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Director Vernon Williams talks about OnyxFest

OnyxFest, the only theater festival in Indianapolis exclusively exhibiting the works of Black playwrights, will be a little different this year because of COVID-19.

IndyFringe —  where OnyxFest is based — has adjusted to the pandemic by holding theatrical events outdoors in its pocket park adjacent to the theater building at 719 E. St. Clair St. 

The festival will have a contingency plan, according to OnyxFest director Vernon Williams, in case the live performance can’t go forward. That is, WFYI public television will film these performances so they can be shared online.

“People will be able to see it online so, either way, it goes,” said Williams, who is also communications and community engagement strategist at IUPUI. 

The Outdoor Stage at IndyFringe

OnyxFest is jointly presented by IndyFringe and the Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI). The festival runs Oct. 1-11.

Find out more and purchase tickets here. 

“ARTI is an organization that was actually launched last year to stretch the campus into the Black community for the purpose of articulating the experience of Black Americans through art and specifically through theater,” Williams said. “The bottom line is to help build a voice of the Black community and to articulate issues relevant to African Americans, through the arts as well, to encourage young people of all ages.”

The fact that ARTI is housed at IUPUI, the building of which razed the historical heart of the Indianapolis Black community, is not insignificant to Williams.

“The university has really taken a very aggressive and enthusiastic step towards trying to deal with those things then to build,” said Williams. “That’s the collaboration that forged  the agreement between the campus and the Walker board that saw $15 million dollars in renovation go into that historic Madam CJ Walker theater. It’s part and parcel of  the university’s commitment to being community partners.”

The $15 million for renovation was provided by Lilly Endowment.

Being Black in America

The lineup of performances for OnyxFest 2020 includes one-act plays by six playwrights.  I Feed You Defiance explores the challenges of Black and Brown women raising sons, while Michael Florence’s On The Corner relays the story of three death row inmates. Vernon Williams’ Being Black offers two vignettes about the Black experience in America.

Find out more and purchase tickets here. 

One of Williams’ vignettes is titled “Working Out the N-Word”, which takes the form of a debate between two African American men about the appropriate use of the word among Blacks talking among one another.

“I’m not even going to say it’s generational,” Williams said about this debate. “You have a lot of old timers, who very comfortable saying ‘n____ aught to do this, n ____ aught to do that.’ It’s not just hip-hop. Some people, a lot of young people, a lot of beautiful young strong educated, Black people who just aren’t having it.”

Another is titled “Hair Cares” about the dilemma that Black women face in the workplace way too often regarding their hairstyles.  But natural hairstyles are not only stigmatized in the workplace. They are also stigmatized in school.

“That’s why in a play called Being Black it couldn’t exist without that,” said Williams. “In the news over the last year there have been children denied graduation, suspended from school, because they wore cornrows. There have been people that have to hire lawyers to retain that job, their livelihood, not  because they were incompetent, but because their hair wasn’t acceptable to a corporation.” 

Williams likes to call Being Black the first in a trilogy.  “I say that because you can’t put all of what it is to be Black in one play. You really can’t learn about it in three but if I say it’s a trilogy at least somebody [could say] ‘I loved that play but you shouldn’t have left out fill-in-the-blank.”

Williams found himself having to adjust certain of his vignettes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

 “It certainly needed to include this historic moment that we’re living through right now,” he said. “There was no way to omit that from a piece called Being Black. “I think that one of the things that’s been wonderful about the aftermath of this horrible event is that it’s brought people together. In your lifetime, did you ever think you’d see any protests in 380 cities?

It’s important to have African-Americans telling their own stories, Williams said.

“Imagine what it would feel like if Germans, in World War II, wrote the story on what it felt to be Jewish, how absolutely repugnant that would be,” said Williams.  “Likewise for African Americans to see their experience and their journey framed by people on the outside looking in, who were writing from their own interpretation of what they thought they saw and heard.”

The writer of this article is also managing editor of NUVO, where a version of this article was previously published.

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