Review by Ramona Pula
“Indigo” – Sunday, 7-26-15, MITF 16
Writer: Cassandra Powell
Director: Herman Spearman
Starring: Tunisia S. North, Stephen Bauder, Jarryn Bingham, Asante Williams, Cassandra Powell, Tanya Freeman, Justin Smith and Danee’ta Shine
Davenport Theatre, Black Box, 354 W. 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)
16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Running Time: 90 minutes
“Indigo” takes place in the 1970s, a time of political and social unrest in America. The Black Panther Party (BBP) of Southside of Chicago is under fire after its prominent leader, Khalid, is charged with robbery and murder. The core members of the group, convinced of Khalid’s innocence, try to help him by contacting witnesses and otherwise working to get to the truth. The case turns in a mysterious direction, and Indigo (played by Tunisia Samaritan North) must choose between love and the movement.
Written by Cassandra Powell, the story told in this important work has many parallels to our current societal situation. As Nasir, Khalid’s lawyer and also in charge while the jailed leader awaits trial, states, “The system is not our ally.” The Chicago chapter BBP members echo him, saying, “The American system is not our ally.”
Nasir further declares, “This system was never created to protect us.” Since many modern police forces had their origins in “slave patrols” and “night watches” whose purpose was to control minorities, one could argue further that the system was created to hurt them.
There was another person involved in the crime, but the police don’t care to find out who it was. Khalid is the most prominent Black Panther in their jurisdiction, so they want him behind bars no matter what. This has a specific parallel to history, and we read about similar maneuvers worldwide, past and present. When smart people get together and threaten the status quo, authorities go after them.
After noting some people complain that Black Panthers are racist, Nasir asks “When did the quest for freedom become a racist act?… Our #1 mission is to empower our community.” Before the FBI infiltrated them, the BBP’s primary focus was developing community support programs including feeding breakfast to children. They did not advocate violence, however they vowed to protect their own if attacked.
This history repeats itself today. Self-defense is seen as aggressive, even when in response to police brutality and the current epidemic of racist murders against black men, women, and children. The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” is called exclusionary instead of a demand to be included, a human call for equal protection and respect in one’s own country. Sheila talks later in the play about how the media represents each side with bias. We see the same kind of bias in today’s mainstream news.
The costumes in this production were period for the most part, including Afro hairstyles. Nasir wears a dashiki, which one sees today but was especially popular at the time. Some of the cast looked solidly 1970s, while others looked like they could fit in either then or now. The glaring exception was Blakely (Steve Bauder), whose style was 2015.
Period music plays between and sometimes briefly during scenes. At the beginning, as well as later in the play, some spoken word is played, and I wondered who it was. Lyrically, it reminded me of Public Enemy but PE wasn’t around in the ‘70s (nor was “rap” as we currently understand it as a music genre, at least not on the radio – “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979). Most of the other songs I recognized as popular songs from the day.
The lighting design is on point. However, the execution of the cues during the performance I saw was sloppy in several places.
Director Herman Spearman has effectively staged this production and guided characterizations. The cast is engaging. Some are stronger actors than others. I guessed this to be due to differing levels of training since everyone in the ensemble seemed to be equally talented. Basic things bothered me, like when someone’s projection was appropriate for film more than for stage. The few times when someone did not have lines down cold, connection with character was dropped momentarily.
My favorite performances in the ensemble were those of Cassandra Powell as Sheila (played with pathos), Asante Williams as Jamal, Jarryn M. Bingham as Nasir, and Justin Smith as Ron. That said, everyone onstage was committed, connected with each other, and were believable in their roles.
Indigo has a romantic nature and there is a love story here – more than one actually, including by extension that of Romeo and Juliet. Indigo has been practicing scenes from the Shakespearean tragedy with a white classmate, Blakely. They’re in love and, as we find out later, have had a dream of performing the first interracial Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. Through their relationship, the play explores the question of freedom, and how access to that can be different for blacks than it is for whites.
Blakely’s father is Jewish, and he and Indigo have a “Holocaust versus Slavery/Jim Crow” discussion. Comparing oppressions is defeating to those oppressed in various camps. We do better when we cooperate against existing oppressors, rather than compete in the “Oppression Olympics.” At one point I was aghast when Indigo said “Don’t cry to me about a few thousand Jews being killed when entire generations of blacks have been destroyed” – a few thousand? Try several million! In addition to 3 million gentile Poles killed, and gypsies (Sinti and Roma), gays, et al. “The blood shed unites us.”
The play also explores the nature of infighting in an organization, this one being no different than any other in that regard. Petty jealousies and ego can divide people and break up a movement. At one point, Indigo says to Nasir and Jamal “You promised you wouldn’t fight… can’t you see what you’re doing? When you fight each other, you hurt all of us.”
Disrespect for women is problematic in any movement. At one point, Ron implies that Vera (Tanya Freeman) is a whore, saying, “You’ve been around.” Nasir defends her, saying to Ron “respect our sisters.” In a later scene, a witness to the robbery and murder, Bertha (Danee’ta Shine), says to Sheila “be strong” – Sheila says back to her “be strong” – they hug and we can see their strength. We need to stick together.
The events of this story are heartbreaking. There is a tragic twist near the end and we in the audience stayed with it until the end.
Violence versus non-violence in activism is a central theme in “Indigo.” After some struggle back and forth, physically and philosophically, five Panthers each take a gun into the streets. The play ends ominously as we hear five gunshots offstage.
At least 10 minutes could be cut from this play, and it did run over its official 90-minute run by that amount of time. “Indigo” is riveting theatre and would be even more so trimmed down a little.
The personal is political. Power to the People!