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Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

August 12, 2016 1 comment

 

French Quarter scenes

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

From the land of Yes, sir…Yes, ma’am…and Y’all have a good time

After never being in the American South the first 57 years of my life, I made a purely pleasure road trip to St. Louis and Memphis  in June. My partner Pamela Jo Berry and I made the journey with her daughter Beaufield and Beau’s husband Rob and their baby boy Shine. We took in the National Blues Museum, the St. Louis Basilica and the St. Louis Fine Art Museum. We toured Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. We checked out the Beale Street scene. Good food and music were plentiful.

On the way home we stopped in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri for some more down home country sights and experiences. Then, just two months later, Pam and I headed to the South again – only this time to the Deep South for her family reunion. We traveled with Pam’s mother Janis and two of Pam’s sisters, Pat and Theresa, to Kansas City, where we rendezvoused with close family friend Jill Anderson. Caravanning with us in another car to K.C. were Pam’s nieces Ashley, Amber and Aubrey and nephews Christopher and Tyler. While the others flew from KC to the site of the reunion, New Orleans, Pam and I drove with Jill to The Big Easy. En route, we passed through Arkansas and Mississippi and made it to the epicenter of Let the Good Times Roll by way of Baton Rouge.

We just got back from four days and three nights in the tropical clime of that storied port city best known for its rich cuisine, jazz and blues music, raised cemetery plots, voodoo subculture and stew pot mix of French, African. Creole, Cajun, African-American influences and traditions. New Orleans is first and foremost a city of the waters – both ocean and fresh water – whose diversity comes to it from every nook and cranny courtesy the international boats that dock and disembark there. The heavily trafficked Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain all intersect New Orleans and feed the city with distinct elements of river culture, community and commerce.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we had to get there and our staging ground for the drive down south was Kansas City. On the ride into K.C. Pam, her sisters and mother would instantly react to any good soul, R&B and jazz tunes by swaying and grooving to the music. I am afraid that even sharing close quarters with four black women this white guy still didn’t acquire any soul, not even by osmosis.

We spent a night in K.C. at the industrial chic apartment Jill shares with her roommate Jake, who generously gave up his bed to us. That night in K.C. before splitting up the next morning for our New Orleans jags by plane and care, we all went out to eat. Walking to the bar-restaurant we passed through the lively Country Club Plaza district with its Spanish-style architecture adorning shops, galleries and eateries. We hadn’t walked more than a couple blocks when Pat, followed quickly by Theresa and ultimately Janis, joined a line dance in progress at a little open square that three DJs turned into an outdoor dance floor.

At the Granfalloon Restaurant & Bar everyone in our party except me went for the Taco Tuesday special. Always the outlier, I went for the Falloon Burger with its Angus beef patty topped by smoked cheddar and peppered bacon on a Brioche bun. This good eats was on point.

 

 

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 Jill

 

 

Now let me share some more impressions and incidents from the rather circuitous path we followed in making our way down to the Heart of Dixie and that town of grassroots mystique called New Orleans, the original Crescent City. Instead of taking the Interstate, we opted to drive on a series of highways in a south by southeasterly direction. This meandering approach was a collective decision and included taking a scenic river path into New Orleans but as you’ll read that didn’t turn out the way we envisioned.

Well into our slog through Missouri and somewhere near the Arkansas border we happened upon an off-the-beaten-track Amish-run farmstead, where we stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies, including juicy, just picked Missouri peaches. A pit stop for gas and provisions turned up an unexpected delight when Pam spotted battered, deep-fried chicken livers and gizzards for sale as a uniquely Southern road snack. She and I both grew up eating those organ meats and so with every bite it took us back to our childhoods. I never did acquire an appetite for gizzards, but livers, well, that’s a whole other matter. These were just as they should be – soft and creamy inside with a flavorful not too crunchy breading on the outside. If cooked just right, as they were, it’s not an oily dish at all. Of all the good food we ate on the trip, and as you will read we ate some downright righteous stuff, the livers may have been the single best bite of the whole experience.

Traversing the surprisingly hilly country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas we stopped to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. This impressive glass and steel structure sits atop native stone in a clearing amid forest. More than 400 windows provide a panoramic immersion experience  in nature that is both serene and sacred. Pam and I meant to stop there on our earlier trip down South but never made it, and so getting to see it on this trip was well worth the wait.

We stopped in Little Rock, where with more time at our disposal we would have visited civil rights memorials, but settled instead for dinner at Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken in the city’s downtown River Market district. The chicken comes spicy hot and it was better than average but not that much to brag about. Neither were the pedestrian sides. Our waitress was a bona fide Southern sweetheart who at one point sat herself down at our table for a down home, right quick break from being on her feet all day and a welcome to Little Rock how-de-do. Jill’s rental car got a less than how-de-do ticket violation for being parked in a spot where the citation read no parking is allowable at any time, This unwelcome surprise came despite no visible warning not to use that spot. The full lot’s only signage declared, “Public Parking.” Pam and I encouraged Jill to protest the ticket via whatever means the city of Little Rock allows. This wouldn’t be the last time Jill’s car attracted the unwanted attention of law enforcement despite our collective best efforts to obey the law.

We stayed a night at a Days Inn in Pine Bluff. All three of us skipped the promised complimentary breakfast after discovering it consisted entirely of white flour, sugar-based products that are no-no’s for people with diet restrictions like two of us.

