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The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

April 28, 2013 1 comment

Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it.  Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues.  Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven.  My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine.  You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds.  I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.

 

 

 Samuel 1974Sam Mercer, center ©Photograph by Vera Mercer

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Encounter Magazine

 

 

Sam Mercer

 

 

The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.

In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.

On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.

Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.

By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.

“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

 

Mark Mercer, left, with Sam Mercer in 1982. By: THE WORLD-HERALD:
Mark Mercer, left, with Sam Mercer in 1982. By: THE WORLD-HERALD

 

 

More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.

Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market.  He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.

“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.

Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”

“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.

Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.

Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home

April 27, 2013 3 comments

Laura Love assumes as many different looks as she does musical styles.  She’s a mixed blood in that sense.  None of it with her seems false or forced, either.  She’s a genuine seeker who’s spent the better part of her life connecting with her varied roots and influences and constantly in the process of evolving, growing, redefining herself.  She’s a talented musician, writer, and singer who comes from a rich music legacy.  This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from 2008, when she came to perform a concert in our shared hometown of Omaha.  A few years earlier I did an extensive cover story about her and her coming out the other side of a chaotic childhood and adolescence.  You can find that earlier piece on this blog.  Part of her story, and something she writes about in her superb autobiography You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes and that I write about in that cover article, is that she’s the illegitimate daughter of the late Omaha jazz icon Preson Love Sr.  You’ll find on this blog several stories I wrote about Preston.

 

Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native Laura Love defies labels. As a light-skinned, Seattle-based, African American singer-songwriter whose work gravitates to folk, country, bluegrass  Americana, she’s heard it all. That she’s not a down sister. That acoustic roots music is uncool for a black person to play. That it belongs to whites or, in the case of the Negro spirituals and slave songs she recaptures, it’s outdated, passe.

Love, who performs an 8 p.m. concert with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jen Todd on Friday, Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center, said the more she immerses herself in the music the more she’s drawn to it. “This is great music. It’s rhythmic, its soulful, it’s got harmonies, it’s got our spiritual history, our cultural history. The Bible-centric sentiments in it, to hold on and of endless, boundless love, are expressed beautifully and eloquently, so I’ve really come to love the music.”

She sees a small resurgence of black artists returning to this heritage sound and the instruments identified with it — banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar. Her own new band, Harper’s Ferry, includes black banjo, fiddle and dobro players.

The wry Love variously calls her hybrid style folk-funk, Afro-Celtic or hip-Alachian. Her latest CD, NeGrass (2006, Octoroon Biograph), refers to what she is — a black woman performing bluegrass. The concept album is inspired by her slave ancestors’ journey to freedom. She delivers her sagely-observed, incisively-phrased original songs, along with traditional spirituals, field hollers and folk tunes, in a soaring, soulful voice, accompanied by her electric bass licks and backed by a seasoned Nashville ensemble. The work is infused with indignation and pride.

The bitter, joyous fruit of race runs through NeGrass, a sarcastic yet hopeful plea for understanding. Her song “Passing” deals with the notion that shades of skin color affect how people are perceived. Love said her own European-like features elicit different responses than her sister Lisa’s darker, African-like features.

“When are we going to fully realize how much richer the world and life and our experiences would be if we would just move past really insignificant differences in the color of our skin?” she said.

Another stigma the sisters struggled with was being the illegitimate offspring of Preston Love Sr., the late Omaha jazz musician. Their mother, Wini Jones, sang in a band he led. Their attempts to connect with him and his family had mixed results.

 

 

Laura’s searing 2004 CD and book, You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes, chart her coming-of-age odyssey in Omaha and Lincoln. Growing up she confronted issues of race, identity and belonging amid her mother’s mental collapse. Nebraska’s where Love discovered her voice and the father and family she never knew.

Her father’s dogmatic stance that jazz music is the exclusive province of blacks, she said, is no different then blacks dismissing bluegrass as the sole domain of whites. She makes no such distinctions.

“There’s virtually no place in American music where the music of white people is not influenced by blacks and the music of black people is not influenced by whites,” she said, “and that’s a good thing. Music is dynamic, it’s not static. It comes from some place and it evolves to a place. It’s like it’s always being expanded and to narrow it…is kind of backwards thinking. I feel like my richest experiences as a musician and an artist are playing with people from other cultures.”

