Remember the “Thousand Points of Light” that George H.W. Bush used to talk about? He was referencing the efforts of good people around the country (and for that matter, around the world) to make a difference in their communities. At the time, it reminded me of Voltaire’s famous admonition to cultivate our own gardens.
At times like these, when so many of us are disheartened daily by the displays of hatefulness, mendacity and unashamed bigotry being encouraged by a morally and intellectually deficient President, we need to remind ourselves that there are points of light being emitted in our own backyards and gardens.
Here in Indianapolis, we don’t have mountains or oceans or other geographical assets, but we have historically made up for those deficits with a population that “pitches in” (we have more not-for-profit organizations than any other city in the country). The other day, I had lunch with Bryan Fonseca, who is currently “pitching in” in a big way in four of Indianapolis’ least affluent, most diverse and most challenged neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, adjacent to downtown and the campus where I teach, are on the West side of White River. They make up an area called (duh) River West.
Local folks know that Bryan founded the Phoenix Theater some 35+ years ago. For many years, Phoenix’ plays scandalized a lot of locals:they were cutting-edge works that highlighted the barriers faced by LGBTQ, Latino and other minority citizens. Over the years, what was initially scandalous became much less so. The Phoenix succeeded brilliantly; it recently moved from a donated converted church into a ten million dollar building, and from bare-bones existence on the margins of the “respectable” art scene to status as a highly valued part of the mainstream.
While that move was underway, Bryan was working with the River West community under a Transformational Impact Fellowship grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis. And now, after leaving the Phoenix, he has gone back to his scrappy, social justice roots by establishing The Fonseca Theater Company in the heart of River West.
My husband and I attended FTC’s first play, and it met the high standard Bryan had established at the Phoenix. It was powerful and well-acted. But Bryan’s plans for his new venture go well beyond offering professional theater.
The Near West community has long faced major economic, educational, and public safety challenges. However, as Bryan points out, the area is also home to one of the most vibrant and diverse communities in Indianapolis, and he and his team of dedicated and resourceful artists intend to work with and within the community to improve quality of life and create a variety of opportunities for residents. As he says, the new organization is “invested in the concept of in-reach, which encourages artists to move into and become part of the fabric of life in the community we serve.”
The arts are a time-honored way of raising awareness, but the ambitions of this new venture go well beyond the traditional role of theatrical performance.
Research confirms that the arts improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So in addition to a six-show season of plays and a Latinx concert series, the organization plans community plays in which participants write, direct and act in their own stories; a teen acting program; and continuation of an existing children’s program consisting of 10-week classes filled with kids from the surrounding community. (The class is priced at $15 for the entire course, and parents of children who have taken the classes report improved grades and communication skills.)
In addition to plans to develop a soccer team and exercise programs, the theater is partnering with Indy Convergence, a neighborhood collaborative, to spearhead neighborhood events such as clean-ups, crime watches, neighborhood association meetings and eventually, a neighborhood festival, all designed to increase civic pride and neighborhood engagement. As he says, “We are more than just a theater. We are a community center designed to inspire civic engagement.”
This is an enormously ambitious undertaking. But Bryan and his longtime team have overcome daunting obstacles before, and as he says, he’s happiest when he has a cause.
In these dark days, we just have to remember that for every Trump wannabe, for every self-absorbed “it’s all about me” asshole, there’s a Bryan Fonseca working hard to cultivate a garden and make his community better for everyone who lives there.