Archive for June 14, 2011

El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

June 14, 2011 10 comments

Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader ( a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.

El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.

With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.

“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.

She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her  experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.

“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”

Changing Paths
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.

Magdalena Garcia


When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.

Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.

Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.

Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993. Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.

She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.

The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”

Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”




With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.

To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.

While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”

El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit or call 731-1137.


Adventurer-collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian art reveals spirits of the islands

An intriguing fellow I’d like to write more about is the subject of this story. His name is Kam-Ching Leung. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln educator is an astronomer by training. He’s also a serious collector of Indonesian tribal art and has embarked on many adventures in remote places to photograph and collect these treasures. The story I did about him for The Reader ( was in conjunction with an exhibition of his Indonesia collection at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, whose board Leung serves on. The unprepossessing Leung describes his passionate  interests and remarkable travels in an almost off-handed manner that belies his deep feelings for them.





Adventurer-collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian art reveals spirits of the islands 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Astronomer Kam-Ching Leung’s interest in the stars has an earthly counterpart in his fascination with indigenous peoples and tribal cultures. Just as this University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Hong Kong native’s observations of celestial bodies surpass idle curiosity, his travels to remote civilizations go beyond tourist outings.

Leung, 72, is a serious collector of art and artifacts from Indonesia, China, Thailand and other distant spots. He also documents his cultural excursions via photographs that record the daily lives of natives. His extensive collections of tribal objects and of Asian ceramics and paintings, largely come from treks he made from the 1970s through the 1990s. His adventures, whether to headhunter-manned Amazon jungles or inaccessible Sumatran islands or Tibet, long ago led a graduate assistant to dub him “Indiana Kam,” a sobriquet Leung likes.

Not that he’s stopped going to the far corners in search of new finds. He recently returned from a trip to China, where exhibitions of his photos were held.

The largest exhibit to date of his tribal art can be seen March 23 through June 23 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Islands of Spirits — Tribal Art of Indonesia displays some 200 objects and photos. The artifacts include wood, stone, shell and bone carvings and textiles. The LJAC may seem an unlikely venue for Indonesian materials, but its director Neville Murray is a longtime friend of Leung’s and the two share a desire to educate the public about vanishing tribal cultures. Leung said the general public should know, for instance, how “modern art stole from tribal art,” whose influences are wide-ranging.

Kam-Ching Leung



Leung’s chronicled his travels through images taken either with a Polaroid or his pricey Hasselblat Swedish camera outfit. Besides capturing a record of his visits, picture-making gains him acceptance, overcoming suspicions and language barriers.

In exhibit text Leung writes that “indigenous folks usually do not want to have their photographs taken. Often there is a fear or superstition involved, but just as often there is curiosity and interest. I have made it a practice to move slowly, never intrude, respect local customs and generally take the time to get acquainted with people before taking photographs. Sometimes just the ‘magic’ of a Polaroid camera and the instant picture has breached the barrier…”

He’s aware his outsider’s presence may distort any true picture of a culture, as certain practices or ceremonies may be altered for his consumption.

For years, he’s felt in a race with time to document tribal societies before they are compromised by encroaching development. “I do feel time is a key factor,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of the areas I go, five years is almost a lifetime. Some things may not be there anymore. As far as commercial development is concerned, once it goes in the whole area is changed. Lots of cultures get destroyed or buried. The melting pot phenomenon is a good thing, but quite often kills minority cultures. Major cultures tend to assimilate and assimilation means you destroy.”

Leung elaborates in exhibit text: “Through the passage of time, natural disasters, diseases, wars and religious conflicts have prevented the preservation of many tribes’ way of life. There is no way to prevent the development and even exploitation of places once isolated from outside influences…At present, many indigenous cultures…are fast disappearing,” having “vanished in front of our eyes.”

Besides photos, he’s tried documenting his adventures via audio and diary entries, but, he noted, “after hours of trekking through jungles, by the time evening comes you’re in no mood to even dictate, let alone write down something.”





Leung said what separates him from many collectors is that “I violate the principle collecting should be concentrated in either this or that, and that’s all,” whereas “I have such a broad interest in art.” Befitting his penchant for roads less traveled, he eschews African tribal art in favor of less popular, harder to find tribal forms.

