If you have a hankering for fried chicken in Omaha, two words are all you need to know – Time Out. The North Omaha joint is famous for its signature item. So much so that nearly everybody calls the place Time Out Chicken despite the fact it’s official name is Time Out Foods. I grew up in North O but a few miles from this place and even though my work eventually took me in and out of that community on a regular basis I somehow went 55 of my first 57 years without having once tried it. That’s all changed the last couple years and so I felt prepared to write this piece for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) about the place and its popular dish. Of course, to ensure my taste buds were sufficiently up to date on the fried chicken i went again to sample it and I interviewed Time Out owner Steve Mercer for his insights on how and why this fast food eatery and its secret recipe has captured the local market.
Chicken is King at Time Out Foods
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
The name of a long-lived North Omaha black-owned and operated business reads Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer, He’s even bought that Google domain. “That’s the name the people gave us.”
With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what’s the signature dish at this 3518 North 30th Street landmark.
Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to its fans.
“We didn’t just create this ourselves. It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it signature. They’re responsible for it.”
He says business keeps growing.
“Everything seems to be flowing and going. It’s been taking off.”
So much so he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.
“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen. This is a good ride.”
The timing’s good with North O revitalization underway after years of stagnation.
“There’s so much more (positive) going on in North Omaha than there ever has been before. It benefits the area when they start putting more stuff in. There’s more people coming around spending money. There’s more traffic.”
Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corporation famous for TV dinners opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a black-owned fast food franchise. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. Only it struggled amid North O decline. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. It was a slow go for a decade when, at 22, Mercer, who worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982. He devised the chicken recipe that’s made it a hit.
Adding a drive-thru further boosted sales.
He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one September morning variously raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.
Living in Atlanta, Georgia hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s craving. “Time Out is a must stop when we come to town,” she says. Ex-pats in for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round with the after-church crowd getting their down-home fix on in their Sunday finest. It daily draws a racial-social class mix reflective of those urban, inner-city environs.
Chicken’s the star but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries have their devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.
Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother Jean.
“That’s what makes it work. We’ve been doing this for 40 (plus) years and we enjoy doing it,” says Mercer, a hands-on owner. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”
More and more, he views Time Out as a community anchor.
“That’s what it is. I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure’s not an option.”
Alberto “Beto” Gonzales could have easily stayed in The Life of drugging, fighting, abusing, and manipulating that used to be his M.O. as a gangbanger, but he found the courage to change and that transformation has led him to help countless others stop the madness, get clean, and go straight. For years now he’s worked as a gang intervention specialist, a position he holds today as a civilian employee with the Omaha Police Department. He’s much respected for his work in the South Omaha community, whose barrios he grew up in. There were many harsh experiences he initiated. He did things he regrets and has made amends for. But he’s done all he can to move on and to be a productive citizen and he’s been exceedingly successful at that. This profile for Omaha Magazine ((http://omahamagazine.com/) is my second opportunity to tell his story and I’m glad to have had the chance to share his life and work with readers.
Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.
Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a substance abusing, drug dealing, gang-banging illiterate and runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage and alcohol-drug use.
“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.
Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.
He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert at the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.
“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me. Sister Joyce was no joke. She was incredible.”
At her urging he became a counselor.
Beto, who’s spoken about gangs to high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials. is the subject of a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “patience – you can’t give up on them, you have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have you can make it – all you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”
This former menace to society “never ever could have imagined” working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”
His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.
“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down – nobody’s talking.”
He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.
“They feel safe opening up to me, they know I’m there for them, I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this, all you do is continue your relationship with someone and if you build that trust that relationship will be there forever. I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years.
“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years but they know they can always come back.”
Not everyone’s cut out for this work.
“The burn-out is real/.”
Not everyone wants recovery. Relapse and recidivism is high.
But Beto’s a firm believer in second-chances.
“Somebody gave me a chance.”
Intervention and prevention is “my passion,” says Beto, who can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.
“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get in to some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing, that’s a lost child.”
He often tells his own story at assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.
