The Motivator – Willy Theisen


Serial food entrepreneur Willy Theisen of Omaha has a methodology for success in life and business that he likes sharing with others. When he’s not making deals or overseeing his various moneymaking ventures, he’s speaking to groups of aspiring and established entrepreneurs about some guiding principles he follows that he feels can help people achieve their dreams.  Many of his most attentive audiences are high school and college students who were not born when he had his breakout success with Godfather’s Pizza. He’s had many successes after selling Godfather’s and he’ll be stategizing and pitchng until his dying breath but he’s not just about accumulating weath and possessions these days, he’s also about giving back, and he views passing his wisdom and experience on to others, whether as a speaker or mentor, as a form of public service. My new profile of Theisen in the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017) delineates some of the key tenets he lives and works by and that he gladly shares with others.

 

The Motivator.

Willy Theisen

Photo by Jim Scholz

“We Don’t Coast!”

The Greater Omaha Chamber ads say it. Nebraska is motivated and motivational. So is one of her most inspiring success stories, Willy Theisen. This serial entrepreneur who first made a name for himself as founder, chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Corporation is anything but idle at 71. He still puts in 70 hours a week between his business pursuits and community endeavors.

After selling the brilliantly branded Godfather’s chain he grew to 500-plus franchises, he went on to new hospitality industry adventures. He returned to his roots with Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria but doing more refined pies than Godfather’s. With Pitch a hit in Omaha’s prime Dundee neighborhood, he’s opened a new eatery there, Paragon, featuring a completely different concept.

Theisen’s come a long way from his brash rise to fast-food fame and fortune that found him making news for his lavish lifestyle – once renting a Concorde supersonic passenger jet to take him and birthday celebrators to London and back. Over time, he’s devoted considerable energy to civic service work, including serving on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. More recently, he’s been appointed to the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’s also been appointed chairman of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board and named a Creighton University Business Ethics Alliance Trustee.

With Nebraska feeling the pinch of persistent brain drain, massive state budget deficits and the loss of major corporate players, this serial entrepreneur is viewed as an economic stimulus expert.

At a recent presentation before Skutt Catholic High School business students and members of Future Business Leaders of America, he said, “Who creates jobs? Entrepreneurs create jobs.” He shared how he was taken aback to learn that in its 44-year history, Godfather’s has created more than half a million jobs.

His proven business savvy is well recognized per his induction in the Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality, Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Business & Commerce Halls of Fame.

Because of his-real world expertise and experience as a self-made man, he’s often asked to present before audiences ranging from professionals to high school and college students. He especially looks forward to interacting with young people because he believes in cultivating and supporting emerging entrepreneurs.

“I really think these people who produce new ideas and share those ideas and have them nurtured is our future job growth in this state,” Theisen said. “I think it’s a must that we identify and nurture them as early as possible.”

He told Skutt students: “Entrepreneurs are people that can see things other people don’t see.”

Theisen and Gallup Global Channel Leader of Entrepreneurship and Job Creation Todd Johnson share a passion for finding and coaching young entrepreneurs. In June, a group of area youth identified through Gallup assessment profiles as high potential entrepreneurs will attend the Omaha Builders Internship at Gallup, and Johnson’s already secured Theisen’s help.

Life Lessons.

“I called Willy and said, ‘I’m going to have the next generation of you here at Gallup for a month, will you engage?’ and he said yes. So he’ll mentor, coach and present to them.”

Johnson said the idea is to be more systematic, scientific and intentional in the early identification and development of entrepreneurial talent.

“Willy and I have really bonded on that project. We’ve socialized it and, I dare say, evangelized it and we’re going to set-up Omaha as a best-practice mecca. Gallup sees Willy right in the middle of the mentoring and coaching of this next generation of entrepreneurs.”

In recent Gallup testing he scored highly in eight of the ten metrics associated with greatly successful entrepreneurs, including knowledge-seeker.

Anthony Hendrickson, dean and professor of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, said he admires Theisen’s curiosity about what makes things work.

“He came to the Harper Center to speak to a group of students. I took him on a quick tour of the building, including the food-service kitchens. Willy wanted to walk through those facilities and see what was being prepared, how, by whom, the menus and processes. Willy was just trying to learn if there was anything he might have missed as a restauranteur. Ever the student of business and life.”

Theisen’s public speaking is part of a philanthropic thank-you to the city that supported his big idea.

Van Deeb, a national real estate speaker, author and coach, said, “Willy is spending the majority of his time giving back to the community that made him so successful. We spend a lot of time together and I see it and I feel it. He’s wanting to give to youth hope, direction, inspiration.”

Theisen said, “I make time now. