Omaha’s Black Sirens of Song and Spoken Word
Omaha’s Black Sirens of Song and Spoken Word
Here is a collection of stories I have done on some amazingly gifted black singers and spoken word artists whose work enriches all our lives. Just focusing on women artists in this post.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Kathy Tyree as Ella
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Kathy Tyree as Ella
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.
Camille Metoyer Moten
I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style. This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny. You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog. I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.
Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”
Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.
As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.
She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”
Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.
As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”
Camille Metoyer Moten
The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.
While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.
At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.
“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”
The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”
Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.
The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”
Camille Metoyer Moten
Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.
Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.
Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”
Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”
One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.
Here’s my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.
Faith, Friends and Facebook
The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten
When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
Camille with fellow Omaha singer-actress Jill Anderson, who’s dealing with her own health issues (you can find my story about Jill and her journey on this blog)
More images of Camille______________________________________________________________
A good portion of my life is spent interviewing and profiling artists and creatives of one type or another. It’s a good challenge for me to try and give readers an authentic representation of the subject and his/her persona, spirit, character, and voice without reducing them to stereotype or generic personality. I really strive to have you feel and hear the individual as I come to know them. My encounters with these talented folks are often rich experiences for the lively give and take that happens as I more or less give them free rein to be themselves. I want them to express themselves without holding back or self-censoring One of my more recent experiences along these lines was with singer Carol Rogers and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. She is all positve love, light, and energy and she has a distinctive way of expressing herself that is poetic and soulful, earthy and esoteric, all at once. I believe I’ve captured her many colors in this new cover piece for the September 2015 New Horizons. Look for it at newstands or call 402-444-6654 for a free subscription to the monthy paper. Make the call and you’ll have the issue with her story and every forthcoming issue sent to your home or business.
NOTE: For the same newspaper, New Horizons, I profiled Carol’s mother, singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers, and some other Omaha black women in music. Jeanne was the music director and pianist at one of my regular places of worship in Omaha, Church of the Resurrection.
Here is a link to that earlier story on my blog-
Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in the September 2015 New Horizons
Since putting down Omaha roots again after years away pursuing her music career, free-spirited singer Carol Rogers is sure she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
This hipster hails from a revered musical heritage family that’s done great things with their craft. Like her brothers Donnie, Ronnie and Keith, she made a name for herself here but enjoyed her biggest success elsewhere. Her big break came earning a spot singing and recording with Brazilian star Sergio Mendes. It meant performing in English and Portuguese across myriad musical styles. Her virtuosity has inspired some in the biz to call her “a vocal god.”
Her stage persona and song interpretation can be sweet, salty or sultry. She can scat, sing jazz, R&B, soul, blues, country, pop, rock, even heavy metal. She once covered “Rage Against the Machine.”
Her association with Mendes put her in the company of celebrities and dignitaries. That heady period fulfilled a lifelong desire to feed the beat-of-a-distant-drummer leanings she’s always felt.
Despite growing up surrounded by the sounds of Motown’s black divas, Rogers said, “I used to think I was Doris Day. I would come down the stairs, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ and my brothers would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs to pummel me with, ‘Who do you think you are? Wake up, you skinny chicken head, wake up.’ So I kind of lived in a fantasy land. I never really saw myself like everyone else looks at themselves. I like to do things differently. I kind of was a hippy without the drugs because I liked the way they dressed.”
“Even as a young woman I couldn’t look like everybody else. To this day I feel most comfortable when I have on lots of colors.”
Her funky sensibility extends to a window treatment in her home that has a gingham curtain with a paisley print against a red wall, though she said she’s self-conscious enough to wonder if visitors think “I’m decorating like a crack-head in a brothel.” At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to celebrate and excite as I go and come.”
It’s why after dying her hair she’s let it go gray, proudly wearing the beauty of her age in dreadlocks that frame her queenly features.
“I began to embrace my gray. It’s a crown of righteousness if it’s accompanied by good works.”
Her righteous energy found expression in a Ladies Sing the Blues concert at Loves Jazz & Arts Center when she arrived in character as an elder negotiating a walker to the stage. Once there, she shed costume, wig and prosthetics to reveal her youthful, high-octane self and sleek legs. She then proceeded to tear up the joint with a full-throated, hip-swaying, table-topping blues performance in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and Shemekia Copeland.
“Coming in with the girls, I knew I was going to break it down into something completely different,” Rogers said. “Yeah, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s what makes me different from other folks. I’m not afraid to put on fake boobs and a fake butt and act a little silly. I want to explore my uniqueness as an entertainer and to never compromise my professionalism.
“I don’t fit into anybody’s mold and I will not acquiesce.”
During the kinetic A Happening concert she did at Carver Bank with new age musician Dereck Higgins she adorned herself in head band and glitter to help affect just the right groovy mood for this retro rave.
She feels certain her bohemian spirit is divinely directed, saying. “God was deciding my mind frame to think outside the box.”
The family matriarch who made music a family inheritance for Carol and her brothers is their mother Jeanne Rogers. She was a woman who did her own thing as well. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as Carol and her brothers have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.
Carol’s four children “all have voices,” too. Bethany, a recording sound engineer by trade, is especially gifted. Mom proudly watched her daughter “tear it up” one Sunday at One Way Ministry Apostles Doctrine Church, where the family worships.
Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.
Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.
“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.’”
When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.
As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.
“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.
Both sides of a living room door are also chalk boards, only Rogers calls them “blessing boards. She has guests leave inscriptions and affirmations on one side and she writes scriptural passages on the other side. She calls it “seasoning” the door.
There in her home, one August morning, Rogers recounted her personal journey as an artist and a woman of faith who’s been born again. She recalled growing up in a bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.