Speaking of food, we had killer snacks on the ride down thanks to Jill, who packed a nice supply of her homemade vegan tamales featuring Jack Fruit and a yummy, spicy blend of seasonings.

Half-way on the aforementioned scenic river route in Louisiana Jill mapped out is when we realized we were lost or at least not where we should be because all we saw were flood control berms and heavy industry complexes. The sheer size and scale of operation of those various industry works were a sight to behold but decidedly not scenic. High above us ran conveyance systems from either side of the road. Do the overhead pipes carry water from the river to feed into whatever industrial processes are going on there? Don’t know. All I know is that whatever does happen at those plants is securely tucked away behind barbed wire and perhaps electrified fences. The giant works themselves, with their smoke stacks, cranes, valves and such, have a kind of heavy beauty to them in their interlocking tangle of mechanics and machinery, Not everything we glimpsed was so oppressive. There were a few roadside shotgun shack residences and bars. All through the parts of the South we traveled we saw lots of played out towns and abandoned structues that reminded me of what one sees trekking across Nebraska or any rural stretched. We did pass a raggedy plantation as well as some dreamland site full of white stone structures. Convinced we needed to ask someone where we were in relationship to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans, we pulled into an automotive and towing business called Joey’s on the side of the road and hollered at the first person we saw, who just happened to be Joey. In his thick Creole accent he informed us we were on the wrong side of the river to see anything remotely scenic and provided clear directions for getting us into New Orleans.

 

 

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A New Orleans tagline to take to heart

 

We were no more than a few minutes traveling across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which is the world’s longest bridge over a body of water with its nearly 24 mile span, when we hit rush hour traffic. Lake Ponchartrain is so immense and my sense of geography so poor, that I assumed we were over the Gulf of Mexico at that point. Then things really got interesting when a thunderstorm broke out and rain went from moderate to heavy to a torrential downpour. Visibility was reduced to a car or two in front of us, in back of us and on either side of us. Amidst all that gray and all those vehicles it was a claustrophobic inching along that tested faith and patience. Finally the shroud lifted and we got back to a semblance of normal travel speed. but bursts of jagged lightning bolts hitting a few hundred yards away made for an ominous arrival in our destination city. The Superdome loomed large ahead as we snaked our way through jam-packed streets to find the Embassy Suites on Julia Street, where we stayed three nights.

Over the next four days we ended up doing the French Quarter and French Market, but we avoided Bourbon Street. As a prelude to our first French Quarter foray the entire family gathered for the reunion took a riverboat cruise aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The food was disappointing but the cruise did give an appreciation for the grandeur of the river and for the scale of its commercial traffic as a bustling thoroughfare of ships and barges transporting people and provisions. Naturally, there was a “house” band entertaining us with old-timey jazz and ragtime music.

Our first truly New Orleans meal came at Peche Seafood Grill just a couple blocks from the hotel. Pam had a smothered catfish entree that she loved though I didn’t care for the red chili sauce that covered it. I had a killer gumbo with a scrumptious side of roasted beets and pistachios accented by fresh thyme.

Very near Peche is an Emeril’s restaurant and since we’re both big fans of his from watching cable cooking shows we decided to do dinner there one night. Eating at Emeril’s was hands down the best and most expensive meal we had on the trip. Trying to keep costs down, we both opted for the grilled salmon dish served on a bed of farro (a barley-like grain) and a tomato and corn chouchou, with some pickled string veggies tied in a bow atop the fish. The salmon was prepared perfectly, with the skin a nice black and crisp and the flesh moist and buttery. This was fine dining done right. The experience included at least four different wait staff who attended to us, each with a specific function, and somehow none made themselves obtrusive or a nuisance.

I forget what night it was down there, but Pam and I were walking back to the hotel after dinner and decided to explore a little bit and we heard, as you often do there, live music coming from somewhere. We followed the sound and before we knew it we were enveloped by a small marching band and their brassy instruments and dozens of rollicking merrymakers dancing to the joyous rhythms of When the Saints Go Marching In.

 

Steamboat Natchez

Steamboat Natchez

 

The day of the cruise didn’t begin so well but it certainly ended nicely. Waiting in line to board the boat became a mini-ordeal because of the oppressive heat and humidity that left us from more temperate Northern and Western climes sodden messes. Hand held fans were our only relief until we got inside the AC of the dining cabin. After a pale imitation of Southern cooking for lunch we went outside to stand or sit along the deck. A cool spray of water got kicked up by the paddle wheel below and a refreshing breeze made being outside in New Orleans a comfortable time for once.

We no sooner clambered off the boat then we headed right for the French Quarter, where a Satchmo Summerfest featuring live jazz and a sidewalk art show of diverse work drew good crowds. There’s much to see and do in the Quarter, of course, and we stopped in a number of galleries and shops, including a praline shop whose proprietor was a very short lady speaking in a very big voice. Her natural amplification made it sound like she was speaking through a bull horn. Our walking party through the Quarter consisted of Pam and me, Pam’s sisters Cheryl and Veronica, and Pam’s brother John.

During the course of our adventures in New Orleans we passed any number of praline places but we never got any. We were both trying to be good with our diets in a place where the abiding philosophy is diets-be-damned. But we had moments of splurging with food and other things.

Our stroll through the Quarter and on back to the hotel seemed like a forced march at times because of he humidity. It clings to you as if you’re walking with a warm damp towel over your head.