The pieces on view in Omaha are ornately carved yet utilitarian items and sacred objects natives believe to be imbued with spirits of ancestors or from nature. “The most culturally advanced of these civilizations,” Leung said, “would turn the every day utensil into art. Art and utility, it’s all integrated.” He admires the respect tribal peoples have for their ancestors. In a neat parallel to his own astronomical interests, he said natives retrieved the nickel deposits used to create metal objects from asteroid remnants. He said, “Anything that fell on Earth is from the heavens, so it’s sacred stuff” to them.

Making these mostly wood artifacts rare is the fact climate and insects “take a toll” on them. “They don’t last long. There’s not much left,” he said. Many animistic objects were lost in the process of missionaries converting natives to Christianity.

Getting to the most isolated Indonesina islands or coursing down an Amazonian tributary from the Ecuadorian side entails hardships for even a seasoned adventurer as himself. “Going to those places is very, very difficult,” he said. “I don’t run into many people.” Wherever he goes, he wants “to go in” — to the farthest reaches. Maps are useless. Transportation unreliable. Provisions scarce. Illness rampant. Guides extort exorbinate rates. No matter “how much you prepare,” surprises await. He once made camp on a beach that proved to be a crocodile den. Armed natives once demanded safe passage fees in the form of his team’s precious petrol.

“In some places I do feel uneasy,” he said. “I never know what will happen.”




Collecting through auction houses is one thing, but can’t compare to, as he puts it, “seeing and knowing things first hand.” The journey and the experience are what grab him. He enjoys the “challenge” of not only getting to these far flung spots, using a relay of plane, bus, auto, dugout canoe and feet, but having the discerning eye to recognize real treasures from “junk.”

“You have to know how to look at the patina,” he said. “There’s no label or date. You only rely on your eye and your experience. It’s a test.”

His critical eye is so refined he “can tell just by looking at pieces which island they come from,” he said. “Each island is very distinct.” Not all tribal art is created equal. Only a few islands are renown for their artistry/craftsmanship. Mistakes come with the territory. “The mistakes you make you pay for,” he said. “There’s a term among collectors — ‘the tuition we pay.’”

Not all trips yield museum quality treasures like blow guns or a magic staff. “You don’t really plan on acquiring things, If you’re able to get a blow gun back, you win the sweepstakes,” he said. “It’s all accidental. It’s all luck.” Perhaps, but his many adventures are not. “That’s why people say I should write a book,” he said.

Kevyn Morrow’s homecoming

Up for best male actor in a musical at the 2011 Tony Awards was Omaha native Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon, the smash show from the creators of South Park that dominated the awards show. A few years before that another Omaha native, John Lloyd Young, was up for and won a Tony for his role in Jersey Boys. All of this reminded me of yet another stage thespian son of Omaha, Kevyn Morrow, who’s enjoyed his own share of theater success, albeit not starring on Broadway, though he’s appeared in several notable Broadway shows. He hasn’t landed a starring or featured role there yet, but that isn’t to say it still can’t happen. He has however made waves on The West End in London and in other theater strongholds. I wrote about Morrow when he was back in town to head the cast of the musical Ragtime for an Omaha Community Playhouse production. The show set records and Morrow and his fellow players received rave reviews. My story for The Reader ( charts his journey as a workingman actor in musical theater just outside the heights of Broadway stardom.

More recently, Omaha native Q Smith (Quiana Smith) came back with the Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins to wow her hometown fans.  You can find my story on her on this blog. These contemporary actors are following in the tradition of many others from here who’s found success on and off Broadway (Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz). More will surface with time.


Kevyn Morrow’s homecoming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

Passion got actor Kevyn Morrow out of Omaha, onto Broadway and to London’s West End, and now it’s taken him home. His triumphant return this spring, by special engagement only, as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the smash Omaha Community Playhouse production of Ragtime has brought back a conquering hero from the world of theater. Nightly during the six-week run, ending this Sunday, he brings down the house to ovations. Every night is a coronation. In the greeting line afterwards, a reunion unfolds with handshakes and hugs from his childhood teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends as well as from total strangers. It’s a communal embrace that says, Bravo — for making it and sharing it with us.

The warm homecoming pricks his heart. “I treasure the response. I’ve had that kind of response before in my career, but it hasn’t affected me the same way that it does here. It’s kind of overwhelming. I really can’t explain it.”

