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Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

April 29, 2016 1 comment

Upcoming Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest productions at nontraditional sites examine North Omaha themes as part of this year’s Neighborhood Tapestries. On May 29 the one-woman play Northside Carnation, both written and performed by Denise Chapman, looks at a pivotal night through the eyes of Omaha Star icon Mildred Brown at the Elks Lidge. On May 31 Leftovers, by Josh Wilder and featuring a deep Omaha cast, explores the dynamics of inner city black family life outside the home of the late activist-journalist Charles B. Washington. Performances are free.

 

Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

Denise Chapman portrays the community advocate on pivotal night in 1969

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

As North Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries returns for the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s free PlayFest bill, two community icons take center stage as subject and setting.

En route to making her Omaha Star newspaper an institution in the African-American community, the late publisher Mildred Brown became one herself. Through the advocacy role she and her paper played, Brown intersected with every current affecting black life here from the 1930s on. That makes her an apt prism through which to view a slice of life in North Omaha in the new one-woman play Northside Carnation.

This work of historical fiction written by Omaha theater artist Denise Chapman will premiere Sunday, May 29 at the Elks Lodge, 2420 Lake Street. The private social club just north of the historic Star building was a familiar spot for Brown. It also has resonance for Chapman as two generations of her family have been members. Chapman will portray Brown in the piece.

Directing the 7:30 p.m. production will be Nebraska Theatre Caravan general manger Lara Marsh.

An exhibition of historic North Omaha images will be on display next door at the Carver Bank. A show featuring art by North Omaha youth will also be on view at the nearby Union for Contemporary Art.

Two nights later another play, Leftovers, by Josh Wilder of Philadelphia, explores the dynamics of an inner city black family in a outdoor production at the site of the home of the late Omaha activist journalist Charles B. Washington. The Tuesday, May 31 performance outside the vacant, soon-to-be-razed house, 2402 North 25th Street, will star locals D. Kevin Williams, Echelle Childers and others. Levy Lee Simon of Los Angeles will direct.

Just as Washington was a surrogate father and mentor to many in North O, Brown was that community’s symbolic matriarch.

 

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Denise Chapman

 

Chapman says she grew up with “an awareness” of Brown’s larger-than-life imprint and of the paper’s vital voice in the community but it was only until she researched the play she realized their full impact.

“She was definitely a very important figure. She had a very strong presence in North Omaha and on 24th Street. I was not aware of how strong that presence was and how deep that influence ran. She was really savvy and reserved all of her resources to hold space and to make space for people in her community – fighting for justice. insisting on basic human rights, providing jobs, putting people through school.

“She really was a force that could not be denied. The thing I most admire was her let’s-make-it-happen approach and her figuring out how to be a black woman in a very white, male-dominated world.”

Brown was one of only a few black female publishers in the nation.  Even after her 1989 death, the Star remained a black woman enterprise under her niece, Marguerita Washington, who succeeded her as publisher. Washington ran it until falling ill last year. She died in February. The paper continues printing with a mostly black female editorial and advertising staff.

Chapman’s play is set at a pivot point in North O history. The 1969 fatal police shooting of Vivian Strong sparked rioting that destroyed much of North’s 24th “Street of Dreams.” As civil unrest breaks out, Brown is torn over what to put on the front page of the next edition.

“She’s trying her best to find positive things to say even in times of toil,” Chapman says. “She speaks out reminders of what’s good to help reground and recenter when everything feels like it’s upside down. It’s this moment in time and it’s really about what happens when a community implodes but never fully heals.

“All the parallels between what was going on then and what we see happening now were so strong it felt like a compelling moment in time to tell this story. It’s scary and sad but also currently repeating itself. I feel like there are blocks of 24th Street with vacant lots and buildings irectly connected to that last implosion.”