“I share it all the time with hundreds of kids and believe me every time I share it I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting ready of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”
He can only do so much. “There’s a lot of kids out there hurting I can’t get to. The other frustrating part is when we lose kids to murder or prison. I’m just so focused on trying to save one life at a time, one family at a time.” As a society he feels, “we better wake up and invest in more counselors – we’ve got to educate, educate, educate.”
Happily married with kids, he has serenity he never had before.
“I wish everybody had that.”
He’s made peace with the fact his job never really ends.
“Even when I retire, people are going to be knocking on my door. I already know that.”
The challenge is as near as a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled. They all respect him except for a teen boy.
“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’
‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ Fourteen years old. He’s just another Beto.”
He holds out hope. “Anybody can change, anybody, I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”
HOMETOWN HERO TERENCE CRAWFORD ON VERGE OF GREATNESS –
AND BECOMING BOXING’S NEXT SUPERSTAR
©by Leo Adam Biga
From a past Reader cover story I did on Bud.
When hometown hero and reigning WBO world junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford takes care of business as expected against challenger Dierry Jean Saturday night (Oct. 24) at the CenturyLink, everything then opens up for him. The scuttlebutt is that he would fight Manny Pacquiao or, should he come out of retirement, Floyd Mayweather, in which case Terence would be fighting for the chance to be boxing’s next great superstar. TopRank has already indicated they are looking to hand off the baton of King of Boxing to the right candidate and they are clearly grooming Terence to be that guy.
Anyone who knows Terence understands that he has been preparing for this nearly all his life. Nothing fazes him because he’s come through a lot to get here and ever since getting shot in the head back in 2008 he’s made boxing, outside of family, his singular focus. And now that he’s already gotten this far there is no one and nothing that he will let stand in his way, not if he has anything to say or do about it.
In a way, he really doesn’t have anything left to prove, other than showing that he truly belongs among the pantheon of contemporary and perhaps even all-time boxing greats. Only time will tell there. But it does appear he will get his opportunity to make his mark and knowing him he will take full advantage of it.
I have written before how Terence is in a long line of outstanding athletes to come out of North Omaha to do great things at high levels. In terms of boxers from here, he stands alone, with nobody really even close. Among all athletes from North O, I argue that he is the most accomplished in his sport since Bob Gibson dominated for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1960s-early 1970s. A case could be made for Gale Sayers as well. In terms of the most beloved, Bud’s only close competition is Bob Boozer, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green, and maybe Maurtice Ivy.
It has been fascinating to see how in such a short period of time, ever since he won his first title as a lightweight in 2014 and subsequently defended that title twice in Omaha before huge crowds, he has won over such a large cross-section of folks. He has single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing here and put this town on the national and international boxing map, thus giving this place one more thing to take pride in. And at 28 he may be the best known living Nebraskan now outside of Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne.
Omaha has gotten behind him and his passion for his hometown and for his North O community in a way that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. It’s very heartwarming to see, He already had a strong team around him in his Team Crawford crew of managers, coaches and trainers and now a whole team of advisers has come on board to help guide him and protect his earnings and to help him realize his vision for the B&B Boxing Academy. At Wednesday’s meet-up down at the gym, there was an incredibly diverse mix of people present – B&B members, neighborhood residents, family, friends, movers and shakers and media, of course. Lots and lots of media.
The Omaha World-Herald has reported about Terence’s heart for community and others and those are threads I’ve been writing about for some time. I have helped frame the B&B Boxing Academy story and I traveled with Terence and his close friend and former teacher, Jamie Fox Nollette to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa to see first-hand his curiosity about and concern for people in need in the Motherland. I hope to follow more of his journey as time goes by.
Read my extensive reporting and writing about Terence at-
I will be covering his fight against Jean and so look for my impressions about that fight and many more things about Terence and his ever evolving story in future posts and articles.
