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Annual Black theater workshop to return; premier new play

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The second annual Centerstage workshop series returns this month with keynote speaker Dr. Jackie Taylor and the world premiere of local playwright’s Lanetta Kennedy’s one-act play.

The workshop series — presented by the Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI — returns April 22 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Herron School of Art and Design, and focuses on training young and aspiring Black actors, directors, set and costume designer; and lighting and sound technicians in the basics of the industry, said Vernon A. Williams, IUPUI’s communications and community engagement strategist, and director of OnyxFest.

“If you’re interested in Black theater, then this is the place for you to be,” Williams said. “It doesn’t matter how little experience you have, or how much experience you have, there’s always areas in which you can learn more, and that’s what we are going to try to achieve during this lively exchange of information.”

Williams said Centerstage was started in 2022 as a response to community requests to expand the knowledge and relationship building within the Black theater community. One of the unique things about the workshop series is that it also brings in industry professionals and educators to highlight the behind-the-scene operations, such as marketing and financing, in addition to on and offstage work, Williams said.

“We wanted to do something that would cover the gamut of aspects of production,” Williams said.

Even though the program is in its sophomore year, Williams said it’s already expanding. This year, there will be more workshops under each aspect of theatre — Including “The Show,” “the Action,” “The Look” and “The Business.” Each touch on the many different aspects of theater, ranging from playwriting, directing, acting, design and visuals and production. 

Centerstage will also conclude with the world premiere of Indianapolis-based playwright, singer and actress Lanetta Kennedy’s one-act play, “One,” at 1 p.m. Taylor, the founder and CEO of the 40-year-old Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago, will deliver the keynote speech at 2 p.m.

“We talk about the production of Black theater in theory during the workshops, and people get a chance to see it in practice with the production of ‘One,’” Williams said.

“One” by Lanetta Kennedy explores topics of colorism and bias among a group of college students as they wait out a storm together. (Photo provided by IUPUI)

Kennedy, who wrote “One” during the pandemic, said it was inspired by conversations she had with her daughter about the colorism and stereotypes she’d encountered on campus at IU in Bloomington. Though she was disheartened to know things like this are still happening, Kennedy said at heart she was a storyteller, so she decided to write a play about the topic.

The play follows the story of a group of college students who are stranded in a dorm room during a storm and are forced to have a difficult conversation about colorism and confront their own biases. Kennedy said not all Black people identify with the same things and how much melanin they have doesn’t necessarily equate Blackness — but that doesn’t make anyone less than another. 

“There is no measure of Blackness,” Kennedy said. “I also hope that when people walk away from this play, they understand the power in unity. I can be surrounded by light-skinned people, dark-skinned people, people of different colors, shades and still be united, and there’s strength behind that.”

Theater is a powerful tool, and Kennedy said powerful messages can be incorporated into plays and tackle nuances people don’t want to address while still maintaining humor and serious emotions that resonate with audiences. “One” purposely incorporates language and music people in the Black community are familiar with to better connect them to the story and emotions onstage,” Kennedy said.

“When you’re in a dorm room setting, it’s more intimate,” she said. “This is some one-on-one time, and you get to almost feel what the other person feels when they’re communicating with you.”

Kennedy is grateful for those who came before her and paved the way for Black playwrights to tell impactful stories, and said it brings her joy to know her work is now being used as an example for aspiring writers and actors and an outlet for positive messages.

Directly following the premiere of “One,” Williams said Taylor — who’s written and produced more than 100 plays and musical biographies — will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement award before giving a keynote speech and participating in a moderated Q&A.

“She is an extremely valuable addition to what we’re doing because she’s nationally known,” Williams said. “To have her come down and lend her expertise to Centerstage … it’s gonna be quite a thrill to have her presence there, to have her present and to have their share her wealth of knowledge in terms of theater with Centerstage.”

Centerstage takes place at the Herron School of Art and Design, 725 W. New York St., April 22 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Williams said the program will include breakfast and a light lunch, and workshops will take place in the Eskanazi Auditorium and breakout rooms. The workshops are free to attend, but registration is required and available on Eventbrite

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.

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