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Naptown African American Theatre Collective premieres first show of the season

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Indy’s first Black equity theater company, Naptown African American Theatre Collective, is presenting its inaugural show this weekend.

Founding and producing director LaKesha Lorene said the collective is a long-time coming and is a necessary outlet for Black actors, directors and technicians in Indianapolis’ theater industry. NAATC, which is just under a year old, will kick off its first official season with “Black Book “— a play written by musical artist and PhD candidate Austin Dean Ashford — at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center on May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

“We really want to make a statement about what it means to have a successful organization that’s not just here for a year or two years but is here way beyond our lifespans,” Lorene said.

As an equity theater, Lorene said NAATC is affiliated with and covered under Actor’s Equity Association, which is the only professional American labor union for stage professionals. Lorene said she wanted NAATC to be under “that umbrella” to be able to provide full-time and substantial part-time opportunities to Black artists working in the arts, whether onstage or behind the scenes. 

Ashford, who is a speech and debate champion from Wiley College, said theater came to him later in life.

Austin Dean Ashford, writer and star of “Black Book.”

“Black Book,” his second play, explores themes of gun violence in schools through a Black lens and discusses the topic of whether teachers should be armed. Ashford said he wrote the play with that question in mind but was also thinking about Black teachers and students.

“I think this play is important because I turn the audience into the students in that classroom,” Ashford said. “But it’s also like a dilapidated public school. I feel like people don’t really know the journey of what happens and how do people navigate through public school and deal with trauma.”

Ashford called his one-man show a “tour de force” as he takes the stage as 13 different characters, including characters based on his own lived experiences. “Black Book” also touches on historical points, such as HBCUs, William Lynch and what it means to be “a voice for the voiceless,” Ashford said. 

Less than 2% of all teachers in America are Black men, and Ashford wants his audiences to witness what it is like to have Black male teachers in the classroom and wonder what that means for young Black boys. The show is meant to make audience members think critically in this way, he said, and help them recognize that Black theater can be provocative and make statements on education and arts as a whole.

“There’s a lot of tension; there’s a lot of conflict,” Ashford said. “There’s an offering of a solution for those who are interested, but if someone’s not interested, they just want to be entertained, we can do that … I think the cool thing is we give the power back to the audience while being entertained at the same time.” 

Latrice Young, director of community engagement strategy for NAATC, echoed this sentiment and said she believes “Black Book” is a good example of Black theater providing a safe space for entertainment and storytelling without capitalizing off of “trauma porn” or subjecting Black characters to anguish or misery.

“When people leave this production, I’m hoping they take away that you can have a Black show that hits you in the core but also doesn’t make you feel bad about being Black,” Young said. 

Premiering “Black Book” at NAATC is significant because the opportunities for Black artists in the theater industry, even nationally, are limited. 

Although Black artists often do the same caliber of work as their non-black counterparts, Lorene said it is typically for little to no pay. Even as members of the union, Black artists are usually given seasonal work because there are not many equity houses across the country that include programming for Black bodies. 

“The theater is supposed to be the place where you can see yourself in anyone,” Lorene said. “The goal for NAATC is for people to see themselves in these Black bodies on this stage … And when you see yourself and you see it played out in real time, it hits different.”

Following the play, Lorene said there will be a post-show discussion featuring Ashford on a panel with guests, such as Brandon Cosby, the executive director of Flanner house; Jamal Nelson, author, actor and educator; Jeremiah Lockett, founder and head of the Harriet Tubman School of Excellence; Mariah Ivey, teaching artist and cultural curator; and Camike Jones, board president of NAATC and editor in-chief of the Indianapolis Recorder. 

“Black Book” premieres with NAACTC May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, located at 705 N. Illinois St. Tickets start at $30 for general admission and $15 for students and Near Northwest residents and can be purchased at naatcinc.org.

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

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