Omaha has some well known arts couples: Ree and Jun Kaneko, Janet Farber and Michael Krainak, Mary and Gary Day. Then there’s Linda and Jose Garcia. Linda’s the artist and Jose’s the adminstrator. She’s also a curator and storyteller. He’s also a historian and photographer. Together, they pour considerable passion and expertise into an annual Los Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition and celebration that features a little of everything – art, music, dance, theater, storytelling, workshops. It’s all reflective of their multidisciplinary approach to art and culture. They organize and present it through their Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands. This is my El Perico story about their fifth annual Day of the Dead festival, which for the first time is at the Spanish Renaissance-inspired St. Cecilia Cathedral and adjacent Cultural Center and hosted by Cathedral Arts Project. It’s a great marriage of place, theme, art and architecture. And a great couple with a deep love for community deserves your support.
The free fest runs Oct 17 through Nov. 7.
Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appeared in El Perico
The Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands will present a free October 17 through November 7 Day of the Dead festival curated by Omaha artist Linda Garcia and her history-buff husband Jose Garcia.
The fifth annual Los Dias de Los Muertos exhibition and celebration is being held for the first time at St. Cecilia Cathedral and its adjacent Cultural Center. The Cathedral Arts Project is hosting the festival.
The Garcias have asked dozens of artists to variously employ visual and performing mediums to express sentiments and symbols associated with this traditional Mexican remembrance of the departed.
Ofrenda installations, artworks, lectures, workshops, storytelling, poetry readings, live theater monologues, music and dance performances will all lend their Day of the Dead interpretations.
The exhibition, featuring works by dozens of area artists, will be on display in the Center’s Sunderland Gallery throughout the duration of the festival.
For the 6 to 9 p.m. opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 17 patrons may follow a luminaria path between the Cathedral, where the ofrendas are installed, to the Cultural Center, where the exhibit stands.
The theme for this year’s festival is the marigold – the traditional flower utilized in Day of the Dead observances. The marigold is called Cempoalxóchitl in the indigenous Uto-Aztecan dialect and it is often incorporated into the ofrendas or stages that people create. Thus, this year’s festival is titled “El Teatro Cempoalxóchitl – the Marigold Theater” as a homage to its historic place and dramatic use.
“The focus is concentrated on the use of the marigold as setting the stage to remember and honor departed loved ones – family, friends, acquaintances, ancestors,” Linda Garcia says.
Thus, ofrenda installations at the Cathedral will incorporate the marigold, which Jose Garcia says “is a symbol of man’s brief period on Earth.” He adds, “For thousands of years it’s been used to represent the essence of memories critical in sustaining a path of remembrance between the soul and the living.”
He says inside the Cathedral, at its Nash Chapel. a community ofrenda-altar will “present an opportunity for parishioners of St. Cecilia’s to place copies of photographs in memory of the departed. These private tributes and offerings represent both the ancient traditions and modern customs that chronicle the perpetual relationship between faith, family and history.”
“Los Dias de Los Muertos traditions serve as a meaningful reminder of the connections between the living and the departed,” he says. “It is this relationship that represents a transcultural fusion of indigenous customs and the Catholic faith. Each, an expression of belief in the immortal nature of the soul.”
A pair of lectures beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18 at the Cultural Center will discuss the origins and meanings of flowers and other objects in Meso-American art and the parallels between how Egyptians and Mexicans raise remembrance after death to high art.
In keeping with the theatrical trappings of ofrendas, a program of Verbal Ofrendas: Theater Monologues directed by Scott Working will present original works by playwrights read by actors. The monologues, accompanied by musician Michael Murphy, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1 in the Cathedral’s Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel.
Internationally renowned storyteller and mime Antonio Rocha will perform at 7 p.m. on Saturday , Oct. 24 in the chapel. A 10 a.m. sugar skull workshop will be held at the Center that same Saturday.
Poets will take center stage at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Center.
The Saturday, Nov. 7 finale and closing reception from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cathedral will be highlighted by a performance from the Mexican Dance Academy of Nebraska
Linda Garcia says the complexities of how different peoples have dealt with death across eras and cultures has led her to design a festival that is both multicultural and multimedia in nature.
