Archive for January, 2012

A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Covering the Omaha arts-culture scene as I have for some 20 years I’ve met a lot of people doing a lot of fine work.  There are always newcomers to the scene, of course, whom I meet in completing assignments.  But there is a surprising number of veterans on the scene who for one reason or another or for no reason at all I miss connecting with all these years until the fates align and I subsequently meet them for the first time.  Jim Boggess is one of these.  He’s done a bit of everything in music and theater and I finally caught up with him on the eve of his doing a one-man diva show, Jurassic Queen, a couple years ago.  I think you’ll like Jim as much as I did for his warmth and honesty and absolute determination to be himself, no excuses or apologies, thank you.

Jim Boggess making friends with theatergoers, ©photo



A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Omaha Community Playhouse Music Director Jim Boggess likes big, brassy numbers. Sundays, he indulges his penchant for belt-it-out show-stoppers directing the Freedom Choir at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church. His dynamic, stand-up-and-shout lead at the piano cues the choir to make raise-the-rafters gospel sounds.

He’s been an “MGM kind of guy” since growing up in Estherville, Iowa, where his flamboyance fed off the movie musicals he watched at the Grand Theatre. He set his sights on show biz after seeing a high school production of Carousel. Being gay in a small, conservative Catholic community spelled trouble. Songs he’s written for his new cabaret at the P.S. Collective, Jurassic Queen: A One Diva Show, touch on those years.

“‘Gotta Go Away’ is about how I felt in that little town. I had to get out of there. It was not a safe place for me to be,” he said. No matter how ugly things got, he found refuge within his big Catholic clan. “My family was always wonderful to me.”

There’s a tribute to Barbra Streisand, long a figure of infatuation and inspiration. The diva’s music transported him beyond narrow-minded townies. “Listening to her when I was a kid got me through a lot of crap,” he said. He pokes fun at his over-the-top exuberance seeing her in concert for the first time last year.

One tune satirizes Catholic school. Two personal songs bracket the show. The opening title number “Jurassic Queen” defines him as “a survivor with a sense of humor who’s not afraid to talk about the amount of hair growing out of my nose.”

The closing ballad “is about never giving up the fight and about friends who are gone who can never die as long as you remember them,” he said. “I’ve lost my parents. I’ve lost friends – some to AIDS, one to suicide. I think about them every day. I miss them every day. There’s a period in you life when you really feel like you’re Typhoid Mary because everybody you know is dying. That’s a damn hard time to get through.”



The show is a declaration of what it means to be an aging gay man in America. Boggess insists it’s not some self-righteous polemic but a celebration of a rich life.

“I’ve had a helluva time and I’ve got some great stories to tell and some great songs to sing that aren’t just mine,” he said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff, too. There isn’t anything more boring than somebody coming on the stage and going, ‘I am gay and you must respect me.’ You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”

The show also expresses the defiant attitude Boggess has cultivated. “I really just don’t give a damn what anybody thinks,” he said. “I mean, I care what my friends think but as far as total strangers and large legislative bodies I don’t.”

Omaha singer/actor Seth Fox, whose Royal Bohemian Productions is staging Jurassic Queen, said having the show at the P.S. Collective in Benson rather than a gay venue like The Max, where it previewed, makes a statement.

“It says we’re not afraid to be here and you have no reason to be afraid either,” he said. “This helps us to bring gay cabaret out of the gay bar into the mainstream. Make it less about being a gay-themed show and more about being a human interest show. Granted, some of the humor is going to cater to gay audiences but not all of it. There is something for everyone.”

“It’s not a drag show,” Boggess said. “I don’t wear a dress. I’m just who I am. It’s just me and a piano and a couple of cutouts.”

Besides, Boggess said, being gay is just one aspect of him.

“I’ve never ever defined myself by my preferences,” he said. “I define myself by the kind of person I am. It is certainly a part of me, an intrinsic part of me, but it is by no means all of me. There’s a lot more there.”

For a long time Boggess felt disapproval from the very institution that was supposed to love him unconditionally – the church.

“The exclusion of many different kinds of people made me very bitter towards the church. I never ever thought I would set foot back there again.”

But he did, finding “acceptance and inclusion” at Sacred Heart in north Omaha, where the gospel music he performs speaks to him. “It’s survival,” he said. “Show me any good gospel singer and I’ll show you somebody who’s survived.” The Freedom Choir he directs there is mostly white but they sure know how to get down with gospel.

“I’m as white as they come but I think there must have been some funny business in my family earlier because I feel a big affinity for it,” he said.

Versatility’s kept Boggess working steadily 35 years. He can sing, play, arrange and direct music. He acts. He came to Omaha in 1974, via the Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio, Mo., to work in the Firehouse Dinner Theatre’s pre-show Brigade. He, along with Jim and Pam Kalal, formed the trio Best of Friends. Their dreams of Las Vegas revue stardom fizzled. He freelanced as music director at the Firehouse and the Upstairs Dinner Theatre. He toured two years with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, composing two musicals with Cork Ramer. He played the pit at the Playhouse, where he also starred in La Cage Aux Falles. All of it, he said, proved “a great training ground.”

He’s held his present Playhouse gig for 11 years. His devotion to theater is a love affair. “You have to really have a passion for this to survive,” he said. He lives for those rare times when everything comes together.

“There are moments in shows and in music when it goes right, when it truly is an expression of you and the other performers and the chemistry and connection between you and the audience has an undefinable magic. It’s equal parts instant gratification and pride. Those moments don’t happen all the time but, boy, when they hit there ain’t nothing like them.”