If we ever get back to New Orleans, I would like to have more time to explore the Quarter and to peak into those distinctive, tightly packed homes and buildings with their multicolored pastel facades, arched entryways, cozy balconies, ample windows with shutters and interior courtyards.

We also never got around to visiting a plantation or a cemetery. Next time must-dos.

The French Market is a big bazaar off the French Quarter filled with commercial buildings and open air stalls. We perused its Flea Market, where you can find an impressive variety of cooked to order food, fresh produce, apparel, jewelry, art and a hundred and one other things for sale. Pam had some interesting encounters with a charismatic vendor there by the name of Stefano Velaska. The story goes he wound up in New Orleans after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia, where he purports to have been a wanted dissident. He has been a vendor at the market since 1990. He’s also a founding member of the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op located within a short walk of his booth. He makes and sells his own handcrafted jewelry. He apparently suffered heavy losses in the Katrina disaster. He likes to quote Tennessee Williams and whether serious or not, he tried to interest Pam in interesting me to visit NOLA’s red light district to marvel at if not sample the whores. She was not sure how to take that or what to do with it but he twice “propositioned” her with the suggestion, which coming from a mustachioed, heavy-accented, flamboyant man in a decorated top hat does make one wonder or pause. Not far from the Flea Market is the famous Cafe DuMonde and its signature beignet and coffee. The takeout and gift shop lines went on forever and the open air dining area was packed too but we managed to just walk right in and sit right down. These were our first beignets, the legendary doughy delights smothered in powdered sugar, and I must say they’re quite good but hardly the revelation I was led to believe. During our repast there two older women turned out in gaudy mardi gras garb sat at nearby table and Pam asked if she could photograph them and they complied. A great pleasure on this trip was that Pam took photos practically everywhere we went. She is a superb photographer who years ago made a name for herself for her photojournalistic and art photography before life intervened and she eventually dropped the camera and morphed into a mixed media artist. Seeing her little by little pick up the camera again does my heart good. We intend to work together on a project one day featuring her images and my words.

Joining us after awhile at Cafe du Monde were Pam’s sisters Veronica, Victoria and Cheryl. We found a neat little gallery featuring the work of an artist who’s also the gallery owner.

During our meanderings through the French Market we heard some good jazz being played by a variety of musicians, including a sidewalk trio of a young man drumming and singing, an older man blowing his trombone and a young girl tearing it up on the trumpet. They attracted quite a few onlookers and admirers. Count us among them, Pam got some great shots of them.

 

Cover Photo

We Are Family

 

The big family gathering that reunion week was a dinner and dance at Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant. The staff put out a nice buffet spread highlighted by a great jambalaya and these scrumptious little meat pies. The main bill of fare though was the four generations of the Williams-Jackson family gathered for this celebration. Family and friends of family joined as one. Folks came from California, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia and Georgia. Pam’s mom  Janis, who is called Mother by one and all, headed the program, assisted by her daughter Cheryl. A cousin of Pam’s named Alexandra from the Kansas City side of the family has a beautiful, trained singing voice and she treated us to a rendition of “Ave Maria” and a gospel hymn. An unannounced segment of the reunion dinner program featured Pam’s daughter Beaufield Berry and her man Rob Fisher ecchanging marriage vows before the assembled Williams-Jackson clan. They wanted to share their wedded union with the extended family. I happened to be holding their 2-year-old son Shine during most of the ceremony and while he was just fine he sure couldn’t understand what mommy and daddy were doing up there.

 

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Rob and Beau getting hitched again

 

We baby sat Shine two nights there after long days when we knew we weren’t getting back out into the party fray. We left the late nightlife revelry to the younger folks. Besides, we have a ball with Shine, whose sweet joy takes the edge off everything.

Once in New Orleans we didn’t see much of our driver, Jill, but we did find out she got a parking ticket for an expired meter and then a tow boot put on her car, which is no way for a city to treat the visitors who keep its economy afloat. After that, we decided it was better to pay the hotel parking garage fee of $37 a day, which all three of us originally balked at, and we split the cost with her. It turned out to be cheaper than searching for the scant street parking available and then getting hammered by the parking Nazis there.

For our return journey back home we took a much more direct route. We won’t soon forget the stark landscape of Mississippi, the winding roads of Arkansas and the rolling fields of Missouri. We crossed some spectacular old bridges that are epic and sculptural in addition to being practical. We were passing through Cleveland, Mississippi this past Sunday when hunger overtook us and not knowing where to stop we took a flyer on the Southern Cafe & Grill, which to our delight offered the best roadside, all-you-can-eat buffet imaginable for $10.99. Everything in that buffet line was country soul food done right: greens, lima beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, both fried and broiled chicken and some wonderful chicken stew-like dish. All of it was down home, real deal, succulent pleasure personified. It was one of those, Now-you-can-take-me-home-Lord meals that just don’t come around that often. We knew we were in the right place when after church crowd began filing in – white and black – dressed in their Sunday finest.

We spent another night at Jill and Jake’s place in K.C. before heading back to Omaha with Beau and Shine. After two straight adventures in the South I really like it there. The humidity does a number on me but its doable. I like the people, the landscapes, the attractions and the lifestyle. Mostly, from what I could see, the South is, just like the Midwest and pretty much everywhere for that matter, made up of honest, hard working folks who don’t take themselves too seriously but who have fierce pride of ownership in the places they call home. They love sharing their culture with outsiders if you show genuine interest in it.