“Each year we add new artists,” she says. “Jose and I have seen the transformation of the artists and the public in dealing with a very difficult subject – death. The event has created a safe place to speak about our departed. It introduces and perpetuates family histories, traditions, memories and stories.”
“As part of its commitment to multicultural arts events, Cathedral Arts Project is pleased to welcome this celebration of Dia de Los Muertes to St. Cecilia Cathedral,” founder and executive director Brother William Woeger says.
According to Jose Garcia, “I believe Los Dias de los Muertos as practiced in the United States is becoming a cultural standard because of grassroots efforts such as ours.” He says having the festival at the Cathedral campus is only natural given its central location, prominence in the community, arts heritage and Spanish influences.
“We are bringing into play a highly organized arts project that is home grown. We are freely able to interpret traditional and popular art and culture in a venue of veneration – a sacred place.” It’s a good fit, too, he says, given that the Cathedral is replete with Spanish colonial icons “created during the time when Spain and the Church ruled Mexico.”
Brother Woeger adds, “Given the Cathedral’s Spanish Renaissance architecture, this venue should provide a beautiful compliment to this celebration.”
Woeger says the Cathedral has Hispanic membership but more importantly it is “the mother church for the Archdiocese, which has a very significant Hispanic population.”
Guided tours are available throughout the festival.
St. Cecilia Cathedral is located at 701 North 40th Street, between Burt and Webster, The Cultural Center is at 3900 Webster Street.
For exhibition days and hours and other festival details, visit http://www.LosDiosdeLosMuertosOmaha.org or call 402-651-9918.
The Champ looks to impact more youth at his B&B Boxing Academy; Building campaign for Terence Crawford’s gym has goal of $1.2 million for repairs, renovations, expansion
Here is some of my latest writing on Omaha’s own two-time world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, this time centered around the $1.2 million buidling campaign to make much needed repairs and renovations and to do much needed expansion to his B&B Boxing Academy. The Champ and his friends have a beauiful vision in mind for the academy. See the renderings for the new and improved facility below and read about the heart Crawford has for his community and the role he sees his center playing in being a positive force for youth and young adults. And meet some of the members who train at B&B.
The Champ looks to impact more youth at his B&B Boxing Academy
Building campaign for Terence Crawford’s gym has goal of $1.2 million for repairs, renovations, expansion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford is putting Omaha on the map with the title bouts he brings here, but he also hopes to steer attention to his B&B Boxing Academy.
The fight world’s focus will once again be on Omaha when Crawford defends his WBO junior welterweight title October 24 at the CenturyLink Center. The Champ wants people to know his roots extend far beyond the fights he has in Omaha to include his nonprofit gym serving youth and young adults in his hometown.
Located at 3034 Sprague Street in a former cold storage warehouse in the very neighborhood he grew up in, B&B is a nonprofit, community-based athletic center with a mission of building body, mind and character. Experienced coaches help members reach goals inside and outside the ring. Positive, structured activities teach confidence, discipline and healthy habits for a lifetime. Crawford started the gym with co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre as a safe haven from the negative street influences that compete for young people’s attention. When Crawford isn’t away training, he and McIntyre are there at B&B, rubbing shoulders with the mix of amateur fighters who frequent it.
But the building housing the gym is in need of total renovation. Antiquated electrical, heating and plumbing fixtures need replacing. There’s no locker room. The single bathroom is shared by males and females. Because the roof leaks, the only thing keeping the Champ and others dry are tarps affixed to the ceiling. The walls leak, too.
Meanwhile, the gym’s reached physical capacity. On warm summer nights the place overflows with members going through their paces – running, working the bags, shadow boxing, sparring. To accommodate the overflow, the doors and fences are opened and the parking lot emptied to create a makeshift outdoor training site. If the numbers keep growing as expected members will need to train in shifts.All of this is prompting friends of the B&B to support a building campaign with a goal of $1.2 million to address the structural needs.
Omaha entrepreneur Willy Theisen is among those supporters.