He often collaborates on cabarets headlining others, including Fox, Jill Anderson and Camille Metoyer-Moten. He felt the time was ripe for his own one-man turn.

“It’s just another side of me that I thought I’d let out,” he said.

Better do it now, he thought, at age 55. “I mean, how long will I be presentable?”

Tyler Perry’s brand of gospel play coming soon to theater near you

January 3, 2012 2 comments

The Tyler Perry franchise of movies has introduced to mainstream America the black gospel play genre, something the writer-actor-director already franchised across the country.  With perhaps one exception I have yet to sit through an entire Perry film, though most of what I’ve seen to date has been entertaining enough.  But there’s no question his work resonates with millions and that’s made him a bankable name and brand as a filmmaker and as a dramatist.  The following short piece for The Reader ( is from a few years ago.  It took a cursory look at this phenomenon on the eve of one of Perry’s touring plays coming here.  For context, I spoke with two of the play’s stars, David and Tamela Mann, and with an Omaha gospel playwright, Llana Smith.  You can find my profile of Llana and her gospel playwriting on this blog.

Tyler Perry’s brand of gospel play coming soon to theater near you

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Tyler Perry’s all the rage these days with his smash, pseudo-gospel plays and movies. Some signature characters, such as Madea and the Browns, will soon be staples on television, too. He’s become rich by tapping a largely ignored resource tailor-made for his work – black churches, whose legions of members, with their millions of dollars in disposable income, turn out in droves for his shows/films. All this love and box office success has revived and legitimized the old Chitlin Circuit.

No clearer example of this can be found in Omaha. Bus loads of fans, drawn from congregations like that at Salem Baptist Church, travel to see his work in Kansas City, the nearest place his live stage shows have played, until now. His newest touring production, What’s Done in the Dark, is selling out fast for March 13-14 shows at the Orpheum Theatre. It’s the first time a Perry play has come here and the local black church community plans to come out in force.

Llana Smith is going with a group of her girlfriends from church. The women got tickets as soon as they went on sale. Smith, drama ministry director at Salem, Omaha’s largest Baptist church, is not your ordinary Perry admirer. She writes gospel plays herself, just as her mother Pauline did. Two of her own, Big Momma’s House and These Walls Must Come Down, were produced last summer in Macon, Ga. and Wichita, Kansas, respectively. Just as Perry’s work travels, there is talk Momma’s House will tour down south, maybe even to Perry’s home base of Atlanta.

Tyler Perry



There’s a long tradition of gospel plays, also known as message or inspirational plays. Most are scriptural-based and performed in churches or social halls, where they must be somewhat circumspect. But Smith said Perry’s work resonates with younger, hipper audiences by pushing the secular boundaries of the form.

“So many young people are into Tyler Perry, it’s just unreal,” Smith said. “He has broken a mold and paved a way that’s never come before. He’s taken it up to another level. He’s put his own stamp on it. His plays talk about gay life, which is a taboo within the church. When he acts in his shows, he plays male and female characters. And then there’s the language. It isn’t cursing outright, but he’ll have lines like, ‘Damn, I’m sick of you,’ or, ‘Hell, if you don’t get up out of there…’ We know good and well it’s how people talk.”

She said his plays capture the spirit of the African-American experience. “A lot of them are reality. It’s just life in the black family, in the black home..and it’s like we can relate to it.” She said in order for a gospel play to live, it has to get “our lingo” right, and Perry gets the black urban patios and slang down pat. As she exhorts the casts in her own plays, “Y’all got to make this real. People gotta be able to feel.”

“The main thing is it comes from a very real place,” said David Mann, the holy roller Mr. Brown in What’s Done. Mann’s real life wife, Tamela Mann, appears as his busy-body daughter Cora. Mr. Brown and Cora are recurring characters in the Perry canon and the Manns are veteran players in his shows. They’ve gone on this incredible rise with him since the late ‘90s. Mann said Perry’s plays “deal with a lot of issues that happen in our community” – illicit drugs, STDs, deadbeat parents – and are replete with familiar family-church situations and stock characters that “everyone can kind of identify with. People recognize what they see every day.”

David and Tamela Mann




What’s Done is set in a hospital, where the plot conveniently addresses many health problems afflicting blacks, including diabetes and high blood pressure. As in a soap opera, anything that can go wrong, does.

True to its gospel roots, this play and others like it portray strong matriarchs and a gallery of archetypal, some say stereotypical, sinners, saints, comic foils, heavies, conflicts and reunions. Not everyone is saved or condemned. Any lessons or morals are for audiences to glean. It’s not church, after all, it’s entertainment. Still, in the tug of war between good and evil, a redeeming, comforting message is left.

“It’s like a roller coaster – you get your laughter, you get your drama and everything in between,” Tamela Mann said. “It’s more of an inspiration. If you’re going through something it’ll help you get through whatever you’re going through.”

“This actually hits you in real subtle ways,” said David Mann. “You get to laugh, you get to cry, you get to rejoice. There’s some really good singing in the show. It’s really kind of a public service announcement, wrapped in comedy, drama and music, without being a public service announcement, without being too preachy.”

Part of the appeal is the savvy casting of name singers, even film/TV stars. The Manns are among many noted gospel, R & B and soul recording vocalists in What’s Done. The couple hit their stride performing with acclaimed gospel artist Kirk Franklin. They later headlined Perry’s play Meet the Browns, a TV sit com spin off of which they star in next summer.

While gospel plays by other authors come here, they’re confined to the Music Hall, not the Orpheum, another indication of Perry’s breakout success. While she’s seen some “excellent ones,” Smith said none capture “our lifestyle” the way Perry’s do. “He’s so every day.”

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