 

 

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Pam and Beau

 

As an interracial couple visiting the South in 2016 we don’t have to contend with the cruelties and dangers that mixed couples and people of color faced in the past. We never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. Seeing Confederate flags proudly displayed in the windows of homes and on private flag poles gives a moment of pause but those sights are few and far between. Pretty much everywhere we went we were greeted with cordiality, kindness and politeness. We even got a compliment from some random guy in Eureka Springs about what a great looking couple we are. Pam, as often happens with her, was told more than once how beautiful she is and how lovely her clothes are.

We were in good hands with Jill behind the wheel and she’s great company. A very sweet and smart woman who doesn’t stand for any nonsense.

I don’t know when we will next get back to the South, except that Pam feels called to do some serious family research in Georgia, where there are mysteries in her family line she is bound and determined to unravel. Depending on what she finds, it could be the makings of a highly personal photo essay or book or film or all or none of the above. If we don’t make it down there in 2017, we do know the next family reunion is set for Atlanta in 2018, so one way or the other I will be posting a new installment of my Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary. Until then, I’m dreaming of that heavenly Sunday buffet and counting candied yams, not calories.

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

June 1, 2016 1 comment

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Just got back mid-evening on Memorial Day from a one-week family road trip down South. We were two mixed race couples of different generations heading down to Dixieland. Beaufield Berry and Rob Fisher, plus their baby Shine along for the ride. Then there was Pamela Jo Berry (Beau’s mother) and myself. Pam and I rode shotgun with the baby while Rob and Beau took turns driving. Eight days and a couple thousand miles of travel is a lot for anyone, especially a 21-month old, but Shine was a remarkable trouper.

 

Americana and so stoked we came. That’s Beau and her mom, Pamela Jo

Beaufield Berry's photo.

 

Our happy band of travelers pit-stopped in Kansas City to board a dog before wending our way in a southernly direction to our vacation’s first real destination, St. Louis. We toured the St. Louis Art Museum and the new National Blues Museum. The first rates 4-stars and the second 3-stars. Some in our party did the City Museum downtown. The single most impressive thing we did and viewed was tour the St. Louis Basilica a truly magnificent sacred structure that left us in a state of awe. I know, not exactly a fun thing to do, but meaningful and impactful, Immersed in that wonder. I swear that my soul stirred and my vision expanded.

 

Civil Rights Museum.
“I can’t explain how it feels to be here. I have goosebumps the whole time. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m grateful…this is a must see. You HAVE to come here. They start at Africa and walk you all the way through.” –Beau

Beaufield Berry's photo.

Graceland. ❤️❤️❤️ ‪#‎bucketlistchecked‬  – Beau

That’s me  sitting on the bench and my Pamela snapping a picture of me, which means Beau took this shot of the two of us and the front of Graceland.

Beaufield Berry's photo.

More Graceland…

Beaufield Berry's photo.
Beaufield Berry's photo.
Beaufield Berry's photo.
Beaufield Berry's photo.
Beaufield Berry's photo.
+15

“They ain’t playin with these collard greens down here.” – Beau

Beaufield Berry's photo.

 

Enjoyed a great meal at Mango Peruvian Restaurant. The biggest impression we left with was how St. Louis, just like our Midwestern sister cities Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis and our Western sister city Denver, all have monumental public spaces. both indoors and outdoors, that Omaha sadly lacks. Those cities also retain much more of their historic buildings than Omaha and so the quality and the character of their architecture is much more compelling than what we have left. Our travel party of four adults and a not quite 2 year old comfortably shared a Residence Inn suite. Our shuttle drivers were ambiable men who gave us a few godo tips on where to go and what to do.

Memphis was next among our bucket list destinations and its mega attractions of Graceland and the civil Rights Museum provided two vastly distinct history experiences. Each in its own way and for its own attributes rates 5 stars. Graceland offers more than what any of us expected in terms of personalizing Elvis and his place in the collective popular culture consciousness. The Civil Rights Museum sensitively and intelligently blends the preserved Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated with a surrounding museum. The extensive exhibits walk you through the legacy of slavery from pre-colonial times all the way through to the Emancipation Proclamation and its messy aftermath. It informs you of the earliest efforts for equal rights that culminated in the modern civil rights movement. It takes you through the birth of that movement and King’s rise within it. It places you as well as any exhibit possibly could right in the thick of the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.

Beale Street proved surprisingly short but we consumed some mouth watering and flavorful food there, including a killer gumbo and some righteous greens and cornbread, and we caught some down home blues thanks to the Queen of Beale Street, Miss Ruby Wilson. Our waiter at B.B. King’s restaurant was a gregarious ambassador for the charms of Memphis, We stayed at an AirBnB-found private home in a quiet Country Club-like neighborhood. It was a spacious, comfy, unpretentious family dwelling with a great big old covered patio and deck we meant to do a grill out on but never quite got around to. If felt like a home away from home. The drive out of Memphis gave us a thrilling view between the Bass Pro Shops’ pyramid headquarters and the steel arched Hernando de Soto Bridge spanning a picturesque segment of the Mississippi River.
The only things I was sorry we didn’t make time for were tours of the legendary Sun and Stax Records.

 

Branson

Beaufield Berry's photo.

 

Christ of the Ozarks ‪#‎eurekasprings‬

Beaufield Berry's photo.

