers who can execute her imaginative choreography with flair and precision.

The opening work, Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie," did not seem out of place in a program focused largely on works by Lyras, with the collaboration of Paul Vitali in "Scriabin Suite."  Set to a series of short piano pieces by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), the latter rose to electrifying heights in a pas de deux for the superlative partnership of Kristin Young and Chris Lingner. It was very nearly topped by a finale for the company – intricate, energetic, and polished.

In this work and in the Balanchine, dancers throughout the company, including some as young as 13, showed a mature command of their arms as well as their legs and feet. Often port de bras is a technique where some awkwardness lingers in developing dancers, but not with these young women.

The program's imaginative finale, "Forever Tango," is a new work Lyras dedicated to festival founder and director Pauline Moffat. In three fascinating sections, with another exhibition of the enthralling Young-Lingner partnership in the middle, the piece nicely blends characteristic movement and postures central to the tango with classical ballet technique. The result never looked jerrybuilt or effortful; it was as if a new dance subgenre was taking shape before our eyes.

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