A keen, outspoken observer, Love resists limitations. “Maybe if Barack wins the presidency we’ll feel we don’t have to fit so clearly into categories anymore. We can just branch out and do what feels good to us,” she said.

Her vocal opposition to George W. Bush, articulated in her song “I Want Him Gone,” has seen her solo bookings drop in red states. She won’t be silenced. “I can’t be happy-happy while the world burns,” she said. All you can do, she added, is “just get out there and say it and play it the way you want.”

Given her links to Nebraska, she’s curious about who will come to her Friday gig. She doesn’t expect many black folks. Then again, she might meet a new relative. It’s happened before.

Kevin Lawler guides ever evolving theater conference to put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and to connect deeper with community

April 27, 2013 2 comments

I’ve been writing about the Great Plains Theatre Conference since its start eight years ago and while I don’t get the chance to write at length about it and its guest artists the way I used to, I still manage an assignment like this one, which is an interview with producing artistic director Kevin Lawler.  He’s been moving the event in some different directions that put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and that connect the conference more deeply with the community.  My story appears in Omaha Magazine.

The 2013 Great Plains conference is May 25 through June 1.  It’s a wide mix of readings, productions, and special events, all of it geared to celebrating plays and playwrights and the theater.

On this blog you can find the many other stories I’ve filed over the years about the conference and some of its guest artists, including interviews with Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, and Patricia Neal.  In fact, you’ll find here many other theater pieces I’ve written over time.  Enjoy.

 

 

Kevin Lawler

 

 

Kevin Lawler guides ever evolving theater conference to put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and to  connect deeper with community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine

 

Plays and playwrights remain “the heart” of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.

The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theater artists responding to the work in group and one-one-one feedback sessions.

“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theater community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.

“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now were able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”

Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.

“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that it’s moving them forward as theater artists.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of and finding a playwriting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group and two of her own plays read at the conference have  been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.

“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off.” says Lawler.

He adds that other local theaters also source plays and contacts at the conference.

“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.

“Theres a great exchange that happens.”

Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater  expanding what theater might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.

Works by featured guests are performed, including a water rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon slated for the edge of the Missouri River.

The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art and food of those communities.

“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”

StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding’s being sought for year-round women’s programs.

Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.

Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has “allowed it to grow.” Actors, directors and technicians from the theater community help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.

For the conference schedule, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time

April 27, 2013 2 comments

Bro. Mike Wilmot saw the joy that a new home can bring people in Africa, where he did mission work.  When he returned to the States to serve Omaha‘s inner city he set about building houses for the working poor as a way to build neighborhoods and community and to give families their first chance at home ownership.  My new story about Wilmot and his Gesu Housing appears in Omaha Magazine.  A previous story I did about him and his work can also be found on this blog.

 

Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately those actions have helped put several first-time home buyers in new houses.

After years coaching-teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, Africa, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high poverty northeast Omaha.

Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.

“i got to know many Jesuits, who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”

Wilmot’s work in the Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house their family owns are much better off.”

He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.

Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.

He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr Jr. grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.

“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting GESU and raising funds. A recent direct mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into brother’s vision,” he says.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”

Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low income buyers to obtain low interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments, Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.

 

 

 

 

Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.

Barr says Gesu isn’t as well known as older nonprofit players in the field but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job and you qualify for a $70,000 loan you’re going to get into a brand new three-bedroom energy efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.

“It’s not just people getting houses, it’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing – to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods.

“We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”

Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway and five new ones scheduled to start construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the American Dream.

“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr.  “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it, we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.

“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”

Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.

“Neighbors that watch houses for me I give  a gift card. It goes a long way you know in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved if somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me .”

It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”

One house at a time.

For details about how to support Gesu, visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-614-4776.