 

We were to have continued south to Nashville, where we planned to do the Grand Ole Opry and some music studios, but our accommodations got double booked in a major AirBnB snafu. So in classic improv fashion we double backed and spent our last few nights on a lakefront condo between Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. It made for a nice Plan B compromise getaway within the larger getaway. Eureka Springs was a delightful surprise to us for its rich mix of historic buildings, eclectic architecture and hippie trippy vibe meets redneck kitsch. We were surprised too by the hilly, rocky terrain of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri that alternated with lush forests and big beautiful valleys. Saw far more Confederate flags and references to Dixie than we spied in Tennessee. As two mixed race couples down South we never felt uncomfortable, though the sight of those old wound symbols was a bit upsetting. But everybody we met, with very few exceptions, was friendly and inviting. Branson was far less visually and aesthetically pleasing than Eureka Springs, but in all fairness we only drove through its main strip or drag with all the theaters and shows. Our stroll time there was limited to another section of town devoted to shops and eateries. We mean to go back one day to take in some of those iconic Branson attractions.

Staying on that lake provided a tranquil respite to all the ferrying around from point to point. The only harrowing part of the whole trip was driving at night on dim-lit winding roads from Memphis to Eureka Springs. The weather the whole time we were away was moderate with plenty of sunshine and some stunning skyscapes and sunsets for good measure. The only inclement encountered happened on the return jaunt home between K.C., where we retrieved the dog, and Omaha, when we drove through a storm cell that kept opening up on us. Adding to the excitement of heading home was Beau, who is a playwright, fretting if she’d make it home in time for a 7:30 p.m reading compilation of some of her new work at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Construction delays and storm surges worked against us before the road and the sky finally cleared and she made it back with plenty of time to spare.

 

 

Beaufield Berry's photo.
Beau, Rob and Shine

 

All in all, a good, positive, fun-filled bonding time and adventure shared by people who love each other. A much needed break from the grinding routine and rut. Thank you Beau for planning such a cool gypsy experience and for expertly changing things on the fly the few times when plans did go awry. You did a great job with the accommodations and making sure we all saw and did things that touched our hearts and expanded our minds. Thank you Rob for being our steadfast main driver and all around leavening agent with your good sense and humor. Thank you Shine for being the joyful life spirit who engenders love and trust. Thank you Pamela for being the Queen Earth Mother whose serene example of going with the flow became our team mantra. Thank you God for fending off the panic attack-like freakouts that have spoiled some of my travels. This was all good and easy going down,  just like a Southern Fried Chicken dinner smothered in homemade peppered gravy. A real Pot Liquor-rich flavored, stick-to-the-ribs good time.

 

Love Donor – Larry & Amee: A Father/Daughter Love Story


Here is a story I did some time ago about a prominent father and daughter in Omaha, Larry Kavich and Amee (Kavich) Zetzman. Their family business All Makes Office Equipment is a four generation success story. Just as Larry succeeded his father, who succeeded his own father in running the business, Larry eventually passed the business onto his daughter Amee and his son Jeff. After putting it in their good hands Larry was leading a carefree life enjoying his many hobbies and pursuits when he got sick. Suffering from advanced renal failure – his kidneys failing – his only option became an organ transplant. Amee became the donor for this life saving procedure that has given him a new lease on life and brought the already close father-daughter relationship even closer together than before.

I did this story for  Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) and I am posting it here for the first time.

Read an earlier story I did about the multi-generational All Makes at–

Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company

 

Love Donor– Larry & Amee: A Father/Daughter Love Story

  


Bob & Andee Hoig

Larry Kavich and his daughter Amee Zetzman have always been close. They worked together at the family’s fourth generation All Makes Office Equipment Co., where Larry headed things until turning the business over to his son Jeff and daughter Amee a few years ago.

 

All In The Family

The proud papa gave his “little girl” away in marriage. Amee and her husband Ted Zetzman have given Larry and his wife Andi two grandchildren. But the father-daughter bond went to a whole new level when Larry’s advanced renal failure necessitated a transplant earlier this year and she donated her kidney.

Thus, Kavich became one of an estimated 28,000 persons to receive an organ transplant in the U.S. annually. More than 114,000 are waiting list candidates. Amee’s one of 7,000 live donors projected to give an organ this year.The procedures took place March 19 at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, near Larry’s and (wife) Andi’s snowbird residence in Scottsdale. Father and daughter went into pre-op together and separate teams performed the surgeries in adjoining operating rooms. Weeks of testing preceded the transplant to ensure the best possible match. After four hours of general surgery Larry had a new kidney and just as hoped his body accepted it without complications.

After only four days in the hospital and frequent followup visits, he’s back to the full, active lifestyle he knew before his kidneys failed.

Far from the arduous experience Zetzman says donating is assumed to be, the two-hour laparoscopic procedure left only “three little scars.” Compared to her C-sections, she says it’s “no big deal…it’s doable.”
Hours after the transplant she walked down the hall to find her father sitting up in bed. She returned to work half-days about a week later.

Kavich says “it’s a miracle” she gave him this gift and resumed her life without major interruption. Amee feels she only did what anyone would in the same situation. “If you knew you could change someone’s life and you would still be OK wouldn’t you do it?” she asks.

Still, her father expresses gratitude every week. And not just to Amee. His son Jeff Kavitch also offered to donate. (Mayo will only test one candidate at a time until a suitable match is found.) The siblings decided who would be tested first with a coin flip. Once her donor suitability was confirmed the transplant was scheduled. Amee says she and her family were “very proactive” in educating themselves and pressing for answers. “You have to be your own advocate,” she says.