“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.
“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”
The Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.
“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”
Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.
“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”
Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.
“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.
“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.
As a girl, Rogers was aware of the racism and discrimination that confined African-Americans to Omaha’s Near North Side.
“I didn’t venture past 72nd (Street) much.”
But she also saw how music broke down such barriers.
“Music was colorless and it brought everybody together. White folks would come into the neighborhood to play at my mother’s house. Italians, Jews were coming in. It was like a United Nations. Anybody could play, you came in.”
The diversity she was exposed to at home and at Omaha Central High School helped prepare her for the cultural smorgasbord she found with Mendes on international tours and in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.
It took a lot to finally get this restless singer to come back home to stay. She went through a stage when life was a series of gigs and parties. Then she settled down to raise her four kids as a single mom, eventually making her living as a much-in-demand vocal instructor.
She still works with artists today.
The truth is that even though Rogers is settled here now, there’s still a part of her yearning to go off somewhere. It’s why she’s in Rio de Janeiro this month working with an aspiring performing artist.
Now that she’s back home, she’s gigging at different venues around town. This is where it all started for her. Some of her earliest musical expressions came performing in youth Show Wagon concerts in Omaha city parks and in talent shows at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. She starred in Central High Road Shows. She appeared at Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha. She made her first television appearance on KETV’s Black on Black community affairs program.
The Omaha native first flew the coop as a teen with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors on a tour to Greenland, Iceland and Canada.Rogers, whose musical influences never seemed in synch with the times or her culture, as witnessed by her idolizing Judy Garland and Doris Day, eventually fixed on a suitable model.
“I wanted to be Diana Ross,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and sing, ‘Baby, baby…’ Yeah, that was my dream.”
She never found the solo career she craved but she did tour the U.S. with C.W, McCall in the wake of the “Convoy” hit record. Chip Davis later of Mannheim Steamroller fame, was the producer-composer-arranger. Playing red-neck honky-tonks with McCall she couldn’t be out front with her big personality because African-Americans weren’t always welcomed. Receding further into the background and having her spirit dampened was killing her.
She quit C.W. McCall and returned to Omaha, where she was the area’s most requested studio background singer for records and commercials, but she once again found the city too stultifying for her free spirit. This caged bird not only needed to fly but to soar far away.
She went out to Calif. to audition for Stevie Wonder but never really got a fair shake, not even meeting the famed artist. Dejected by that experience, she despaired what to do next.
“I was very depressed here because I knew I had to do something else. I said, I need something more. A true story: I was lying in bed knowing I should go to church – I hadn’t been born again at the time – when God’s voice told me to go back to California. There was no doubt in my mind who had spoken to me. I immediately put everything I wanted in my Volkswagen and left and and I haven’t had to look back. That mission was successful.”
She managed a face to face audition with Sergio Mendes, who needed singers for an upcoming tour. It came down to her and another girl and Carol won the spot. Rogers said it worked to her advantage she didn’t realize just how big a star Mendes was before trying out.
“Naivete was the angel’s wings I floated on with him. I had no idea how huge he was, otherwise I’d have panicked. I auditioned in the latter part of June 1976 and on July 4 he called to say, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ I put the phone down and screamed.”
She said she reminded him that she’d earlier sent in an audio tape of her voice that he never acknowledged, to which he responded, “I never even listened to it and per that tape I would have never hired you.”
As the whirlwind touring commenced, she said she soon discovered like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Whew! But I was ready.” During nearly 25 years working together, she and Mendes became muses to each other.
“We fit because I was ready to totally immerse myself into something. I was fascinated with black people speaking another language. The ability to immerse myself in something and travel the world and get paid for it, well, it was a great education, it was a Ph.D.”
She got the adventure she sought but like many who get what they ask for, she found that career success alone didn’t complete her.
“I went through some things in L.A. Severely depressed for some years. Working top dollar but depressed because something was missing – I was separated from the Lord. I was still traveling with Sergio when I was reborn in 1980 coming off a long tour in Japan.
“I baby sat a friend’s house and I needed something to read, so I went to a bookstore and got Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. I read it and knew that when Jesus went to that cross he died for me, too, It absolutely blew me away. I spontaneously started writing Christian songs.”
The words and music came flowing out of her as if supplied by a higher source.
“You see, when you’re first born again the Lord sojourns with you and he talks to you. Today, my faith is now seasoned with trials and rejoicing in trials.”
She found great satisfaction teaching at a prestigious L.A. performing arts school. At a certain point she developed a sort of alter ego for her teaching role – Mama O.
“Mama O came about when I needed an identity to separate me from the students. Everybody respects mama, so I decided I’m going to be Mama. And Mama what?. So, Mama O, in deference to my time in Brazilian culture.
“That got to my psyche so powerfully that I felt more powerful as a teacher. I’m not just Carol Rogers, no, I’m Mama. When Mama tells you to do something, you better do it. Mama won’t loan you no money, because I’m not that kind of mama. Mama might give you a little lecture because that’s what mamas do. But Mama’s going to show you how it’s done and Mama’s going to ask you to do it exactly.”
She said that bigger-than-life persona is “the rock side of me, the metal side of me.” Since relocating back to Omaha in 2013, Rogers said, “Mama’s a bit quieter here because nobody believes her. After I start teaching again (which she plans to do at the collegiate level) I would like to be called Mama O again.”
Even with work and faith, the L.A. scene became trying.
“California became my Canaan experience. Friendship is hard to find. Backsliding is very easy. But if you’re called and you know you’re born again, nobody can pluck you from God’s hand. Now, the deeper story. Everything closed for me in my life. You know when God closes a door but opens another? That’s exactly what was happening to me.”