 

Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star offices

 

The Omaha Star | by National Register

During the course of the evening, Chapman has Brown recall her support of the 1950s civil rights group the De Porres Club and a battle it waged for equal job opportunities. Chapman, as Brown, remembers touchstone figures and places from North O’s past, including Whitney Young, Preston Love Sr., Charles B. Washington, the Dreamland Ballroom and the once teeming North 24th Street corridor.

“There’s a thing she says in the play that questions all the work they did in the ’50s and yet in ’69 we’re still at this place of implosion,” Chapman says. “That’s the space that the play lives in.”

To facilitate this flood of memories Chapman hit upon the device of a fictional young woman with Brown that pivotal night.

“I have imagined a young lady with her this evening Mildred is finalizing the front page of the paper and their conversations take us to different points in time. The piece is really about using her life and her work as a lens and as a way to look at 24th Street and some of the cultural history and struggle the district has gone through.”

Chapman has been studying mannerisms of Brown. But she’s not as concerned with duplicating the way Brown spoke or walked, for instance, as she is capturing the essence of her impassioned nature.

“Her spirit, her drive, her energy and her tenacity are the things I’m tapping into as an actor to create this version of her. I think you will feel her force when I speak the actual words she said in support of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company boycott. She did not pull punches.”

Chapman acknowledges taking on a character who represented so much to so many intimidated her until she found her way into Brown.

“When I first approached this piece I was a little hesitant because she was this strong figure whose work has a strong legacy in the community. I was almost a little afraid to dive in. But during the research and what-if process of sitting with her and in her I found this human being who had really big dreams and passions. But her efforts were never just about her. The work she did was always about uplifting her people and fighting for justice and making pathways for young people towards education and doing better and celebrating every beautiful accomplishment that happened along the way.”

Chapman found appealing Brown’s policy to not print crime news. “Because of that the Star has kept for us all of these beautiful every day moments of black life – from model families to young people getting their degrees and coming back home for jobs to social clubs. All of these every day kind of reminders that we’re just people.”

For the complete theater conference schedule, visit https://webapps.mccneb.edu/gptc/.

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John Beasley: Living his dream

April 22, 2016 6 comments

In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.

 

 

Beasley as Barton (LEO)

John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man

 

 

John Beasley: Living his dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

Following a dream

Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.

Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.

The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.

“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”

Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .

“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”

John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.

“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.

 

Beasley closeup #1 (LEO)

 

 

A path of his own

John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”

His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company  members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”

Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.

“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”

Michael admires his persistence.

“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”

Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”

She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”

2012 BET Awards - Arrivals

John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards

 

 

Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”

He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).

While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.

“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”

 

Beasely #1 by Eric Antoniou (LEO)

John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)

production of August Wilson’s Fences

 

 

Taking from life, making his mark

When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.

He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.

“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.

Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.

“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”

Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.

“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’

“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On     this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”

Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood –  file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.

“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”

Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.

“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact. one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”

 

Beasley closeup #2 (LEO)

 

 

In the moment

In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.

“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”

Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.

“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”

 

Movies The Apostle poster

Robert Duvall as The Apostle

 

 

Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.

“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”

Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.

Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”

Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,

Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.

 

Marlin Briscoe was the first African American quarterback

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

 

The Magician

Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.

“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”

Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.

A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.

Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.

Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.

He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.

He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.

Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”

Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.

 

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East Texas Hot Links

The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.

Beasley produced the play at his own theater.

“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”

Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”

Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.

Building a Nebraska film culture

The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.

“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”

He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.

“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”

There’s some self-interest at work, too.

“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”

 

Beasley in kitchen (LEO)

John, middle seated, from The Soul Man

 

 

Bread and butter

Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.

“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”

Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”

Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”

There were some bumps in the road.

“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.

“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”

Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”

Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”

Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.

 

Beasley # 2 by Antoniou B & W (LEO)

John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences

 

 

Theater

Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.

“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”

The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.

Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”

One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.

“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”

Midwest values

He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”

He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.

He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.

“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole   different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”

He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”

Michael Beasley

Jan 4, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles guard Malik Beasley (5) in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Donald L. Tucker Center. The North Carolina Tar Heels won 106-90. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Beasley

 

 

All in the family

He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.

