• Sun. Mar 7th, 2021

Theater director who championed marginalized voices lost to Covid

In the mid-1980s, Frank Basile, then an Indianapolis real estate executive, got a call out of the blue from a local theater director. Basile thought it was strange that the director, whom he had never met, was trying to sell him season tickets over the phone.

But the director, Bryan Fonseca, had a far more ambitious proposal in mind. Fonseca asked Basile to lead a capital campaign to raise funds to convert an old Baptist church into a performing arts venue.

Basile, now 80 and retired, was immediately struck by Fonseca’s artistic zeal, creative vision and personal magnetism. The two men met at Basile’s office, and Basile agreed to help out on the spot.

“He was so persuasive,” Basile said with a laugh in a phone interview this week.

Fonseca’s fierce devotion to the arts helped turn him into an institution in Indianapolis, where he was beloved for cultivating the talents of young creatives and channeling their energy into bold, boundary-pushing work.

He remained active in the city’s artistic circles up until his final days. He died on the night of Sept. 16 of complications related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to his niece Courtney Blossom. He was 65.

Fonseca was particularly steadfast in his commitment to elevating underrepresented and marginalized artistic voices, including those of people of color and the LGBTQ community.

“He wanted to involve people of color in all phases of production: playwrights, actors, staff and so on. It was his mission,” said Basile, who became Fonseca’s patron and sits on the board of the director’s company, the Fonseca Theatre Co., in addition to other philanthropic work.

Fonseca’s original venue was the Phoenix Theatre, which he co-founded in 1983. The Phoenix often put on challenging shows that surveyed sociopolitical fault lines, such as “Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage that tackles racial tension and deindustrialization in a fading Rust Belt town.

In the mid-1990s, the Phoenix produced Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!”, a portrait of queer identity and the AIDS epidemic that drew enthusiastic audiences but led a few corporate sponsors to withdraw support. (McNally died of complications related to Covid-19 in March.)

“Bryan always stood by his mission. He would not change his plays to get more ticket sales or more donations or more sponsorships,” Basile said, adding that the Phoenix managed to secure other corporate backers and went on with the show.

In an interview with Indianapolis Star Magazine in 1984, Fonseca laid out what he saw as his artistic mandate.

“I think theater should be entertaining, but I think we should try to communicate something as well,” Fonseca said. “Maybe you can touch the mainstream consciousness a little by doing something that’s not mainstream.

“We’re not an issue-oriented theater, but a lot of things we do here come head-to-head with such issues as women’s concerns, gay rights, coping with economics, the search for fulfillment, an individual’s sense of a need for accomplishment.”

Fonseca grew up in Gary, Indiana, and later double-majored in sociology and theater at Indiana University-Northwest. He moved to Indianapolis in 1978 and pursued job opportunities with local performing arts venues, according to a short biography on the Indiana Historical Society’s website.

He came out in 1987, and soon became politically active; he attended several protests and marches in Washington, D.C., according to the historical society.

Blossom recalled her fondest memories of her uncle: the nights they spent together driving two hours to a hospice care facility to stay with his ailing mother. Fonseca and Blossom would sing along to songs by Donovan; the Mamas and the Papas; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and other folk groups.

Fonseca was “warm, kind, sly, witty, clever, compassionate and passionate,” Blossom said. “He was never purposely cruel. In fact, I would say he went out of his way to not be cruel. If there was a challenging situation or person to deal with, he would measure his words to not be cruel.”

“He also had this cackle of a laugh — and hearing it, you just either found out what he thought was so funny or laughed with him,” Blossom added.

Fonseca, who left his position at the Phoenix in April 2018, opened the Fonseca Theatre Co. in September 2018. The venue’s first production was Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall,” a dystopian tragedy that imagines the consequences of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Eighty percent of the theater company’s artists are people of color, and the operation sets out to “give voice to the disenfranchised in our community,” according to a statement on its website.

“The sharing of culture is essential to our nation’s health, and we will focus on work by and/or about minority artists to bring together the city’s growing minority communities,” the statement goes on to say. “The Fonseca Theatre Company thinks globally but focuses locally.”

Fonseca remained busy even as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters and dealt a severe blow to the entertainment industry’s revenues.

In late August, Fonseca’s company put on an outdoor, socially-distant production of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” a play that addresses systemic racial injustice and Black identity.

“Theater is an important medium for the dissemination of information,” Fonseca told the IndyStar newspaper this summer. “It’s important in its ability to motivate and inspire people, and change hearts and minds. We’re choosing things that unify us as a community and as a nation.”

Fonseca is survived by his father, Manuel Fonseca; brothers Kevin and Bob; sister, Hollye Blossom; nieces and nephews; as well as great-nieces and nephews, according to the IndyStar.