She said though she was “a favorite, award-winning” teacher at the school where she taught, she endured a backlash from administrators because her forceful personality made her stand out. Students asked for her specifically.
“Kids would come thousands of miles from Europe, India, Japan and say, ‘We want Mama.’ They called me Mama. They were told, ‘Well, she’s taken, you can’t have her.’ I said, ‘Fix it, give me some more hours.’”
The young singers she worked with on all aspects of performance represented many vocal-music styles and Rogers determined she wouldn’t teach something unless she could do it herself.
“I had to do it all, even heavy metal. How can I tell to do something if I don’t show you I can do it? I was adamant about that and it set me apart from my contemporaries at school and for that reason the director of the school said, ‘You’re an easy target, we want everybody to be alike. But you stand out like a sore thumb.’”
As her situation there became tenuous, she was touched by students siding with her. But each time she spoke out, tensions only increased. She felt like the administration wanted to dampen her originality in order to make her conform.
“When my job began to become corporate, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t exercise my God-given uniqueness.”
So, she left, and in 2013 she finalized her move to Omaha.
“I didn’t want to come back to Omaha but I knew i had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian. I needed to be here in all of the Midwest’s mystery and awe and hummingbird moths and thunderstorms. I was telling my daughter during a beautiful thunderstorm that the lightning was God’s paparazzi.’”
She said she never imagined her two children living with her would ever take to Neb., but they have.
“They both marvel at the thunderstorms and the cicadas in the trees and the squirrels and wild turkeys running around. My oceans are the cicadas at night, the diminuendo and the crescendo.”
It’s not just her family who’s fond of Midwest living.
“If I describe this place to my Calif. friends – ‘Everything I need for a taco is running around free ‘ they think it’s paradise.”
She’s disheartened though Omaha now suffers from inner city woes like persistent gun violence that didn’t really exist back in her day. Like many from her generation, she longs for a return to the It-takes-a-village-to-raise-child culture she grew up in.
With some perspective now, she feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.
“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”
Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.
“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”
As if dealing with her mother’s odyssey were not enough, Rogers no sooner got situated here than the home she inherited from her suffered a disaster while she was away.
“I came back to find the pipes burst over the winter. The water in the basement was up to my knees. Then the tears began to roll because I’m thinking, You don’t know how much insurance will pay off. That winter was so terrible that they couldn’t get to me for five days. By the time they got to me this place stank of mildew and mold.”
There was insurance but it didn’t come near to covering the damage.
“I didn’t know what i was going to do but I knew God didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”
She attributes providence with bringing the home from disaster to rebirth and the blessings that came with it.
“A Christian couple to whom the Lord has given many gifts love my vocal ministry and they gave me $50,000 to put this house back together. The demolition guys came in like piranhas and took everything down to beams and joists. I could see the attic from downstairs.”
She was put up at a Residence Inn for five months while the heavy work was done. The result is essentially a brand new home.
“Everything is new,” she said. “As the guys were installing the appliances I was crying. Why? Because God has granted me favor beyond favor. The Lord impressed upon my heart the scripture that says, ‘In Christ, all things become new.’ It just doesn’t mean your spirit – you can get some new stuff, too. That’s OK.”
She’s given the home a Biblical name.
“I call my home Lazarus Resurrected because by the time they got to it, it stank, but Jesus resurrected it. My mission statement of this home is to serve. Just like my mother’s house did but with a little bit more decorum. Can’t just anybody get in and out of here.
“And once music begins I’m sure I’ll have more people coming through. Inevitably the basement will become my kick-it space like it was once before. I’ll be able to put instruments down and not fear water finding it’s mark again.”
Playing hostess will be new for her, she said, “because in L.A. I was too busy to have company. I’d come home after driving to and from and would want to collapse. So I’m learning hospitality and welcoming it. I look forward to it because this house is blessed, it’s anointed. It’s blessed me. It was an inherited blessing from my mother, it has to continue and it will. My kids are here.”
She feels blessed, too, whenever she takes the stage.
“In this day in age when you’re inundated with the electronic ability to insulate yourself, I never ever count it anything less than a privilege to be heard by a live audience. That being the case, I have to prepare. I’m not so fast at learning things anymore, so it takes a long time to prepare these days,
“Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to share my feelings and my life experience through my singing. Sometimes my nerves derail me but usually that means I needed to pay a little bit more attention to details.”
Just as she’s most alive when she freely expresses her uniqueness, she helps voice students find and nurture their own uniqueness.
The student she’s working with in Brazil has all the necessary vocal chops, Rogers said, but needs confidence in herself and in her ability to perform in front of live audiences. Rogers draws her own vast experience to try and get students to look at performing as a collaboration or communion. She likens it to a figure eight.
“The band is behind me and at the apex is me and then the audience is in front of me. Everything they do when I’m on stage comes through me and it’s just a circular exchange of credibility – we believe you, we give you our energy. And the band’s supporting me. What a privilege to have people backing me. They’ve got my back.
“To be in front at that apex, sharing it and feeling it come back to me through them is such a high. That is what I really concentrate on. It’s cathartic, especially as I’ve learned to sing the blues.”
Hanging on a wall of her home is a metal artwork depicting an after the club scene with unmanned band instruments and overturned chairs. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture her at the apex with a hot three-piece band behind her and a live wire crowd in front of her.
Rogers still records from time to time. On a 2011 visit to Omaha she met local jazz pianist, composer, arranger Chuck Marohnic at Countryside Community Church when she insinuated herself into a piece he was playing. He immediately asked her to be one of the singers from around the nation lending their voices to his Jazz Psalms Project that features original music for all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.
“I’d never been asked to do something like this before,” she said, referring to jazz arrangements of scriptures. Ironically, her mother introduced jazz tinges to traditional hymns at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha when she was music director there.
For the Jazz Psalms Project Rogers said, “We did everything live. Oh, what a high. And the guys were great, including Chuck at the piano. It was absolutely amazing all of us playing together.”
Upon return from her coaching stint in Brazil she’ll no doubt grace various nightspots with her unique talents starting in the fall.
It’s a good time for Carol Rogers. She’s more comfortable in her own skin than she has been in a long while.
“Being home has helped. Having two of my kids here has helped. Also seeing God work miracles, ah, that’ll make you get your head right.”
This ever curious searcher just wants to keep creating and stretching herself. Her exploration, she said, “never done.”
Just don’t ask her to stay in the shadows.
“I want my light to shine.”
Follow the artist at http://www.carolrogersmusic.com.
“Music is my life. I can’t live without music.” Omaha jazz singer/pianist Jeanne Rogers recites the words as a solemn oath. As early as age 4, she said, her fascination with music began. This only child lived in her birthplace of Houston, Texas then. She’d go with her mother Matilda to Baptist church services, where young Jean was enthralled by the organist working the pedals and stops. Once, after a service, Jean recalls “noodling around” on the church piano when her mom asked, “‘What are you doing, baby?’ ‘I’m playing what the choir was singing.’ So, she tells my daddy, ‘Robert, the baby needs a piano.’ They let me pick out my piano. I still have it. All my kids learned to play on it. I just can’t get rid of it,” said Rogers, who proudly proclaims “four of my five kids are in music.”
Blessed with the ability to play by ear, she took to music easily. “I’d hear things and I’d want to play ‘em and I’d play ‘em,” she said. She took to singing too, as her alto voice “matured itself.” After moving with her family to Omaha during World War II, she indulged her passion at school (Lake Elementary) and church (Zion Baptist) and via lessons from Florentine Pinkston and Cecil Berryman. At Central High she found an ally in music teacher Elsie Howe Swanson, who “validated that talent I had. Mrs Swanson let me do my thing and I was like on Cloud Nine,” she said. Growing up, Rogers was expected by the family matriarchs to devote herself to sacred or classical music, but she far preferred the forbidden sounds of jazz or blues wafting through the neighborhood on summer nights. “Secular was my thing,” she said. When her mother or aunt weren’t around, she’d secretly jam.
The family lived near the Dreamland Ballroom, a North 24th Street landmark whose doors and windows were opened on hot nights to cool off the joint in an era before AC. She said the music from inside “permeated the whole area. I would listen to the music coming out and, oh, I thought that was the nicest music. Mama couldn’t stop me from listening to what the bands were playing. That’s the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted to play with a band. I was told, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that. Nothing but trash is up in that ballroom. There’s no need your going to college if that’s all you want to play.’ But, hey, I finally ended up doing what I wanted to do. And playing music in the nightclubs paid my way through college.”
Do-gooders’ “hoity-toity,” attitude rubbed her the wrong way, especially when she “found out folks in church were doing the same thing folks in the street were.”
Rogers, who became a mother quite young, bit at the first chance to live out her music dream. When someone told her local bandleader Cliff Dudley was looking for a singer she auditioned and won the job. “That’s how I got into the singing,” she said. “I was scared to death.” She sang standard ballads of the day and would “do a little blues.” Later, when the band’s pianist dropped out, she took over for him. “And that’s how I got started playing with the band.” Her fellow musicians included a young Luigi Waites on drums. The group played all over town. She later formed her own jazz trio. She’d started college at then-Omaha University, but when the chance to tour came up, she left school and put her kids in her mother’s care.
The reality of life on the road didn’t live up to the glamour she’d imagined. “That’s a drag,” she said of living out of suitcases. Besides, she added, “I missed my kids.” Letters from home let her know how much she was missed and that her mother couldn’t handle the kids anymore. “She needed me,” Rogers said. “I mean, there were five kids, three of them hard-headed boys. So I came back home.”
The Jewell Building once housed the Dreamland Ballroom
She resumed college, resigned to getting an education degree. “All I wanted to do was play the piano in the band. But I ended up doing what I had to do,” she said.
To support her studies she still played gigs at local clubs. And she nurtured her kids’ and their friends’ love of music by opening up the family home to anyone who wanted to play, turning it into a kind of informal music studio/academy.
“My house on Bristol Street was the house where everybody’s kids came to play music,” she said. Her twin boys Ronnie and Donnie Beck practiced with their bands upstairs while younger brotherKeith Rogers’ band jammed downstairs. Their sister, singer Carol Rogers, imitated soul songstresses. Some youths who made music there went on to fine careers, including the late guitarist Billy Rogers (no relation). Ronnie played with Tower of Power and still works as a drummer-singer with top artists. Donnie left Omaha with drummer Buddy Miles and now works as a studio musician and sideman. Keith is a veteran music producer. His twin sister Carol performed with Preston Love and Sergio Mendes, among other greats.
Jeanne plays with her children when they come to town. In 2000 she went to Calif. to cut her one and only CD, “The Late Show,” which her son Ronnie produced. He pushed her hard on the project, but she likes the results. “My son’s a nitpicker and a stickler, but that’s what gets the job done.” One of the kids who was always at her place, Vaughn Chatman, is an attorney and the founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which Rogers and her three sons are inductees in.
She still plays a concert now and then but mostly for Sunday services at Church of the Resurrection, adding a piano jazz beat to traditional hymns. “I like it because it’s a come-as-you-are church. It’s a nice place to be.” She also volunteers at Solomon Girls Center and sometimes gives piano lessons.