“I have a fabulous support team in my family,” Larry notes. “We’re the poster family for how things should happen. We’re very fortunate to have had everything that could have gone right go right, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to Mayo and to my children and my wife.”

A Curious Journey

As Kavich readily admits, he’s an anomaly in how his transplant journey unfolded . His new kidney functioned just as it should from the moment of insertion. His creatinine level and glomerular filtration rate steadily improved to where today they’re normal, something they hadn’t been since this all started in 1981. That’s when Kavich, who’s beaten Krohn’s disease and prostate cancer, was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Wegner’s Granulomatosis, that attacks kidneys and other organs.

“I had it 31 years ago and then the disease subsided and 15 years ago it came back,” he says. “On each occasion I was put on chemotherapy and high doses of steroids. It was a very unusual circumstance because I never manifested the symptoms that my numbers would have indicated.”

No loss of appetite or energy. No curtailed activities. It left doctors scratching their heads and Kavich feeling “I’ve been blessed.” He was always told that despite how well he felt he’d one day need dialysis and a transplant. Not wanting to believe it, he says he was “living in the land of denial” in one respect but also maintaining his natural optimism in another respect.

He says Nebraska Kidney Association CEO Tim Neal connected him with people who are transplant success stories and provided “support and encouragement.” He learned healthy regimens for eating right, drinking plenty of water and exercising. His wife filtered out any negative info. He wanted to keep everything positive.

He continued feeling well and living an unrestricted life despite progressive kidney disease, but late last year he finally had to face facts. He needed a transplant and doctors said he shouldn’t hesitate if he had a living, willing donor. His children had already offered but he’d refused. Waiting for a cadaver donor could take years and his condition would require dialysis in the interim. The one thing he didn’t want was a compromised life.

No Other Options

At a doctor’s urging he and Andi visited a dialysis center, where he says, “I saw what would have been my worst fear come to pass. I completely broke down. That’s when my wife called the kids and advised them I was in trouble.” After Amee emerged as his donor she pressed for the procedure to happen as soon as possible so that her father could bypass dialysis.

“Once I got approved I was very persistent and they were totally accommodating in working with us, and my father did avoid dialysis.”

In the extensive physical-psychological vetting process to determine a live donor match she says great pains are taken to ensure donors like herself are doing it for the right reason, i.e. not getting paid. She says it’s made clear that one can opt out at any time for any reason.

Did she have any second thoughts? “I didn’t. Once I made up my mind I was, ‘Let’s get this done.’” Transplant day, she says, is a blur of feelings. “It’s an emotional situation for the family because we’re both being wheeled away to surgery at the same time. It definitely affects the whole family, in all aspects.”

Like her father she’s struck by “the miracle of it,” saying, ““It is pretty unbelievable that they can take part of my body and make it work with his. And his numbers from day one were great. Mine went back to normal quickly as my body adjusted to just having one kidney. It just all worked so fast.”

Just as her father had ample support, she counts herself lucky to have had a support network. Her husband and kids, she says, “were on board, they knew papa was having issues. I have a good circle of friends who covered all my bases, and I have a brother who covered my office base. Not everyone is in that position,” she says, adding that the National Kidney Foundation is trying to devise programs” to assist donors with things like childcare and out-of-work benefits they may need.

Enhancing Lives

The family wants the public to know what a difference organ donation can make, whether getting on the national donation registry or volunteering to be a live donor.
“Towards the end when my kidneys were definitely failing my future and my ability to live any sort of life was impaired. I would not be leading the life I’m leading had the transplant not occurred,” says Kavich. “I am the richest guy you know and it has nothing to do with money.”

He gives back today by volunteering with the Arizona Kidney Foundation. “I will go anywhere and talk to anyone about my experience,” he says.

Another way to assist the donation community is by contributing to your local kidney foundation or association to help its mission of building awareness through education, screening and referral programs-services. For details, go to http://www.kidneyne.org or call 402-932-7200.

 

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free


In 30-plus years of writing about Omaha arts, entertainment, and culture there are very few attractions I have not done a piece on. In some cases I have written multiple stories related to the same venue. An exception to all this was the Omaha Children’s Museum. Our paths simply hadn’t crossed in all that time, though I do remember going there during my early journalism career. Just can’t remember why. But I sure don’t recall writing about it. With this Metro Magazine story about that venue, which celebrates 40 years in 2016, i can cross another one off the list. The museum got off to a very entrepreneurial but humble start and it seemed to plateau several years ago until a reinvestment was made that’s been the catalyst for a resurgence that has seen attendance steadily rise and programming and exhibits progressively increase. Now the museum is running out of space and looking at options to accommodate its current bursting at the seams activity and expected additional growth. The future looks bright and busy and the musuem is deciding whether to expand at its present downtown site or two look at either retrofitting another site, preferably downtown, or building a new museum from the ground up. My story looks back at the museum’s history, charts its growth, and looks ahead to the future.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine and my story at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine–(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

This summer Omaha Children’s Museum joins select local attractions boasting 40 years in operation. With 300,000 annual visitors and 10,000 memberships, OCM is enjoying its greatest growth phase now.

Founder Karen Levin suggests why OCM’s proving so popular.

“It’s a very different breed. It’s where people come to play. There’s no expectations, there’s no right or wrong. Interactive learning, sharing and socialization is the theme. What you put into the experience you get out of it. It’s a very multifaceted experience.”