Long before local wonder boy John Lloyd Young’s Tony Award-winning portrayal of Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, Morrow paid his dues on Broadway. He was in the original companies of The Scarlett Pimpernel and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a revival of Dreamgirls and the closing company of A Chorus Line. His big break came years earlier in the national touring company of Chorus Line. He’s fresh off London stage gigs in 125th Street and Ragtime, for which his Walker performance earned him an Olivier Award nod. He’s made films and recurring guest appearances on television. He’s performed with legends Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Ann-Margret and Cher. But he’s still hungry, still filled with dreams. He wants it all and now that he’s felt the love from his homies, he wants more of that, too.

“I’ve done so much in theater. I love it. It’s my first passion,” said the Northwest High grad. “I’m not where want to get to yet. I’m still on my way. I would like a little more notoriety in terms of my New York work, which seems like it’s coming. It’s just a longer process as a black actor. It’s been a long road — Lord. Anything I may achieve nobody will be able to take it away from me because I will have worked a long time to get there. I got there honestly and with a lot of work. I own it.”

As yet unrealized dreams are to star in his own TV series or land a fixed role in one. He’d like to do more films. Directing for theater — he’s helmed shows here (Chorus Line at the Center Stage) in L.A. and New York — is another ambition. “I would love to come back here and direct something. That’s another segment of my career I’d like to do more of, but I’m still working on performing.”

His Ragtime turn in Omaha, where he was born, raised and married, has whet his appetite for more homecomings. “I really need this more in my life,” he said. “The slower pace. The easier existence. I don’t know how I’m going to achieve that…”

Recognized as a precocious talent here in early adolescence by Claudette Valentine, his piano teacher and church’s music director, Morrow performed in Omaha Public Schools and community theater shows and Omaha Ballet productions. Retired OPS drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt cast him in white roles when that sort of thing raised the ire of bigots. His work with local dancing instructor Valerie Roche led to a Joffrey Ballet scholarship for a summer training program in New York. “I wanted to be the next Arthur Mitchell or the black Mikhail Baryshnikov.”



Learning from a Broadway actor



Seeing his first Broadway shows convinced him the theater was his destiny. His commitment to an actor’s life came when he called his folks to say he was quitting college to tour with Chorus Line. “They realized I wasn’t calling for their permission, I was calling for their blessing. It was my first adult decision. Were they amused? No. Were they supportive? Eventually. They were parents.” They’ve since embraced his career — seeing him perform in New York, Paris, London, etc.

That he’s made the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. his own speaks to the deep conviction he feels for what he felt fated to play. “When I first saw the movie Ragtime I remember going, ‘God, I would love to play a role like that — an articulate black man in a period piece who’s not chucking and jiving and carrying on. I can’t think of another leading black male musical role where he is your hero- protagonist. It’s a rarity. I knew I was going to play that role someday. I just knew. When it happened to come about for me it seemed serendipitous.”

His experience with it here reminds him good things follow good thoughts.

“I expected it to be really, really good because this is one of those shows people are dying to do. I figured the cream of what Omaha has to offer would be assembled and that’s the case. I didn’t expect it to be as really wonderful as it is. The thing that’s really getting me is these actors really wants to be here. The energy of them coming together…and seeming to enjoy me being with them  — it’s like this give and take, back and forth. We’re having a blast. I know I am.”

It’s also confirmation dreams come true for those driven enough to see them through. “You have to believe. You have to have the passion and you have to see it, is what I’ve found,” he said. “And when I don’t see it is when it doesn’t transpire.” He thinks it “would be the bomb” if his appearance here inspires others to follow their star. Dream on Ragtime man, dream on.

Change is gonna come: GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

June 14, 2011 15 comments

Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale


One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story.  Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader ( will have to do.


A change is gonna come

 GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.

The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.

Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”

The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”

Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”

Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center



The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others  predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).

Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.

For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.

She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”

Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.

Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.

She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.

A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”

Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.

What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

June 14, 2011 17 comments

It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader ( When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs.  The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.



Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play



What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry‘s “A Raisin in the Sun”   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.

The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”

Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.

When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.

With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.

“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”

For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”

Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”

Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.

Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”

The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.

For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.

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