She may not have wanted it, but she ended up a teacher and principal (Druid Hill) in the Omaha Public Schools. “It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” she said. She used music to reach students. “The kids loved it because I would play the blues for them when they were doing their math lessons and stuff. Other kids would come by the door and my kids would say, ‘Bet you wish you were in here.’” Whether at home, in the classroom, at the altar or on a nightclub bandstand, she makes music part of her life.
“Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in ‘Lady Day’
Tiffany White Welchen as Lady Day
“WHITE-WELCHEN PERFORMANCE MAKES THIS A MUST SEE.” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“TIFFANY’S PERFORMANCE IS TRULY REMARKABLE.” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
“LADY DAY DELIVERS RAW EMOTION…INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“A HEART-WRENCHING PLAY WITH INCREDIBLE MUSIC…” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
Let me add to the rave reviews Tiffany White Welchen has received for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Choose whatever words of praise you wish to describe her performance – bravura, tour de force, scintillating, lights out, brilliant, mesmerizing, moving, multi-layered, multi-textured – and they all apply to what she does in this show. While the play is an often dark, despairing look at the low down ebb of Holiday’s final days, it is also funny, profane, provocative and ironic, just like the great jazz singer herself. Holiday went through some hard, harsh things but she probably didn’t think of her own life as tragic the way we do from the outside looking in. White-Welchen intimated as much in an interview she gave me. Holiday lived a raucous life and she did it on her own terms. While she made some bad choices and had some real dirt done to her, she wasn’t about regret.
White-Welchen sees similarities between her life and Holiday’s – from their shared experience growing up around lots of men to navigating life as an African-American woman to encountering discrimination.
“Most people see this beautiful, elegant woman on stage with a sleek ponytail and gardenias in her hair when actually she could curse like a sailor and hang with the guys like nobody’s business. That’s a parallel with my own life. I have three brothers and I’m very much a Tom boy. However, I’m pretty girly at the same time. It’s pretty awesome to be able to take those sides of me and kind of magnify them with a Billie Holiday twist, of course.
“I appreciate how she had to overcome so many difficult things that were happening to African-Americans at that time. There were times she couldn’t appear on-stage with Artie Shaw’s band until it was time for her to do her numbers. She’d get off the bus, perform, and then go right back on the bus when everybody else got to stay on the bandstand. And there were times she was supposed to sing with the band and venues said, ‘No, we’re not going to allow an African-American in our establishment,’ and the band would have another singer fill in for her.
“I really admire the fact she was able to get over such adversity.”
In the play White-Welchen courageously goes to some raw, naked places emotionally. She deserves credit for being willing to expose herself that way.
Performing the song “Strange Fruit” that deals directly with the lynching horrors blacks faced in the South is a harrowing thing for White-Welchen.
“I was really surprised one night when I started crying really hard during that particular song. Singing it gave me a chance to relate to what my grandmother and my great great granmother must have gone through and it makes me think about some deep-seated issues that have happened to me as African-American woman and about the lessons my mother taught me and about some of ugly parts of life I have to accept. I try to capture all that in that one song.
“I asked Mr. C (director Gordon Cantiello) to allow me to sing the very beginning of it acapella because I wanted people to get a sense of what was really going on at the time, to feel what it was like to go through those times, and to feel my pain as Billie Holiday.”
White-Welchen said she has come to realize that the deep cross-currents of Holiday’s life with social events of that time make the play a valuable and moving instructional tool.
“I didn’t realize I was teaching a history lesson on stage until I saw and felt the interaction from the audience.”
Having the responsibility to express all the potent themes and colors of the play while remaining true to Holiday and all her brilliance and dysfunction is a tall task for a performer who never leaves the stage except for intermission.
“I had never done a one-woman show before. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The greatest challenge for me is to clear my mind of any issue or anything going on in my life and to forget all the hats I wear and to get up on stage and just perform. So I have to forget that I’m a mom, that I’m the director of a department. I have to forget about my mother in the audience, I have to forget about anything that bothered me during the day, because if I take that on stage with me it will distract me.
“I’m able to bring all those things with me on stage in other shows where I’m not on all the time, but not with this one because I’m up there by myself the whole time. I have to concentrate my energy so that I hold the character and the audience and never release them.”
Credit also goes to director Gordon Cantiello for pulling those depths out of her. These two artists have a long working history and the trust they’ve built allows White-Welchen to invest all of herself in this demanding role. She knows Cantiello will support her when she goes out on a limb. White-Welchen told me there are moments, lines and lyrics that are particularly difficult for her to deliver because they trigger her own personal losses and heartaches but she muddles through anyway to serve the play.
“There is a moment in the show where Billie talks about losing her father and I’m very much a daddy’s girl, so when I get to that part of the show there’s times I can emotionally go there and other times that I can’t. I think it’s because I don’t want to think about that my own father isn’t here anymore. He was my greatest fan, he came to every show. My mom is at every show and I know how much she misses him.
“In that scene Billie talks about singing at a bar in Harlem and getting a call telling her her father’s dead and she went back on stage and sang. When she tells that part it’s very emotional for me.”
Informing her portrayal of the troubled Holiday is White-Welchen’s expertise and experience as a mental health therapist.
“When people talk to me about their issues you can barely hear them, their voice changes, the pain is so hard it’s hard to come up with the words as they tell me their most horrifying stories.
What I try to do in the show is to express how much my pain is, not by crying or shouting but by being silent or speaking in a faint voice.”
She said the experience of portraying such pain has affected the way she deals with clients.
“I guess it’s given me a level of sensitivity that I may not have had before. When you are in this field for so long you kind of become callous to it and I think by playing her I’m a lot more sensitive now and I’ve talked to staff about making sure that when people tell their story we’re not re-traumatizing them. So my level of sensitivity and empathy have definitely been enhanced by playing Billie Holiday.”
