Thursday, March 29, 2018

Disputed Play Makes Indy Premiere at OnyxFest

Three years ago, local playwright Lillie Evans was days from opening her new play about the life of Thomas Dorsey, a blues artist who became the Father of Gospel music in the 1930s, when she received a cease-and-desist letter from a grandson of the late Dorsey. Not prepared for the costs of a legal battle, Evans gave up her slot at OnyxFest, the annual theater festival for African American voices, sponsored by IndyFringe.

While IndyFringe investigated the validity of the cease-and-desist letter, Evans took time to reflect why she felt more relief than sorrow in pulling the show. “At first, I thought it was just a lack of confidence, but deep down I knew the play needed more work,” Evans explained. She put the script away to work on other projects, but her thoughts kept returning to it.

Years earlier, a local church had commissioned Evans to write a play about Thomas Dorsey.  “At first, I didn’t want to do it. I thought it would be boring! But when I learned that he had originally been a blues artist—that got my attention! How did someone go from being a blues artist—he was known as Georgia Tom on the blues circuit—to becoming the Father of Gospel Music? You see back in the 1920s, even up through the 1940s, Gospel music was very different than it is today. It was very staid, very traditional. There was no rhythm or enthusiasm and not even a hint of jazz—churches thought jazz was sacrilege! The more I learned about him, the more I knew that his story needed to be told,” the playwright offered.

Evans knows a little something about compelling stories. She and long-time friend Crystal Rhodes have published four mystery-comedies about a trio of retired grandmothers who solve a murder then go on to open their own private detective agency. The first book in that series, Grandmothers, Incorporated, was adapted for the stage and produced by the Billie Holiday Theater and enjoyed a twelve-week run off-Broadway. Their play Stakeout, was a top-seller at IndyFringe 2014.

Once Evans received the legal parameters of writing the Dorsey play, she revised the script to include a character who provides insight into Dorsey and some much-needed comic relief. “This is a heavy play. I created a character who hung out at nightclubs.” Her diligence paid off: the updated script was an official selection of the 2017 National Black Theater Festival produced biannually in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Evans described her experience at the festival with delight.

“My script was one of the forty selected of the 160 submitted plays. Except I didn’t know I had been selected until a few days before the festival! My writing partner, Crystal, had been selected, and I was so happy for her, but also sad that I wouldn’t be going. But then I got an email about the logistics of the festival, so I called them and learned that my notification was never sent. I asked local director Deborah Asante to direct, and the three of us went to North Carolina together. At this festival, you pick your director, then the director picks from a pool of professional actors. Deborah has always been great at selecting just the right person. The stickler was that the playwrights had to get their own audiences, so I hit the streets hard, talking to people about my show. It was exhausting, but it paid off. Audiences responded very well to it! After my play was done, we got to see other shows. We got to see the city. We saw the site of one of the first lunch-counter protests of the Civil Rights Movement. And at the end of the festival, the whole city came together, and they had a parade of playwrights and performers, marching about ten blocks through the city with bands and everything, New Orleans-style!” 

Satisfied with the response to her updated script, Evans once again submitted the script, now titled Take My Hand (A Blues Man’s Path to Gospel), to her hometown festival--OnyxFest, where it will be featured along with several other original plays, culminating March 29-31 at The IndyFringe Theater.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Evans grew up on the East side, attending Arsenal Tech High School, a school she loves to this day. She went on to attend Indiana Central College, now known as the University of Indianapolis, and got a degree from the Indiana Institute of Technology. Before retiring, Evans was a district manager at the U.S. Postal Service.

Although Evans is retired and a grandmother herself, she explained that her books are based on her mother. “A long time ago, her niece went missing, and unhappy with how the authorities were handling the case, she literally put on a trench coat—I mean she actually wore a trench coat, like Columbo! She went around interviewing everyone. She was getting information no one else could get. She worked in government and just had connections. She did wind up finding her niece, but to this day no one knows how she did it.

“When I started writing the first book, I showed part of it to my friend Crystal. She read it and said, “This book needs to be a comedy! So, we started writing together.” Rhodes and Evans met at Arsenal Tech, by the way.

When not writing plays and books, Evans says she likes going to plays. "To relax, I like to go Holliday Park, but I don’t do that very often. I need a more serene life. So far, it’s not working at all! My children tell me I don’t know the fine art of retirement.” 

Evans prefers travel over relaxing. Her favorite destinations include Grand Cayman and the Grand Canyon, and later this year she has a trip planned to Mackinac Island.

Evans has enjoyed her tenure at OnyxFest this year and knows that pulling the play was the right decision three years ago. She had a full house on opening night last weekend, and the snowstorm the following day didn’t deter audiences.

She might not understand the fine art of retirement, but she certainly understands the fine art of entertaining! Welcome home, Lillie!

The cast and crew of Take My Hand gather around the piano during rehearsal.

Top L to R:  Myron El, Nicole Beverly, Henry S. Carter
Bottom L to R:  Carmen Batts-Porter, Joshua Owens, Lillie Evans, playwright; and Tamara Breeding-Goode, director.  Not pictured: Kevin Getter.

According to the IndyFringe website, OnyxFest was developed in response to the lack of diversity both on stage and in audiences of Indianapolis' theatres. IndyFringe actively embraces diversity in the Indianapolis theatre scene and began working with African American playwrights to change the Indianapolis theatrical landscape.

This year’s entries include:

Dear Bobby: The Musical Playwright: Angela Jackson Brown Lyrics: Music: Peter Davis
Judith Rosenstein and Annabelle Strong are two twelve-year-old girls from opposite sides of Indianapolis but their stories are similar. Both girls are growing up without their mothers and both have two very loving fathers and brothers. This play explores the very real struggles and successes of the Jewish community and the black community to unite as one in Indianapolis during this time. It explores in a larger scope, the tumultuous times everyone was living through as they watched in horror the assassination of their leaders.
Thursday Mar 29th, 7:00PM
Friday Mar 30th, 7:30PM
Saturday Mar 31st, 5:00PM

Take My Hand (A Blues Man’s Path to Gospel) Playwright: Lillie Evans
Thomas Dorsey, a self-confident composer and self-taught pianist is determined to make his mark. In his early twenties he was well on his way to being one of the most prolific composer in blues history and was sought after by some of the top blues artist of his time. But, what's gospel have to do with it? His vision is to marry church music with blues rhythms—it was called gospel. Pressured by those around him, he is unable to choose between the blues he loves and the secular music he was striving to change. The answer comes at a heavy price but heralds a song that anointed Dorsey as the “father of gospel music.”
Saturday Mar 31st, 3:00PM
Saturday Mar 31st, 7:30PM

Forever Moore  Playwright: Lanetta Overton
The holidays are quickly approaching, and the Moore family is planning to visit with one another. Ruby and Michael are anticipating the arrival of their three beloved sons. Tyrique is the eldest son, he is a lawyer who has worked hard to make partner at Lax and Chism Law firm. He’s in the right business, but he may soon need a lawyer of his own. Trent is the middle son who is currently in his last year at Notre Dame, his passion is football, but he has a love for something else which could lead to his demise. Lastly, the youngest son Jywan is a military man that has not always had a voice, but is in desperation of trying to be heard. The Moore’s will share more than good food and laughs over the holiday. It’s time for this family to show they will be there for one another despite the odds they may face.
Thursday 29th, 7:00pm 
Friday, 30th, 7:00pm

All shows are $12/$15 and will be performed at the IndyFringe Theater.

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