Vernon A. Williams, communications and community engagement strategist in the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement and a member of ARTI, knows the power of live theater to create real-time rapport between audiences and the characters onstage.
“It has the capacity to seed thought, sense reactions, stir emotion, enlighten, inspire, enrage or engage in the moment,” Williams said. “Theater is as raw as life in many ways. No special effects, no stunt actors, no cuts and retakes. No segmented delineation of plots out of sequence. Theater provides the closest reflection of life the arts have to offer.”
OnyxFest’s focus and why it matters
The power of live theater can be diminished, however, for Black playwrights, actors and audiences even though, as Williams says, “The depth of the African American experience and breadth of misunderstanding make Black theater particularly poignant.”
Black playwrights are dramatically underrepresented in American theater when it comes to the number of productions of their scripts. The annual OnyxFest, now in its 11th year, provides a dedicated opportunity for Black playwrights to share their stories with audiences.
Williams is director of OnyxFest 2020. He said there are several benefits to having dedicated events for Black playwrights.
“First, theater managers and festival jurors who are white would not be as interested in their stories, limiting access to production,” Williams said. “Also, Black playwrights gain freedom to write in their own voice without the real or implicit need to placate event sponsors. A third attraction is not feeling the stress of pandering to indifferent audiences since the event is designed to spotlight their unique reality.”
By producing the work of Black playwrights, theaters commit to presenting authentic voices to tell truths about the many-layered experiences of Black Americans.
“However well-meaning, the most compassionate portrayal of Black experiences, pain, joy, agony, exultations, aspirations and frustrations comes more genuinely from within. It is consistent with the reality of conveying the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of any culture,” Williams said. “While historically many on the outside looking in have tried to frame Black life from their perspective, invariably the most effective and accurate narrative of Black America is expressed in the voice of those for whom that reality is a constant.”
ARTI engages the community
ARTI has been involved in producing OnyxFest the last two years. It will entirely oversee the festival in 2021. ARTI serves as a program of study offered by the IU School of Liberal Arts, Africana Studies Program and the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement. It was developed to document and reflect the history, cultural life and politics of peoples of the African diaspora.
Leslie K. Etienne, director of ARTI, said Black artists have long had their work appropriated, dismissed, misinterpreted and negatively scrutinized.
“We see this as being expressly related to the perpetuation of the anti-Black racism that is endemic in our society,” Etienne said. “Events like OnyxFest can become a vital outlet for centering narratives about Black life that are often absent in the larger social imaginary. This emphasis on Black life can have a major impact on people’s ability to critically interrogate and interpret the world in which they live through the lens of cultural expression.”
Etienne said one of ARTI’s initial successes was its first production, “The People Speak,” in 2019, which brought together IUPUI students, staff and faculty in the cast. He said ARTI has a deep commitment and focus on artistic and community engagement.
“We have been spending a great deal of time developing our capacity for community-engaged cultural work that extends outside the walls of IUPUI. OnyxFest is one of our most important initiatives,” he said. “The ARTI leadership team of Khaula Murtadha, Susan Kigamwa, Lasana Kazembe, Regina Turner, Vernon and I plan to bring more new programming to the campus community when it is safe to do so.”
Live and recorded performances
OnyxFest 2020 includes six one-act plays that will be performed Oct. 1-10 at IndyFringe Theatre Park, 719 E. St. Clair St.:
Each play will be performed twice during the festival. Tickets are available online.
Williams said OnyxFest 2020 will include a new channel for community engagement.
“One thing never done in the past decade is the television production of all plays,” Williams said. “WFYI is collaborating with sponsors to produce all six, which will be edited and later broadcast on internet platforms as well as be considered for Public Broadcast Service airing.”
Etienne said ARTI will continue to grow its initiatives and partnerships in keeping with its mission while considering the limits and opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We think that this time has taught us that we need to have a balanced approach to what we offer, so people can expect to see both virtual and responsibly planned in-person productions in the future,” he said.
IUPUI’s leadership role
Etienne said the spirit of collaboration in producing OnyxFest 2020 is a source of pride.
“Vernon and his team built a strong relationship with our partners at IndyFringe and the festival participants, which shows how well things have come together,” Etienne said. “Also, we have received such great support from vice chancellors Amy Warner and Karen Dace, as well as the School of Liberal Arts Dean Rob Rebein. Jason Kelly and the IUPUI Art and Humanities Institute team continue to provide a great deal of support for ARTI and our colleagues in the incubator.”
Williams said one of the most profound aspects of IUPUI’s involvement in OnyxFest is the proactive actions taken by the university.
“ARTI was established years before the 2020 global wave of social consciousness,” Williams said. “While campuses across the nation are scrambling for a response, IUPUI is taking leadership in this iconic event in the midst of it all. It is a belief on this campus. It is a commitment, not just a reaction.
“The fact that the academic, research and performance theatrical mindset of ARTI stretch well off campus deeply into the Indianapolis arts and humanities community speaks volumes to the vision of engagement that IUPUI embraces.”