Cantiello is glad to have someone as perceptive and seasoned as White-Welchen in the role.
“I couldn’t ask for a better performer, actress, singer than Tiffany,” Cantiello said. “As a behavioral therapist, she brings a lot of understanding and compassion to the role. For me, understanding the amount of suffering Billie Holiday had to endure in her lifetime brought me to tears. I just knew Tiffany would be perfect for the part and she’s certainlly proved to be.”
Omaha has many outstanding vocal and theatrical talents and White-Welchen is among the very best because she’s the total package. This is a showcase part and she’s completely up to its challenges and opportunities. She does justice to all the Holiday signature tunes but her renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are worth the price of admission alone.
Kudos as well to music director Ric Swanson for the tight numbers and his piano accompaniment.
Helping draw us in is the intimate, immersive performing space that’s just right for the one set production.
“The venue is perfect for immersive cabaret style theatre,” Cantiello said. “It gives the audience a chance to be a part of the story. Our new theater at the Crossroads is that type of space. A perfect space for ‘Lady Day.'”
The limited run of “Lady Day” is soon coming to an end and so act now and reserve your seats for one or more of these remaining performances:
Friday, October 23 at 7pm
Saturday, October 24 at 7pm
Tickets can be purchased by calling 402-706-0778. All tickets are $35 for all shows.
The theater is located in the Target wing at Crossroads Mall. Park in the Northeast parking garage on the lower level and enter the Northeast entrance. Enter the lobby and make a right. Look for the PART signs.
Image via Wikipedia
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly
After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.
“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”
Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”
That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”
Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”
Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.
“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”
“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”
She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.
Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.
She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.
“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”
Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ’em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”
Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.
After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”
Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.
The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.
As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.
All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.
“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.
It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ’em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”
Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.
Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.'” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”
She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin‘ with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.
As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.
Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”
She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast. If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”
Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair
Spoken word. The word-based performance art ranges the gamut in terms of style and form. But it’s best practitioners usually deliver emotive, intelligent work touching on personal, social, cultural, political themes and featuring a lyrical rhythm and rhyme cadence not unlike that of song. Spoken word events can highlight a range of approaches and subjects that stretch your mind. My soon to appear story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiles one of the Omaha metro area’s most diverse spoken word events, Verbal Gumbo, and the two women who stir its pot, Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair.
Images of WithLove Felicia
Spoken Word Soul Sisters Stir the Verbal Gumbo Pot to Keep it Real and Flavorful
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Soul sister poetesses Michelle Troxclair and Felicia “WithLove” Webster stir the pot to make the spicy mix of Verbal Gumbo, the spoken word series throwing down the third Thursday of every month at House of Loom.
The artists launched the series last fall at the invitation of Loom’s Brent Crampton.
“Felicia and Michelle have brought a consistently diverse, experimental and truthfully honest night of poetry and performance. They’re two very strong women in our community that have been really active in the social progressive and arts scene here,” says Crampton. “They help us to live out our mission here with social issues and culture and bringing people together.”
Gumbo’s beats and hipsters fit right in at Loom, 1012 South 10th Street, with its music-dance cultural blends and crafted cocktails.
The spoken word sets are as diverse as the poets themselves. Some pieces are intensely personal. Others, political. Some call for action, others ask you to think.
The mic’s evenly shared across genders and races, with people standing to deliver everything from private testimonies to slam spits to hip hop rhymes to indignant rants to preacher-like sermons to social justice screeds to inspired songs.
“This is a very open, diverse atmosphere and we’re not in judgment of how people choose to be in the world,” says Webster, an arts educator. “Diversity is how we present ourselves here. We’re ‘edutainers.’ If somebody comes up and shares a poem about abuse, well that gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about it.”
“Disseminating information that is going to charge people to heal, to change, to move, to educate, to motivate is also a part of what we do at Verbal Gumbo,” says Webster. “The issues in the community we come from are very deep. There are a lot of wounds, some of them still open. Having a platform where you are not being judged for what you do or what you say or how you say it allows people to get up there.”
“It’s a healing. Like I have anger management issues and I have to write it and say it, it has to come out. It’s a cleansing experience. And that’s what a lot of people are using this for. People share things on this microphone they wouldn’t share anywhere else. We’re here to provide the platform for people to share and to be transparent and vulnerable,” says Troxclair, a former arts and social services administrator.
Poet Ruth Marimo’s raw story of surviving an abusive relationship, being arrested as an illegal alien and coming out as a lesbian has been embraced there. The Zimbabwe native and mother of two reels about the seemingly contradictory facets of her life in her intense yet whimsical piece, “Who Am I?”
I’m a stranger to my own mother,
A child with no parent,
A sister with no siblings,
An immigrant to this land,
An alien to my own nation.
Who am I?
I’m everything I’m not supposed to be,
A Lesbian who owns no cats,
A literate African,
An educated fool,
A voice that can’t be silenced,
A turbulence that can’t be calmed,
An answer that can’t be found…
Marimo describes how for her Gumbo debut “both Michelle and Felicia really took me in with open arms and under their wing,” adding, “Everyone has just been very supportive.”
Troxclair says Marimo’s “very tragic story that’s had this phenomenal outcome” is among many stories of personal transformation told there.
“Sometimes someone will say something that someone needed to hear. That’s how it works here. We’re all about that,” says Webster.
Judging, formally or informally, has no place at Verbal Gumbo.
Troxclair says, “Part of my housecleaning when I get up there is to say, ‘It’s difficult to come up here and put your soul and your life experience up on this microphone and so if you don’t like what you’re hearing be quiet.’ We do not allow anybody to be criticized belittled or demeaned in any way. That’s not what we’re here for.”
