When I went online yesterday, I learned that COVID had killed Bryan Fonseca–for many years one of the most consequential people in our city’s arts community, and a wonderful friend to so many of us.
Bryan was the founder–and for 35 years, the producing director–of the Phoenix Theatre. The Phoenix was the first local professional theater to produce cutting-edge new plays and emerging playwrights, and to focus on issues of inclusion and social justice while maintaining professional and technical excellence. The Phoenix was a major factor both in the revitalization of the downtown Indianapolis neighborhood in which it located in 1988 and in the enormous growth of the performing arts in our city.
When Bryan left the Phoenix, he established the Fonseca Theatre on Indianapolis’ west side, offering classes and performances and generating community and excitement in previously neglected, predominantly low-income neighborhoods. His essential mission remained the same: social justice. He was a persistent advocate for intergroup understanding, and the inclusion of people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ communities–and his steadfast commitment to that mission often made fundraising incredibly difficult.
City leaders talk a lot about the importance of science and technology to economic and community development, but a flourishing arts community is equally important. Bryan understood that a vibrant arts community–galleries, theaters, festivals, poetry readings, Fringe festivals–is essential to the forging of genuine community and to the quality of community life.
In times like these, when Americans are so divided, theatrical performance becomes particularly important, because it is through stories that we advance human understanding and self-awareness. I have previously noted that it was recognition of the importance of stories and how they are told that led to the establishment of Summit Performance, a new, woman-centered theater company in Indianapolis that tells universal stories through a female lens. What I hadn’t previously reported was that Bryan’s effort to create a artistic “collaborative” at the Phoenix was a major impetus to Summit’s formation.
I posted earlier this year about a play I had just seen at the Fonseca. It was called “The Cake,” and it was quintessential Bryan. “The Cake” was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery. I had expected a theatrical presentation of the legal challenges that have been in the news–the baker who refuses to lend his craft to an event he considers inconsistent with his religious beliefs, and the clash between civil rights and claims of religious liberty.
What I saw, instead, was a superbly acted, deeply affecting story about good people who were–inescapably– products of their upbringing, and how they reacted when forced to respond to a changing world, especially when people they dearly love are part of that change. No legal arguments, no easy villains, no preachy morals–just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.
One of the many reasons that the arts are so important– not just as outlets for human creativity and communication– is that they provide the necessary “threads” that very different people use to stitch together a social fabric. Plays, movies, well-done television presentations and the like allow us to travel to places we otherwise wouldn’t visit –some geographic, but others interior and highly personal–and to understand the issues that divide us in new and more nuanced ways.
In its statement on Bryan’s death, The Phoenix quoted something he’d said in an interview:
“We are still on the precipice of revolution and revolutionary change. We have to keep pushing. We can’t retreat. Not budge. Not give an inch. Once again, don’t be placated too soon or at all by small change. Demand more. Vote. Get involved on the local level. Everything grows from the ground up. Change is grassroots.”
It will be much harder to grow and nurture those grass roots without him.
I can’t help thinking that if it weren’t for the utter lack of national leadership in combatting this virus, and the coddling and encouragement of the self-centered jerks who don’t want to wear masks, Bryan and many others might still be with us.
Vote. Your life and the lives of your friends and neighbors depend on it.