Good Time to Get Your Copy of the Alexander Payne Book

April 26, 2013 2 comments

When Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska was recently accepted into the main competiton at Cannes, it signaled this black and white, wide screen comedy is going to be a festival heavyweight.  Payne is very likely to be lionized to a whole new level.  Get ahead of the wave and buy your copy of the only book about the filmmaker, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012.  I’m the author of this comprehensive look at one of cinema’s most original talents.  The book is a collection of my extensive coverage of the writer-director of The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election and Citizen Ruth.  With his new film Nebraska the two-time Oscar-winner and his film are sure to be nominated for a slew of awards.  My book is available via my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, or at AlexanderPayneTheBook.com.  It’s also available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle and all reader devices.

Wounded Knee still battleground for some per new book by journalist-author Stew Magnuson

April 20, 2013 2 comments

Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D.  The name evokes many things to many people.  First of all, it depends on which of the two most notorious episodes associated with Wounded Knee you’re referring to:  the 1890 massacre of Native American men, women, and children by the U.S. 7th Calvary or the 1973 occupation of this small outpost and surrounding territory by American Indian Movement activists.  Even when you fix on one of these dark events, there’s a mix of feelings aroused, including among the very people who experienced the occupation on one side or the other.  Journalist-author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding takes the measure of the wildly different interpretations of who bears culpability for what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turning ugly and violent.  My story about Magnuson and his book is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Wounded Knee still battleground for some per new book by journalist-author Stew Magnuson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Journalist and author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding finds virtually every survivor of that 71-day occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. sullied in some way.

The book by this Omaha native, who did a Peace Corps stint before a freelance correspondent career, explains how what began as a symbolic stand protesting historic wrongs to native peoples ended up a deadly siege. Its American Indian Movement organizers became heroes to some and criminals to others.

As the site of an 1890 atrocity committed by U.S. 7th Calvary troops against the Lakota Sioux, Wounded Knee was a powerful stage to send a message. But when the peaceful occupation turned violent confrontation between activists and authorities the symbology got lost amid the resulting deaths, injuries, property damage, theft and bitter feelings. The ensuing trials uncovered misdeeds on both sides but fell short of satisfying truth or justice.

Magnuson describes how everyone involved has very different interpretations of events that spring in 1973.

“Everyone’s got a piece of the puzzle and a legitimate point of view, but there’s a lot of b.s.,” he says. “There’s the possibility some very nefarious things happened inside there.”

A key figure in the occupation was the late AIM leader Russell Means, whom Magnuson says was “an endlessly fascinating character. All the world was a stage to him. He kept that angry young man persona up to the very end.”

Magnuson discovered how far apart the factions can be at an Augustana College (S.D) .conference last April that gathered AIM leaders and opponents together. His 2008 book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and its look at border town problems got him invited as a presenter. But he also went as a journalist.

“It was everything I thought it was going to be. Lots of fireworks, a lot of people yelling at each other and accusing each other of being liars. I’d never covered         anything like that.”

He’s covered a lot too. Racial strife, cultures clashing.

 

 

 

Stew Magnuson

 

 

He was visiting here between jobs in 1999 when he came upon a story that led him to Pine Ridge. He read about a recent riot in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb. and plans by AIM leaders to march there and by the state patrol to respond.

“This had all the elements of things I’d been covering,” says Magnuson. “I’d been told by some newspaper they didn’t think I could be a reporter in my own country, so I kind of took umbrage at that and called the Christian Science Monitor about covering this unfolding story.”

He got the assignment.

“A couple years later I decided to look more into Whiteclay and stumbled across the Yellow Thunder story.”

The Oglala Sioux was killed by a group of whites in a 1972 racially motivated attack in Gordon, Neb. That event and the trial that followed galvanized AIM and its Wounded Knee occupation the next year. Coming to the story three decades later, Magnuson saw the makings of a book.

“I just threw myself into the project. I went and worked in a salmon cannery in Alaska for the summer to raise money to go up to Sheridan County (Neb.) and live there as long as I could to do the research.”

His Yellow Thunder Book won high praise. When the Augustana conference came around he saw an opportunity for a piece of long form journalism or a short book timed with the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. He found a publisher in Now and Then Reader.

He says a comprehensive account of what happened still needs writing. In his book virtually every occupation figure has a self-serving ax to grind. An exception is Adrienne Fritze. As a 12-year old she was held captive with her family. She went to Augustana hoping for reconciliation and an apology. She got neither.