“When somebody’s on the mic, we respect the mic,” Webster likes to say.
“People are comfortable here,” says Troxclair. “They feel loved, respected and honored and part of something bigger than just themselves. People who wouldn’t set foot in a regular church, mosque, temple, whatever, say it’s almost like church because it’s an uplifting and spiritual experience.”
“Verbal Gumbo is my nondenominational church,” says Webster. “We’re speaking life into words, we’re breathing life into the experience. And we make everybody feel like family when they come in. There have been plenty of nights when I have needed to be lifted up. This is like my poetic-spiritual reciprocity. It feeds my soul, it mixes that gumbo pot up, adding spices when I’m needing a little cayenne pepper to get through.”
Cultivating new artists like Marimo is part of the deal.
“We adopt people on a regular basis,” says Troxclair. “I’m very much a mama and so I take in all strays. When people come in here and they share their stories we’re like, ‘You’re family.’ We embrace everybody we come into contact with and we want to make sure everybody feels like this is a home.”
Before her Jan. 17 Gumbo set Marimo said it herself. The author of the self-published memoir Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant says, “It’s something I look forward to every month because it’s such a welcoming space and it’s diverse.”
“The people who come through those doors come from such different backgrounds and are able to share their experiences and it feeds us for a number of reasons,” says Troxclair, “The level of talent is one. It’s always good to see talented people come and do what they do. Some of the things they talk about is another reason. They talk about everything from relationship stuff to political stuff to tragic life experiences. It’s just edifying.”
The styles and themes range from Marimo’s lyrical reflections to Webster’s old-school beatboxing to Developing Crisp’s rap-style hooks to Nathan Scott’s political history lesson to Paula Bell’s black woman identity manifesto that ends with, “So you can take it or you can leave it, I really don’t give a damn.”
The audience of creatives sits at cocktail tables and cabanas or stands at the bar. Onlookers really feeling it lean into a performance. It’s the epitome of Omaha Cool, complete with snapping fingers, knowing, nodding heads, raised drinks and adult conversation .
The women behind Gumbo have a long history celebrating The Word. Webster lays claim to organizing the metro’s first spoken word series at the defunct Dazy Maze in the late 1990s. She then left for Philadelphia, where she and Davina Natanya Stewart formed the spoken word duo Daughters of the Diaspora. Troxclair hails from a family of storytellers and has written and orated since youth. When Webster returned to Omaha a few years ago Troxclair recruited her for the Poetry in Motion series she hosted at Loves Jazz & Arts Center.
The diversity and the vibe of Loom, the pair say, help set Gumbo apart from other spoken word venues and events here.
“It brings people from all walks of life and every community in one spot and everybody enjoys each other and respects each other’s culture,” says Troxclair. “We’re open to all different kinds of audiences and artists.”
Gumbo’s wide-open aesthetic complements Loom’s ultra laid-back scene.
“It’s very chilled, very relaxed,” says Webster. “The antique furniture, the vintage feel, the exposed brick, the music, the artwork, it’s very eclectic. All of that creates the ambience that is totally different from any other place in Omaha. You feel like you’re not in Omaha for one night. It’s a whole other vibration. It’s for grown-ups. There’s this opportunity to be a part of a rich culture of artistic expression.”
That expression may include music, dance, body painting and moving to whatever groove grabs you. Small community vendors are invited to promote their side hustle goods and services. Webster and Troxclair say Gumbo’s also a networking-information forum, ala the black barbershop-salon, where community issues and events get discussed and personal problems get aired and vetted.
“It’s a lifeline,” says Webster.
The next Verbal Gumbo is Feb. 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
For series updates visit http://www.facebook.com/verbalgumbo.
This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter. Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin. Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year. Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.
Bomb Girl Zedeka Poindexter Draws on Family, Food and Angst for her Poetry
©by Leo Adam Biga
For The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.
“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.
But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.
“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”
Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.
“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.
In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.
“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”
She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.
“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”
Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.
She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”
“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”
In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”
Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.
Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.
“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.
“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”
She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.
“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”
She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.
Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.
“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”
Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.
“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”
She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.
“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”
She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.
Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”
She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.
“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”
She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.
“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”
She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.
“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”
She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”
She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,
“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.
“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”
Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.
View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.
For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.
The Jeanpierres and Family
I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with a remarkable group of women musical artists in Omaha who are all related to each other. Once in a while they gift the community with their individual and collective talents in concert. Their DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church will commemorate Black History Month with performances of arias and spirituals from the classical canon that celebrate the legacy of African-American women in classical music. Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch possess powerful, dramatic soprano voices that will raise the rafters and give you goosebumps. They are all classically-trained. Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna will add her fine vocals as well. As if that’s not enough this musical line, those three generations of performers will be joined by a fourth generation, in the person of Nola’s aunt, Claudette Valentine, who will accompany this family of vocalists on piano. It will be a program you won’t soon forget. Your heart and soul will never be the same. I’ve always thought that if someone with a video camera would record oen of this family’s concerts and post it to YouTube that the video would stand a good chance of going viral because people all over world will be struck by the magic of their music. Nola, Carole and Elyssia deserve the recognition.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC
Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.
The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.
Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She’s the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She’s done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.
Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children’s book.
Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman.
Nola’s sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice’s aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.
This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift from On High they feel called to share.
“As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit,” says Carole. “It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That’s the bottom-line.”
“I’ve always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back,” says Nola.
“Music is love,” Valentine says simply.
Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day.
“We’d have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times,” recalls Carole.
“The piano was the center of everything we did,” Valentine says of growing up.
As each next generation came into the family’s musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola’s music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.
Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, “She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She’d touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I’ve ever known. She can sound like anybody.”
