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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 That it belongs to whites or, in the case of the Negro spirituals and slave songs she recaptures, it’s outdated, passe.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.

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