“There’s some people who want a kind of truth telling commission. Well, we really don’t have a mechanism for that in America. The main mystery that needs to be resolved is what happened to (civil rights activist) Ray Robinson. It’s very well established he was inside the occupied village and has not been seen since. He has a family asking about where he is. His widow was at the conference.”

He says “the bigger historical questions of what did the occupation mean and what were its implications” are matters “people will be debating for decades to come. Did it raise awareness to the very real grievances, like the abuse of border schools and terrible government policies that AIM wanted to bring attention to? I would argue yes it did. But it brought years of violence afterwards, It stopped the progression of the reservation. It was kind of devastating for Pine Ridge.”

He says if anyone’s to write the full story they need to hurry, “A lot of these participants are not going to be with us a whole lot longer.”

Meanwhile, Magnuson, whose day job is managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Washington D.C., hopes to finish a book on Highway 83. His backroads adventures on it as a boy and young man sparked his wanderlust life.

He will sign copies of his Wounded Knee book starting at 12:30 p.m. on April 28 at The Bookworm.

He muses on Native American issues on his “View from a Washichu” (white guy) blog, http://www.stewmagnuson.blogspot.com.

 

During the occupation, ©framework.latimes.com

Omaha playwright Beaufield Berry comes into her own with original comedy “Psycho Ex Girlfriend”

April 20, 2013 6 comments

Writers come in all packages.  Few are packaged as colorfully as Beaufield Berry, a young, talented Omaha playwright who’s just coming into her own as a force to be reckoned with.  Her new original comedy, Psycho Ex Girlfriend, is now playing at the Shelterbelt Theatre in town.  My profile of Berry is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It won’t surprise me if her work eventually gets produced in theaters regionally and nationally.

 

 

Beaufield Berry, ©femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com

 

 

Omaha playwright Beaufield Berry comes into her own with original comedy “Psycho Ex Girlfriend”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Everything about one of Omaha’s bright new playwrights bespeaks exotica, starting with her name, Beaufield Berry. This biracial, bicoastal creative with model good looks has worked as an actor, a singer, a VIP dancer, a burlesque performer, a mud wrestler and a horse ranch entertainment director.

She’s into body-building. She’s fallen in and out of love. She’s suffered broken hearts and broken a few herself. She’s written several plays, a novel, a television pilot and many poems. She’s had works read at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. One ended up staged in New York. Another in Philadelphia.

Her self-described original full-length “dark comedy,Psycho Ex Girlfriend, is in the midst of a month-long run at the Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St., where it continues through May 12. Playwright and former Shelterbelt artistic director Ellen Struve is a champion of Berry’s work. So is new artistic director, ElizaBeth Thompson, who directs the show.

Fans of Omaha native author and playwright Rachel Shukert will find a similar satiric voice in Berry.

Berry calls her play’s title character, Britte, a “crazy, kooky, quirky girl,” adding, “Parts of the show I wouldn’t say are autobiographical but I wouldn’t say they’re extremely foreign to me either. When I was writing the show I had myself kind of in mind. It was a really cathartic writing experience from beginning to end. I was sharing my writing as I usually do with my close, intimate friends, my best friend Katie Beacom-Hurst being one of them. So when it was done at the Shelterbelt Reading Series (in 2012) we had the luxury of hand-picking the cast and there was no one else I wanted to play Britte but Katie, someone who knows me inside out and has watched me take this journey.”

Beacom-Hurst landed the same role in the current Shelterbelt production. Britte’s best friends, KB and Didi, played by Katlynn Yost and Kaitlyn McClincy, morph into several more characters to create a Greek chorus. The boyfriend, Matt, is played by Nick LeMay, who also plays other male roles.

Berry started Psycho in 2010. By 2011 it lagged as she found herself stuck in a bad case of writer’s block.

“It wasn’t until I went to Central America by myself for two months on this soul journey to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador that I really had a breakthrough.

Once I got out of my surroundings and got alone and foreign the show became really close to the play that’s being performed.”