“I picked up everybody’s gift,” says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.
“I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down,” says Nola.
Truthfully, it probably started in the womb,” Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom’s “the best.” Nola and Carole both teach vocal students.
The family’s closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.
“We feel each other,” says Nola. “We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up.”
Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother’s and mother’s voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.
“I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way.”
For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.
DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.
For more information, call 402-281-5396.
When Omaha jazz vocalist Richetta (Lewis) Wilson sings, she can’t help but sound a little like icons Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington and Nancy Wilson, as she worked and forged friendships with these legends when they performed here. Once a featured artist in Omaha’s finest clubs, Richetta naturally drew on the impeccable phrasing and posh stage craft of divas she admired. “I had a little bit of all of ‘em in me because I dealt with all of ‘em,” she said from her showplace of a home. With sophisticated ladies as models, it’s no wonder the petite Wilson has been the epitome of art and class among Omaha song stylists for half-a-century.
“Those were all my favorite people. I loved ‘em,” she said. She “especially” cherishes how she was able “to get to know” them as human beings. She got particularly “close” to Dianah and Ella. “Practically all of ‘em stayed at my house. We’d cook. We had a lot of fun together. Dianah Washington was my idol. From 10 years old I always wanted to sing like her. I did every tune she did. She put so much feeling in her tunes. She was a great person. Ella was a dream. I did her hair. We’d go to work together. She was a honey. I really enjoyed her.”
Getting schooled by old souls was nothing new for Wilson, whose father, Richard Lewis, mother Camille, and uncles and grandpa, all played professionally. Early on her dad saw his little girl’s talent and hunger to perform. She was so enamored with his life in music she’d “wait up on him” to come home from the Trocadero Club, where he played with Cliff Dudley’s band, pumping him for all the details.
“I had to know everything that went on,” she said. “He always sang ‘Laura’ to me because I loved to hear him sing that. When I got to be about 12 he let me go to rehearsals with him down to the Trocadero. I’d be wide-eyed.”
He bought her a baby grand piano for her 7th birthday and saw to it she and her four siblings learned their chops. “He dearly loved music. He instilled it in all of us,” she said, adding that a brother, Victor Lewis, has enjoyed a long career as a jazz drummer-composer. “Everybody had to play.” She balked, declaring, “‘All I want to do is sing.’ She later appreciated the training ”because that’s how you learn to phrase and get your chords down and everything.”
At home she imitated Dianah, crooning into a lamp while her brothers made believe brooms were horns or saxes. Her dad eased her into show biz by having her sing at American Legion halls. “That’s when I took off,” she said. “I told him, ‘This is what I want to do, Daddy. I want to sing.’ I threw my lamp away and picked up the real mike.” When he felt she was ready, he had her audition for bandleader Dudley. Shy Richetta was coaxed to sing “Tenderly.” She recalls finishing the tune and Dudley turning to her dad to declare, “’She’s hired.’ That got me on the circuit,” she said.
Dudley became her mentor. “He made me sing some of everything. I couldn’t just do jazz. I did country western, all the show tunes…so I have a rep where I can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He was a heck of an arranger. He was my foundation, I’ll put it that way. He was stern…I cried a lot, but he taught me everything I know. It was worth it. It got me good jobs and sent me on my way.” She was 17 when she joined Dudley and 19 when she hooked up with Preston Love’s territory band, touring the South on a big yellow bus with a pot belly stove in it. She was the group’s only female. Before her dad let her go he made pianist Roy Givens “promise he’d take care of me.” Givens kept his word.
Life on the road with a 17-piece orchestra was “an experience” she said. They played Jim Crow venues where the band had to enter through the back door and the crowd on the dance floor was separated by a rope — whites on one side, blacks on the other. The band slept on the bus. She got teased by the guys. Nine months away from home with all those crazy cats was enough for her.
She performed many more times with Love and Givens. She regarded them and players like Sonny Firmature and Buddy Graves “my musical family.” With her real family she sang in a trio that had her dad on sax and her mom on piano.
In her heyday she performed at swank local night spots — The Colony Club, Angelo’s, the Carnation Ballroom, Mickey’s, the M & M, the Blue Room — and the best hotels. She headlined a Joslyn jazz festival. Her “great following” went wherever she did. She took gigs in Denver, San Francisco and once had an extended, nine-month engagement at a hip Kansas City club. By then she was married with kids. It meant a weekly routine of getting her house in order before hopping a Wednesday charter for K.C, performing through the weekend there, then flying back to Omaha Sunday night to begin the cycle all over again. Her late husband, Richard Wilson, generally didn’t like her going on the road.
“I was amazed he let me do it that long,” she said. “I had many opportunities to go and do a whole lot more than I did. He said, ‘We’ve got four daughters here and I don’t think you’re going to be going away leaving girls.’ So, I made myself happy with working around here. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the good times we’ve had.”
She only plays the rare gig anymore. There’s still nothing better than blending her sweet voice with the sound of a full, swinging orchestra. She last did that in 2005 at Harrah’s Casino, singing a duet with Omaha native Eugene Booker McDaniels on his classic “Feel Like Making Love” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame awards dinner. She was inducted for her lifetime as a consummate jazz interpreter.
Much of the old gang’s gone now, but she still performs from time to time with Buddy Graves at Touch of Class Lounge. She sings at her annual birthday bash, too. She and her brother Victor Lewis jammed at a recent Jazz on the Green.
“I’ve had an adventurous life with all the things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard to kind of believe. But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”
Hip-hop artist Shannon Marie, whose real name is Shannon Ennis, was in the first group of resident fellows at the Carver Bank in North Omaha’s historic Lake Street district. She grew up a few blocks from the Carver and she’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.