“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”

Hoops runs in the bloodlines.

“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”

Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”

Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”

All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Hot Movie Takes: Lensing April 1, Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ promises to be his most ambitious film to date

April 1, 2016 Comments off

UPDATE: It turns out that Alec Baldwin did not participate in “Downsizing” after all. Insstead, his part of a real estate magnate was played by another name actor with a similar vibe and facility for playing smarmy – Bruce Willis.

After not directing a feature film for seven years following Sideways, Alexander Payne professed he would start making films with more frequency starting with The Descendants. He’s kept his word, too, by making Nebraska and now comes Downsizing, whose production starts April 1. With its science fiction high concept or big idea, the new film is a stand alone project for the Oscar-winner in some ways but once you get past the hook of miniaturized humans it plays, at least on the page, much like all his work, with some major exceptions. For example, while much of the story’s action is quite intimate and centered around closely observed human frailities, there is an end of world backdrop informing it all. Never have the stakes been so high in a Payne film.

A month ago I broke the story of the film’s plot and in this new post I offer additional context from my own reading of the script and from interviews I did with Payne about the screenplay and about various other aspects of the project. Payne is working with his most star laden cast, with his largest crew, with visual effects for the first time and on sound stages for the first time, all of which makes this film a must follow and presumably a must see. Add to that a vast physical production shooting in three countries and telling a story rife with social-political issues, and you have a film that would seeem to demand attention. When you add its metaphorical, fable-like narrative, well, then it may just be a film for the ages.

Watch for more updates and stories about the making of this film and interviews with some of its key creatives.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Lensing April 1, Payne’s Downsizing promises to be his most ambitious film to date

Project shooting in L.A. Omaha, Norway and Toronto goes small to tackle big themes

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (new edition out summer 2016)

Exclusive for Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com

 

Downsizing - coming in 2017

 

 

The fact that Alexander Payne’s seventh feature turned out to be Downsizing came as no real surprise since he and Jim Taylor labored over the script 10 years. They nearly got it made twice, which is why Google searches bring up links and references to earlier incarnations of the project, including stars and studios formerly attached who dropped away in the intervening years. As Payne puts it, the time was finally right for the project to happen.

Payne reportedly had an all-star cast attached to the project when it first gained steam nearly a decade ago. Though the actors have changed, the final cast of Downsizing constitutes the greatest collective star power and depth of talent yet seen in one of his films. The names include an Oscar winner, box office draws, critical darlings and international artists from other nations. None has previously worked with Payne.That who’s-who roster includes: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neal Patrick Harris, Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Paul Mabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau.

In some interesting casting notes, just days before the April 1 shoot start it was announced that Reese Witherspoon, long slated to play Damon’s wife, was no longer attached to the project and that Kristen Wiig had replaced her. I cannot recall anything like that happening so late in the process on any of Payne’s previous films. I have to think that Wiig had already been considered or that Damon recommended her since she appeared with him in the critically acclaimed The Martian. Wiig represents the second Saturday Night Live (italics) alumnus, after Will Forte, to grace one of his films. And with the casting of Paul Mabon and Warren Belle, there will finally be black actors in speaking parts in a Payne film. The absence of people of color in his films had not gone unnoticed. There are even some well-known actors of color from Omaha who have expressed dismay or disappointment at that lack.

Since it has been revealed elsewhere I can also reveal here  a major plot point involving Wiig’s character. Read on to to learn that.

Years back, when Payne spoke about the film in only cryptic terms, he referred to it as being in the spirit of an episodic Robert Altmanesque ensemble piece, Some of if does play that way on the page, although Payne and Taylor tend to be more narratively disciplined than Altman was.

The basic hook has been public knowledge for some time. The IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) log line reads: “A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.” Not much to go on. But the idea of miniaturized human life does set the mind to conjuring all sorts of scenarios. Something not left to the imagination but rather always known about the project is its reliance on visual effects in order to make believable the conceit of science giving human beings the option to be radically reduced in size. Effects are the only way to realize that on screen. It follows then that Downsizing is a science fiction flick, though Payne does not come right out and call it that. But clearly it resides somewhere in the sci-fi genre.