The two women most closely identified with the institution, Levin, and current Executive Director Lindy Hoyer, never expected to run a children’s organization.

Levin was bound for a social work career when she visited the Boston Children’s Museum in 1973. Her “visceral response” led her to work there. That experience inspired her to pursue a children’s museum in Omaha after moving here in 1975.

“It changed my life. It ended up defining my life. It became my passion. It is still my passion.”

 

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Karen Levin

 

She cultivated folks who caught her vision and together they opened OCM as a mobile museum in 1976. Levin says the late Evie Zysman, a social worker and early childhood education advocate, led her to key supporters, including Jane Ford. The late Susan Thompson Buffett gave seed money and recommended attorney David Karnes, who legally incorporated OCM and became an ardent supporter with his late wife Liz. Their garage served as its storage unit and their ’74 Oldsmobile station wagon carted exhibits and supplies.

“I also did much of the corporate fundraising as we got started,” recalls Karnes. “We needed to introduce the OCM story and dream to all that would listen and it was a story many loved to hear and eventually supported,”

 

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David Karnes

 

He and other early board members Susan Lebens, Jim Leuschen and John Birge were raising families and they bonded over developing a stimulating environment for their kids as well as kids community-wide.

Karnes was drawn to supporting a place where children could explore, touch, dress up, play in unstructured ways and be “in charge.” The Karnes brought their four daughters, all of whom he says “have a warm spot in their hearts for the museum and know how much it meant to me and Liz and how hard we worked to make it a success.” Those daughters live elsewhere now but “when they return with my grandkids,” he says. “they love to visit OCM.”

 

 

OCM’s old enough now that multiple generations enjoy it. Now remarried, Karnes is a parent again and he says his two new daughters “love the museum and visit often” with he and wife Kristine.

As a new grandparent, Susan Lebens is thrilled to be “back” at the museum.

John Birge, a principal architect with RNG, has fond memories of taking his then-young children to the museum and now that his kids are parents themselves he enjoys taking his grandchildren there.

 

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John Birge

 

“It’s just like de jeu watching my four grandchildren working their way through that whole building and listening them talk about all the experiences and what they like doing there,” Birge says. “It’s one generation later, but it’s the same idea.”

Board chairman Trent Demulling says, “It is the one place I go with my kids I’m never looking at my cellphone because it’s so fun to watch them play. They’re always looking back to see what you’re observing and looking for validation of what they’re doing or of what they’ve built.”

Veteran board member Sandy Parker says, “OCM was the place my boys could explore, get messy, imitate, imagine, inquire, play and just be kids. The boys and I used the museum a lot when they were young. I became president of the Guild  in the early ’90s, went on the Governing Board after that and have been on the board ever since. I’ve chaired the For the Kids Benefit and assisted in a couple of capital campaigns. Back in the day when there wasn’t much money Guild members would volunteer their time helping make and paint exhibits. We brought our kids. We all became friends – the moms and the kids.”

 

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Sandy Parker

 

Birge says the museum’s been “a catalyst for bringing young professionals into community leadership roles,” adding, “We were all together helping build this idea of a museum and we all went on to be very successful in doing cool things in Omaha in nontraditional ways.”

He says everybody involved wanted the museum to be world-class.

“We were a bunch of people who said, ‘We can do this.’ We kept getting great leadership in terms of board members as well as paid staff who were going to make it the biggest and best thing it could be.”

He’s proud OCM’s intertwined in “the fabric of the community.”

His daughter Alexis Boulos carries on family tradition as a volunteer (with the Guild) and engaged parent.

“I not only enjoyed the museum as a child I watched my parents volunteer their time and talents and now it’s so rewarding to give back myself and to watch my kids develop their creativity there.”

Dad and daughter marvel at how robust OCM is today. None of it could have happened without its founder. “Karen Levin was relentless in pushing that vision and she was not going to let go,” Birge says.

Monies that secured OCM’s initial footing came from the Dayton Hudson Foundation, whose grant helped pay for the first programs and exhibits. A  CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) grant paid for staff.

OCM went from itinerant displays in shopping malls, libraries, schools and at events to renting a small, makeshift space in the Omaha-Douglas County “connector” building. Then it moved to larger, repurposed  digs at 18th and St. Mary before occupying its present site, 500 South 20th Street, in the old McFadden Ford auto dealership.

 

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Lindy Hoyer

 

A decade after the museum formed Lindy Hoyer was a recent college graduate looking to apply her theater degree to a stage career when she took a job at OCM. Hired as a secretary, her skills proved better suited to facilitating play with kids in the exhibits area.

“My whole life I’ve been drawn to children and when I got the chance to see children engage and interact at the museum i just knew this is my passion,” says Hoyer, who found OCM a great place to grow herself professionally. “This organization was so young and fledgling that there were lots of new things to do and take charge of.”

After eight years she left for the Lincoln (Neb.) Children’s Museum before retuning in 2002. She found OCM in a state of physical fatigue.

“We had to make really tough decisions. Even though the audience grows up and grows out and there’s a new audience coming in every eight years, you have to keep the exhibits fresh. So often children’s museums get exhibits built and then the resources to replenish those over time never get accumulated and so things get worn down, broken

and over time that shows. The place was suffering desperately from that when I started back in 2002. We did some things to replenish,

but we were starting to get there again.”