“Terence and his gym have a true positive impact and he’s committed to B&B,” Theisen said. “He and Brian and the other coaches there do a great job of building champions but I think we must do better as far as the facility goes. We come from a very generous community that gives back and that pays ahead and I think we can get this thing done. A newly renovated building will help Terence and B&B have an even greater impact on the neighborhood and community.”
Currently B&B is only using a fraction of the available space. The vision is to convert the entire warehouse into a spacious, state-of-the-art gym that can also host community events. It is a huge undertaking.
The newly outfitted gym will add a second ring, more punching bags, new exercise equipment, a dedicated fitness-weight training room, meeting-activity spaces and offices. The renovations will also include boys and girls locker rooms and showers, and a community outreach kitchen that can be used for serving meals to the kids as well as hosting special events.
Friends of B&B such as Theisen, along with B&B Advisory Committee members Jamie Nollette Kenneth Patry, Jay R. Lerner, Jason Caskey and Garth Glissman, invite people to help build a gym and give youth a fighting a chance.
For donation inquiries, contact campaign manager Jamie Nollette at email@example.com or (623) 824-3273.
“Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in Lady Day –
Only 2 shows left, Oct. 23-24
“WHITE-WELCHEN PERFORMANCE MAKES THIS A MUST SEE.” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“TIFFANY’S PERFORMANCE IS TRULY REMARKABLE.” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
“LADY DAY DELIVERS RAW EMOTION…INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“A HEART-WRENCHING PLAY WITH INCREDIBLE MUSIC…” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
Let me add to the rave reviews Tiffany White Welchen has received for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Choose whatever words of praise you wish to describe her performance – bravura, tour de force, scintillating, lights out, brilliant, mesmerizing, moving, multi-layered, multi-textured – and they all apply to what she does in this show. While the play is an often dark, despairing look at the low down ebb of Holiday’s final days, it is also funny, profane, provocative and ironic, just like the great jazz singer herself. Holiday went through some hard, harsh things but she probably didn’t think of her own life as tragic the way we do from the outside looking in. White-Welchen intimated as much in an interview she gave me. Holiday lived a raucous life and she did it on her own terms. While she made some bad choices and had some real dirt done to her, she wasn’t about regret.
White-Welchen sees similarities between her life and Holiday’s – from their shared experience growing up around lots of men to navigating life as an African-American woman to encountering discrimination.
“Most people see this beautiful, elegant woman on stage with a sleek ponytail and gardenias in her hair when actually she could curse like a sailor and hang with the guys like nobody’s business. That’s a parallel with my own life. I have three brothers and I’m very much a Tom boy. However, I’m pretty girly at the same time. It’s pretty awesome to be able to take those sides of me and kind of magnify them with a Billie Holiday twist, of course.
“I appreciate how she had to overcome so many difficult things that were happening to African-Americans at that time. There were times she couldn’t appear on-stage with Artie Shaw’s band until it was time for her to do her numbers. She’d get off the bus, perform, and then go right back on the bus when everybody else got to stay on the bandstand. And there were times she was supposed to sing with the band and venues said, ‘No, we’re not going to allow an African-American in our establishment,’ and the band would have another singer fill in for her.
“I really admire the fact she was able to get over such adversity.”
In the play White-Welchen courageously goes to some raw, naked places emotionally. She deserves credit for being willing to expose herself that way.
Performing the song “Strange Fruit” that deals directly with the lynching horrors blacks faced in the South is a harrowing thing for White-Welchen.
“I was really surprised one night when I started crying really hard during that particular song. Singing it gave me a chance to relate to what my grandmother and my great great granmother must have gone through and it makes me think about some deep-seated issues that have happened to me as African-American woman and about the lessons my mother taught me and about some of ugly parts of life I have to accept. I try to capture all that in that one song.
“I asked Mr. C (director Gordon Cantiello) to allow me to sing the very beginning of it acapella because I wanted people to get a sense of what was really going on at the time, to feel what it was like to go through those times, and to feel my pain as Billie Holiday.”
