Nicole Kearney's kids don't think she works. Her voice lifting into a tween-age falcetto she repeats, "When we go to school you're home and when we get off the bus you're still home, so when do you work?" Kearney, a mother of two, can't help but smile. "Oh thank you, I went and got all of this education so I can NOT work."
- One of Onyxfest's founders is Nicole Kearney, who hopes to expand the event. "This is the place to make your opportunity," says Kearney. "We’ve introduced so many playwrights, especially African American playwrights, who’ve used the Fringe and now come back. Now it’s a destination for them."
Despite what her kids may think, Kearney does work. In addition to being a professor at Martin University and a playwright herself, she's one of the organizers for OnyxFest. IndyFringe, the organizing and hosting organization of OnyxFest, describes the event as "Indy's first and only theater festival dedicated to the stories of African American playwrights."
"When Diva Fest came out, I was like 'Great, an initiative to get more plays by women on stage... How do we get more African-Americans to come out?'" says Kearney. She was one of three playwrights invited to put on their work at last year's inaugural OnyxFest. "It went well, we had a great weekend," Kearney recalls. "This is our second year and this year we opened it up."
After an invitation-only first year, OnyxFest accepted admissions for plays this year. Out of the ten submissions that came in from around the region, the organizers narrowed their selection down to four plays for this year. The playwrights come from as far away as Cincinnati, and from as unexpected a place as a homeless shelter.
Jermaine Woolery has a smile almost as eager as his blessings. One of this year's playwrights, he got his first experience with OnyxFest last year when he performed in Kearney's production "Re-Entry." That play, which explored the difficulties a criminal and drug addict faces when trying to return to the world outside of prison, struck close to home for Woolery.
- Jermaine Woolery has taken a long road to get to Onyxfest, where he hopes his play "Landscape People" will help everyone think before being judgmental. Woolery feels blessed that Onyxfest gives new black playwrights a venue for their work. "It means the world," says Woolery. "Without Onyxfest, where would we go to do this? It's a chance to share our art."
"I was George Jackson," says Woolery, speaking of the central character who struggles to overcome his past. It was more than just a part; before his participation in OnyxFest, Woolery had spent time in prison and struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. That experience, as well as the exposure to theater from his role in "Re-Entry", has inspired his new play "Landscape People."
"It's an old idea," Woolery says. "My pastor asked me, 'do you ever look around and see the landscape? And the people that you normally don't pay any attention?' He was talking about people who society has, for no reason really, stopped recognizing. When we had this conversation I had just gotten out of prison, dealing with drug issues."
At the time, Woolery hadn't experienced homelessness, but in time he came to live the life of the people that he admits he had "landscaped" before. "I slept under bridges in the winter time. I met a lot of people that, at one point in time, I ignored. I walked right past them. Cause I thought I was better."
"When you're at the Mission," says Woolery, "eating with people you used to judge. You actually talk to them and befriend them."
Since those dark times, Woolery has recovered. Today, in addition to being a playwright, he is a theology student. Still, he hasn't forgotten his hard lesson about pride, and through his play he hopes to impart that lesson less painfully to others. And his isn't the only story of redemption in this year's OnyxFest.
"Grab hold of the back of her drawers and don't let her go till you hear the knock!" shouts TaMara Goode to her cast after another miscue. Her cast, none of whom have acted before, burst into laughter. After indulging them for a moment, Goode raises her voice again and gets them back to work.
- In TaMara Goode's "Reflections," the main protagonist Vivian (background) is suddenly reminded of painful family history when the grandson she never knew she had, Miles (foreground), is thrust into her care.
Goode is another of this year's participants, and like most she has no experience putting on her own plays. And like most, what she lacks in know-how she more than makes up for with enthusiasm. The whole experience of being selected to produce the play she wrote, "Reflections," and then actually doing it has left her giddy.
"We have fun with it," laughs Goode, who has degrees in theater, communication, hospitality, and culinary arts. "I've always had an interest in reading, writing, acting, and directing. This is a milestone for me, because this is my pride and joy."
The play, written in 1996, was Goode's attempt to understand the epidemic of fatherlessness she saw in the African American community, and the ways different people cope to such hardship. "What is family?" Goode asks after highlighting the widespread collapse of the nuclear family. "Family is who is there."
The granddaughter of a Democratic ward chair, Goode was fortunate enough to get exposed to a wide cast of characters early in life. "I didn't realize it was a big deal that I got to meet these people. I didn't know it was a big deal to sit next to the Kennedys. Now I look back, and I'm like 'oh my God, I sat next to Ted Kennedy!'"
It's that same exposure to people of many different backgrounds that she loves most about OnyxFest. "It's the diversity of voices. It broadens the awareness of some of the youth. It's important to me that we have our voices out there; children should learn more about the theater. There's something that comes from theater that you just can't get from the TV."
- "Reflections" is the story of Vivian (foreground), an aging black woman struggling with the pain of her husband's death and her abandonment by her son. As the story unfolds, Vivian is forced to confront her pain, and her own role within it.
This year is a big step for OnyxFest. With their second annual performance, Kearney and the others hope to establish the event in the city's cultural calendar. Kearney plans to begin offering inexpensive playwriting classes to individuals who come to OnyxFest and want to take part themselves.
"The goal is to have you leave with a 45 minute script," Kearney says, "in time to submit to the Fringe festival and OnyxFest."
Goode sees OnyxFest as the city's opportunity to arrive on the national stage. "There's a lot of talent here in Indy, a lot of untapped talent," she says, eyes set with determination. "We need to be able to compete. We need to be up there with Chicago."
After all he's seen and been through, Jermaine Woolery thinks anything is possible. "Man this is awesome," says Woolery, shaking his head with disbelief. "And the vision moving forward just sounds like an awesome step."
"Maybe," he says, laughing, "maybe before too long we'll be on Broadway for real."