Since making upgrades, targeting early childhood audiences and working with community partners to build exhibits OCM’s enjoyed an unbroken rise in attendance. The first of the community themed and sponsored exhibits, Construction Zone, in partnership with Kiewit, was a huge hit. Next came The Big Backyard and a slew of permanent displays by First National Bank. Walker Tire and Auto, Hy Vee. Omaha Steaks and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

Community and traveling exhibits, plus educational programs make OCM a thriving, financially stable destination place with huge buy-in.

“It’s nice to be running a nonprofit organization in a community where we can be bold and daring within the context of a strategy and a mission and work that backs that up,” Hoyer says. “We understand our audience and we listen to them and we take what they say seriously.”

Levin admires how far OCM’s come.

“We built a very strong foundation and then it just kind of blossomed. I think the community has always embraced the museum. Everyone owns it. Parents seek it out. It belongs to Omaha.”

She credits the leadership of Hoyer, the board and a staff that is “engaged, active, smart” for creating such a strong operation.

But OCM has challenges. Its landlocked downtown home is woefully short on office, storage and parking space. It also faces millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. Meanwhile, more visitors pour in.

Board chair Trent Demulling says for a recent master planning process “we evaluated what the museum could be and we did not constrain ourselves in dreaming big.” He adds, “Now we have to align that with reality in terms of what funding is available.”

 

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Trent Demulling

 

He and Hoyer say everything’s on the table – from expanding the present facility to finding a larger existing structure to building anew.

“I think management, the board and community leaders really need to think about what is Omaha willing to invest in the Omaha Children’s Museum,” Demulling says, “and what are the things we can get done in order to serve more people to give them an even better experience.”

Until a plan is finalized, OCM will continue stimulating children’s tactile senses and imagination in the same digs it’s occupied since 1989. Meanwhile, OCM celebrates 40 years of congaing minds and bodies.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Omaha Children’s Museum,” says Hoyer. “The next step isn’t determined yet, but I know as long as we stay true to our mission to engage the imagination and spark excitement for learning, it’s going to be the right one. Whatever happens next will benefit generations to come.”

Visit http://www.ocm.org.

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

 

 

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

A Family of Creatives: Rudy Smith, Llana Smith, Q (Quiana) Smith

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

 

A Family of Creatives: Rudy Smith,  Llana Smith,  Q (Quiana) Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Creativity can certainly run in families and one of the most blessed and beloved Omaha families I know of in this regard is the Rudy and Llana Smith family. He’s a photographer. She’s a playwright. One of their adult children, Q (Quiana) Smith, is an actress. Here is a collection of stories I’ve done about them individually over the years.

Rudy Smith

Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

 

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

____________________________________________________________________

Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened.  That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist.  Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in.  He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town.  Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life.  The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.

 

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Rudy Smith, ©photo by Bill Sitzman, Omaha Magazine

A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.

The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.

Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.

Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.

On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.

Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and  spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.

The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.

The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”

Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.

Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.

Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.

Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”

Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.

His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’

Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”

An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.

____________________________________________________________________

Llana Smith

Choir Boy

 

About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald.  I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter.  When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide.  We became friends along the way.  I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads.  I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.

I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally.  Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength.  She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well.  I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail.  With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:

Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.

“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”

She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.

The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.

“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”

Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.

Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.

Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”

“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.

Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”

Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.

Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.

She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.

It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”

Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks  — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.

“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I  could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”

In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.

“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”

Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.

Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.

Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.

Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.

The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.

The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.

At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.

“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.

Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.

If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”

Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”

Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”

Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.

At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.

Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.

Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too ShortThere’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.

Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.

Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.

“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.

____________________________________________________________________

Quiana Smith

NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins.  Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on.  This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash:  she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions.  But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show.  Sweet.

Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith.  She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins

 

 

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time Takes Her to Regional, Off-Broadway and Great White Way Theater Success

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

Quiana Smith

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

©photo by David Wells

 

 

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor

 

 

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

December 10, 2014 1 comment

Native Nebraskans own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.

 

 

Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.

Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.

Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.

A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.

“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”

Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.

 

 

 

 

She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.

“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.

Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.

“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.

“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”

 

 

 

 

Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.

“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.

Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.

“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”

She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”

She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.

“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”

Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.

Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one  the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.

“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”

Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.

University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”

Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.

“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.

Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.

“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.

“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”

She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera  She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”

Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.

Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.

“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”

 

The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.

“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”

Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.

It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.

Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.

 

 

 

 

After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,

“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”

Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.

Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.

After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.

“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”

Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.

“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”

Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.

Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”

In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.

 

 

 

Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”

She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.

“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.

“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”

Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.

“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”

 

 

 

 

Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.

“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”

About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”

Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.

“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide  now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate: https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=vanessa+ward

Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week: https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=color+blind+love

 

 

Josh Dotzler

 

 

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.

Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.

He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”

“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”

He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”

 

 

 

Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”

Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.

“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”

Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”

Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.

This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
Better Together

 

 

“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”

That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”

He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.

Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.

“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”

He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”

Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.

 

SpringCleanup

 

“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.

“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”

Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a  two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.

“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.

“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”

Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.

Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that

 

Basketball group

 

Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”

Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”

Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Andrew and Tete

 

Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.

“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”

Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.

Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.

“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”

 

 

 

 

Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.

“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.

“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”

Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.

“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”

But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.

“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.

It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”

Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.

“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”

 

 

 

 

He says a good day on the job can mean many things.

“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”

Making progress in any area satisfies him.

“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.

“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.

“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth.  God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”

Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.

“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”

Visit http://www.abideomaha.org.

 

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