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African American theatre vanguards help expand access for Indy creatives

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Theatre innovators in Indianapolis are building on the foundation of the arts, hoping to expand access for Black and other artists of color.

One of these institutes on the frontline of this artistic expansion is the Asante Art Institute. The Asante name holds a lot of weight in the theatre world, and it’s because of Deborah Asante.

Deborah Asante is a vanguard in the field, helping lay the foundation for what is now the Asante Art Institute. The current generation is backing up Asante’s work and helping carry the torch.

Asante says she’s an artist first, but through her work, she’s realized facilitating growth in others is another special talent that she has honed for over 30 years.

Asante says the Institute was a proofing ground for a lot of people, and said she is “very proud to say that they are all over this country doing things, moving and shaking.”

Asante founded the Asante Children’s theatre in 1990, building children’s confidence through the arts. Asante believes confidence is a healthy trait for everyone on and off the stage, in understanding their worth.

Asante also says that pointing out the value of having a safe space centered around Black people and the Black experience builds this confidence.

“It’s a place where your culture is not incidental. It is dominant. It is a cushion that you sit on. It is the cannon from which you are propelled,” Asante said.

Asante also says it is important to be able to establish that confidence in children.

“Their message is ‘no, you can’t go higher, you don’t have what it takes, you don’t have enough.’ And we have to find ways to wipe that message clear for our children,” Asante said.

The theatre’s work has spanned 30 years, ultimately expanding from the Children’s Theatre to the Asante Art Institute. The theater also includes growing programs for teens and the community, as well as a creative writing program.

LaKesha Lorene is part of Indy’s next act. Her team created the Naptown African American Theatre Collective (NAATC), building on Asante’s foundation.

“What Asante has been able to do, what they have been able to do for us for decades in this space. What they’ve been able to do as a Black-owned organization in our city has just been phenomenal. The Asante brand is worldwide,” Lorene said.

Lorene is centering NAATC around opportunities for Black and other creatives of color to address what she calls a gap at the equity level.

“Traditionally, for a lot of Black artists across the country, there are only a few times a year that you can possibly work at a lot of these larger institutions. That’s usually during Black History Month or in the winter time,” Lorene said.

Part of this work is a curtain call for artists, Lorene says. Lorene says she had been lucky to have opportunities she’s had locally, regionally, and nationally, but that is not everyone’s story.

“We wanted to better equip our artists for work in the professional space, in particular, work in the union space,” Lorene said.

Set to premier four shows in Indianapolis, the seed funding from the Central Indiana Community Foundation has been key in helping to further support programming and workshops with schools and other partners of the NAATC.

“I see no reason why Indiana can’t have its own 51st Street and have all of these wonderful options of theatres to come to. With a focus on telling the humanity, beauty, and power of Black stories,” Lorene said.

51st Street is a reference to the famous theatre district in Manhattan, 51st Street serving as home to several famous Broadway theatres.

Asante says she’s honored to be a part of Indy’s theatre foundation and has used her life experiences to guide her work. She is excited to see how this new generation uses their experiences to keep telling stories.

“Abundance is what we should be shooting for,” Asante said.