I do not mean to suggest Payne in any way distances himself from science fiction, In an interview with me he actually referenced a quote he attributed to the great author Ray Bradbury, who when asked something to the effect, you are such a great writer but why do you write science fiction, which of course implied that the genre is somehow inferior to or less important than other literature. Payne remembered Bradbury’s answer as something like – Well, science fiction is the most realistic genre. While I could not find that quotation from Bradbury, I did find these quotations attributed to him that seem to make the same point:

“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done…” and “Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious.”

Any number of other great sci-fi authors, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert, have said similar things; the common sentiment being that the genre draws on humankind’s oldest, deepest, and unfolding yearnings and imaginings and therefore it resides in the very nature of what it means to be alive from moment to moment.

Up until early 2016, all one could glean about the project is that after previous tries to get it financed the film finally found a home at Paramount, the studio that also produced Payne’s Nebraska. All the trade press had to go on was that tease of a premise about miniaturization. Everything else was pure conjecture. Even with that bare thread it was not hard to conceive what fertile territory such a set up provided Payne and Taylor. Still, unless you read the script, saying anything more about Downsizing was supposition since Payne was protective about the story he and Taylor so long nurtured. Principal cast and crew were similarly reticent in giving anything away.

I actually ended up being the first journalist to report on the plot of Downsizing after Payne let me read the script and interview him about it. It is a practice we have long held. He shares his final drafts with me on a for-my-eyes-only basis and I am then able to mine depths not afforded other writers. I was also the first to get Payne to speak at any length about the project. You can link to that earlier story at-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=downsizing

Breaking that worldwide exclusive was extremely satisfying. I hope it offered a tantalizing preview of what should be one of the most talked about features of 2017. In this new exclsuive I reveal a bit more than I could at the time about the film since the project is now underway and the publicity apparatus behind it is gearing up.

 

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

 

All scripts go through some evolutionary process but Downsizing’s lasted longer than most. Earlier versions contained more characters and scenes that stretched the budget necessary to create on screen miniaturized human life set against the backdrop of vast global events.

“It’s the same basic strange story we’ve been working on for these many years but finally in 2014, right after I finished Nebraska, Jim and I returned to the script and we finally had the courage to jettison certain aspects of the script, which we still miss,” Payne explained.

The script cuts were mandated “to compact the script into a decent form and length” that correlated to the budget the project could afford on the open market of film financing. Making things more complicated, as my article references, were the detours or digressions that Payne and Taylor take with their scripts.

“Jim and I tend not to write screenplays which conform to traditional contemporary screenplay structure,” Payne said. “Maybe they do after the fact, but while we’re writing and while we’re in the midst of it were writing what feels to us like a shaggy dog story.

Downsizing was shaping up to be an unwieldy shaggy dog story until getting pruned into its shooting script form.

As my earlier article also alludes to, there is naturally a tendency to assume that because of Downsizing’s subject matter and sci-fi contours, it must be a major departure from the artist’s previous work. Payne disagrees. I concur that it in fact conforms quite neatly into the examination of minutiae running through all his work. In this case the minutiae just happens to coincide with miniaturization. So, where will Downsizing fit in the Payne canon? That cannot be known with any certainty until the film is released and reviewed. But I can surmise some things based on what I have read and on what Payne and his collaborators have told me about his vision for committing the story to the screen.

With this project, he digs even deeper than before to expose universal human fears, resentments, prejudices, and desires. There is great portent in the context for why people choose to be miniaturized in the first place. Payne and Taylor set the key events of the story in some near future when Earth is on the brink of disaster due to worsening natural resource depletion and global warming events. Therefore, the film explores the consequences of scarcity thinking run amok.