White-Welchen said she has come to realize that the deep cross-currents of Holiday’s life with social events of that time make the play a valuable and moving instructional tool.
“I didn’t realize I was teaching a history lesson on stage until I saw and felt the interaction from the audience.”
Having the responsibility to express all the potent themes and colors of the play while remaining true to Holiday and all her brilliance and dysfunction is a tall task for a performer who never leaves the stage except for intermission.
“I had never done a one-woman show before. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The greatest challenge for me is to clear my mind of any issue or anything going on in my life and to forget all the hats I wear and to get up on stage and just perform. So I have to forget that I’m a mom, that I’m the director of a department. I have to forget about my mother in the audience, I have to forget about anything that bothered me during the day, because if I take that on stage with me it will distract me.
“I’m able to bring all those things with me on stage in other shows where I’m not on all the time, but not with this one because I’m up there by myself the whole time. I have to concentrate my energy so that I hold the character and the audience and never release them.”
Credit also goes to director Gordon Cantiello for pulling those depths out of her. These two artists have a long working history and the trust they’ve built allows White-Welchen to invest all of herself in this demanding role. She knows Cantiello will support her when she goes out on a limb. White-Welchen told me there are moments, lines and lyrics that are particularly difficult for her to deliver because they trigger her own personal losses and heartaches but she muddles through anyway to serve the play.
“There is a moment in the show where Billie talks about losing her father and I’m very much a daddy’s girl, so when I get to that part of the show there’s times I can emotionally go there and other times that I can’t. I think it’s because I don’t want to think about that my own father isn’t here anymore. He was my greatest fan, he came to every show. My mom is at every show and I know how much she misses him.
“In that scene Billie talks about singing at a bar in Harlem and getting a call telling her her father’s dead and she went back on stage and sang. When she tells that part it’s very emotional for me.”
Informing her portrayal of the troubled Holiday is White-Welchen’s expertise and experience as a mental health therapist.
“When people talk to me about their issues you can barely hear them, their voice changes, the pain is so hard it’s hard to come up with the words as they tell me their most horrifying stories.
What I try to do in the show is to express how much my pain is, not by crying or shouting but by being silent or speaking in a faint voice.”
She said the experience of portraying such pain has affected the way she deals with clients.
“I guess it’s given me a level of sensitivity that I may not have had before. When you are in this field for so long you kind of become callous to it and I think by playing her I’m a lot more sensitive now and I’ve talked to staff about making sure that when people tell their story we’re not re-traumatizing them. So my level of sensitivity and empathy have definitely been enhanced by playing Billie Holiday.”
Cantiello is glad to have someone as perceptive and seasoned as White-Welchen in the role.
“I couldn’t ask for a better performer, actress, singer than Tiffany,” Cantiello said. “As a behavioral therapist, she brings a lot of understanding and compassion to the role. For me, understanding the amount of suffering Billie Holiday had to endure in her lifetime brought me to tears. I just knew Tiffany would be perfect for the part and she’s certainlly proved to be.”
Omaha has many outstanding vocal and theatrical talents and White-Welchen is among the very best because she’s the total package. This is a showcase part and she’s completely up to its challenges and opportunities. She does justice to all the Holiday signature tunes but her renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are worth the price of admission alone.
Kudos as well to music director Ric Swanson for the tight numbers and his piano accompaniment.
Helping draw us in is the intimate, immersive performing space that’s just right for the one set production.
“The venue is perfect for immersive cabaret style theatre,” Cantiello said. “It gives the audience a chance to be a part of the story. Our new theater at the Crossroads is that type of space. A perfect space for ‘Lady Day.'”
The limited run of “Lady Day” is soon coming to an end and so act now and reserve your seats for one or more of these remaining performances:
Friday, October 23 at 7pm
Saturday, October 24 at 7pm
Tickets can be purchased by calling 402-706-0778. All tickets are $35 for all shows.
The theater is located in the Target wing at Crossroads Mall. Park in the Northeast parking garage on the lower level and enter the Northeast entrance. Enter the lobby and make a right. Look for the PART signs.