Berry has another full-length play, He’s Here, being considered for a month-long workshop by the Raven Theatre in Chicago.

It’s a full resume for anyone, especially for the just-turned 29 artist who after years of flitting around has finally settled down. She has a real job at Rebel Interactive, an Omaha branding agency.

“I’ve always had a sense of independence, I’ve always been a do-what-I-want kind of person,” she says.

Upon returning from Central America she says she felt “transformed.” She’s more purposeful than ever about doing her work and getting it produced. But like most writers she’s beset by insecurities about the very thing she cares so much about.

“When it comes to writing it’s the only thing I feel like I’m here for this reason, so it’s very close, it’s very personal. So it just scares me shitless whenever anybody even says anything good. I can’t believe it.”

Her play The Waiting Line about a cross-section of people awaiting organ transplants received an unusually strong response at its Great Plains reading

“It was overwhelming. I walked in there with my mom and my best friend holding their hands, I was so scared. It was very emotional. It’s nerve wracking for me to hear my words in actors’ mouths.

“But that was by far the best response I’ve had to any of my pieces and I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on other shows. One of my panelists called the show ‘raw and visceral, poetic and lyrical.’ Whoa! What?

“I didn’t set out to be any of those things, it just mused through me…

Words tend to automatically flow through her. Like the poems she puts on Redbubble.

“I don’t edit any of that, it all comes straight-out however it comes. Very organically. I feel like if I work it too much or think about it too much I’m going to take all the life out of it.”

 

 

 

Berry

 

 

The feedback she gets from readings and workshops helps her hone her plays.

She’s long had a writing gift though claiming it as her own has been another thing.

“It’s hard for me to even say gift. I really don’t know where it’s coming from. I am a good writer but I can’t think too highly no matter what somebody else says, no matter what I think because not everything is going to be accepted. I’m going to get rejection letter after rejection letter and that hurts. So I just take everything casually. I’m on pins and needles, every single goddam time.”

Growing up she was steeped in creativity by her artist mother, Pamela Berry, who got Beau started in theater at 14. The home-schooled Berry got her experience at churches where her mom organized theater productions and through the Omaha scouting theater troupe, Explorer Post 619. She says working with the troupe “was a great experience,” adding, “You got to write and direct your own shows. We did some awesome stuff and some really bad stuff, too I happen to know a lot of people in the theater community from the Post – people I met there.”

Her involvement with the Post ended around age 19, when the intrigue of dating took hold. She eloped at 20 and divorced soon after. Then in quick succession she put together a burlesque troupe, the Sparkling Diamonds, that opened for some bands before falling apart. She went off to Vegas, where she went by Carmen Rose. There, she formed a hip-hop dance group and relaunched a new version of Diamonds. She was doing off-strip VIP table dancing when she wound up a paid mud wrestler at a club. She did a stint as a Miller Lite Girl.

What possessed her to lead this Reality TV life.

“Oh, it was Vegas, I was 21, I have no idea. I get bored extremely easily and I have to always be looking for the next big thing or something fun to do. I just want to try everything. Like there’s no reason not to.”

Love took her to New Jersey. Philadelphia became a regular haunt. She did some spoken word there. She appeared in a production of Cabaret. Through it all, she kept writing. Eventually her plays got readings in Philly and one, Ugly Birds,  was performed at Spark Fest.

When her East Coast love affair went bad she went to Telluride, Colo., where she wrote The Waiting Line.

There was also a music sojourn in Calif. and various forays to Europe, Canada, Mexico. Her “traveling self” is so engrained that even though she’s seemingly found in Omaha what she’s been searching for she’ll always be footloose and fancy free.

“I think the majority of my soul will never quite be settled anywhere and that’s why I want to give myself the luxury of traveling to places and staying there for a few months spurt, so I can keep my foot in the world.

“What I really love about Omaha that I didn’t find on either coast is there really is an opportunity to create your own world of whatever your art is. There’s a lot of open doors here and if you’re of an entrepreneurial spirit there’s a lot of doors you can open yourself.”

She’s currently looking at forming her own theater production company.

For tickets to Psycho call 402-341-2757 or visit http://www.shelterbelt.org.

 

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