The story connects with the zeitgeist of impending doom in the air fueled by the threat of melting ice caps and global terrorism and the fear that some contagion will precipitate a zombie plague apocalypse.

“Well, you read it in the paper every day,” Payne told me. “Everyone’s talking about it. People have a genuine sense of finality these days. A hundred years, two hundred years, whatever it might be, that we have left. People have for millennia, well at least centuries – ‘Oh, the end of the world is coming,’ and usually in some bogus religious context. But now it’s occurring in a scientific and empirical context. So, I don’t know, we thought it’d be fun to make a comedy about it.”

He also plays with the notion that faced with such dire circumstances people will respond in very different ways. Some will choose to do nothing, either out of denial or despair, while others will engage in hedonism and exploitation. A few brave souls will be pioneers who undergo reduction and with it downsize their consumption footprint. But as our protagonist Paul. played by Matt Damon, discovers, that transformation unalterably separates him from his previous life. Additionally, instead of downsizing eliminating the problems of the big world that baggage follows him to the small world, where he encounters a whole new set of issues on top of the old ones. The small and normal worlds coexist in uneasy tension. The bigs look down, literally and figuratively, on the smalls. The smalls resent being marginalized and patronized by the bigs. All of it serves as rich metaphor for the bigotry and discrimination that historically attend The Other and that result in segregation and isolation.

 

 

      Jason Sudeikis

Alec Baldwin and Jason Sudeikis

Neil Patrick Harris  Neil Patrick Harris

Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Inherent Vice" - Arrivals

Hong Chau

 

Paul finds the same avarice, conflict, and inequity of the outside world present in the contrived new world he enters. He is a good-hearted, dutiful worker bee who just wants to do the right thing as a husband, as a son, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a citizen. In the big world he is an occupational therapist who tries hard to please his wife (played by Kristen Wiig), care for his mother, and help people with their physical ailments. Then, after a betrayal, he is thrust into the small world bereft of everything he held dear. Instead of the promised utopia, he finds a cold, artificial construct under glass called Leisureland Estates that sucks the life right out of him.

The aforementioned betrayal happens when his wife, who has talked Paul into the two of them being miniaturizized, backs out of the downsizing process at the last minute. He only learns about her change of heart when it is too late and his own miniaturization is complete. He is stuck and there is no going back. Talk about a bummer.

Payne once had Paul Giamatti lined up to play Paul, but that was years ago. Matt Damon brings the same kind of ordinariness to bear with the advantage of being a bankable leading man.

“Among contemporary leading men he is the closest thing we have to an Every Man,” Payne said. “We saw it in The Martian particularly. More and more he is assuming the role that say James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks used to play. At least you can relate to the guy and you can project some of your own fears, yearnings, aspirations onto his face. You understand him. There are many contemporary American stars with whom I don’t have that relationship. I can’t project any of my vulnerabilities or fears or aspirations onto their faces. But on Matt Damon’s, I can, and he’s kind of the only one we have at that upper level. We don’t have Dustin Hoffman as a young man any more, or Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon or James Stewart. Other people can disagree with me and say what about this one or what about that one but really among the upper echelon of contemporary American movie stars Matt Damon comes the closest to being our Everyman.”

Two actors expert at incisive comedy, Alec Baldwin and Neil Patrick Harris, play a real estate magnate and a salesman, respectively, who make fodder of the downsizing phenomenon. In this odd new existence, uprooted from all he knew, Paul struggles finding his bearings and thus his identity. He keeps running up against systems and persons predisposed to take advantage of the naive, the weak, the powerless, the dispossessed.

There is much here that makes subtle barbed reference to the false American Dream sold to the masses in real life. The fabricated small world set aside for the miniaturized population is suggestive of the internment-refugee camps, ghettos, and other confined areas that minorities have traditionally been relegated to by the majority population. Payne and Taylor also imply that the name Downsizing refers to the ever narrow-minded views and declining values so prevalent today among nations and leaders.

 

Udo Kier
Paul Mabon
Warren Belle

 

Warren Belle

 

 

Far from being only a bleak take on things, Payne and Taylor also portray this social experiment as a full-blooded experience where people are still passionate and where desire still rules the human heart. Paul eventually finds his way but in a most unexpected series of events that introduces him to people caught up in social-political-criminal intrigue. As with any fable where the protagonist is adrift in a strange new environment – think Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and Star Wars for starters – Paul partners with fellow travelers navigating the surreal landscape. One is a female Vietnamese dissident played by Hong Chau and the other is a crooked Serbian entrepreneur played by Christoph Waltz.

“You’ve got the guy who’s on his journey, you’ve got the love interest who helps him do so and then you’ve got the reluctant, self-absorbed helper,” is how Payne described this troika “As American a place as Leisureland Estates is in New Mexico we still wanted to have a sense of the global impact of downsizing – of the miniaturization process – and that in any small city around the world you might meet very diverse people, and Paul does.”

All of it leads Paul to unknowingly assume a key role in a great shift about to occur in human history. In the process this meek man discovers he is stronger than he thinks. The plot-line makes Downsizing a Passage story of epic, mythic, even heroic dimensions

The story moves across great swaths of time and space. It opens in a setting that could be a prehistoric cave but that turns out to be a haven somewhere and sometime else altogether. In what is the most physically ambitious of Payne’s films to date, we are taken to locations as diverse as South Omaha, the small world enclosure known as Leisureland, the fjords of Norway and a Middle Earth. Payne and the largest crew he has ever worked with will work in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, and Norway to capture actual locales. They will create imaginary locales on sound stages and in effects suites in Toronto.

The film ended up being based in Toronto for practical reasons, namely the generous tax credits offered by that country and American money stretching even farther there due to the soft Canadian dollar. The presence of Toronto’s extensive, state of the art Pinewood Studios also helped sway Paramount to cross borders. For years now California state officials have railed against U.S. productions leaving the historical base of the American film industry, Hollywood, to shoot elsewhere but it is particularly galling when projects leave the country altogether to go north of the border. Incentives go a long way toward enticing filmmakers and their studios to shoot somewhere. It is an incredibly competitive environment, too, as states and countries vie for slices of the Hollywood pie. Norway sweetened the pot for Downsizing by receiving backing from the Norwegian Film Institute’s new incentive scheme for international and local films and series. The picture, which plans to make great use of Norway’s coastal and fjord areas, reportedly got four and a half million in Norwegian krones (equal to about 685,000 U.S. dollars).

In all his films, but most concretely starting with About Schmidt, Payne lays out a literal journey of self-discovery for his protagonists, each of whom is driven by crisis. When Warren Schmidt loses his career and wife he hits the road in search of himself only to learn it is an inside job. Screw-ups Jack and Miles lay waste to wine country in a dissolute attempt to avoid growing up before coming to terms with reality and love. After learning his comatose wife cheated on him, Matt’s chase for revenge leads to reconciliation with the past. Woody and David set out on a seemingly silly quest only to have key revelations and truths revealed. Paul’s self-worth shrinks with his body until he finds new resolve and purpose in the emerging new world he is catapulted into.

Thus, Downsizing is the latest in an unfolding narrative Payne posits about the human condition. All of life is a journey, he is telling us. We are both observers and participants, so buckle up and try to enjoy the ride because it is all we get in our finite lifetime. If we pay attention, we may just learn something about ourselves along the way and perhaps grow from the experience.

Oscar-winner Waltz was not mentioned in the first exclusive piece I broke because his casting had not been yet been announced. He is the latest in a growing number of prominent actors who have signed to work with Payne in recent years. With any Payne watch. it is fun to speculate with whom he might next work. One of the anticipatory joys of Downsizing will be how the impressive ensemble he worked with mesh together. Given Payne’s meticulous casting and outstanding record of working with actors, it is a good bet the results will be entertaining and perhaps even provide some of these artists’ most memorable performances.

 


FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

 
 
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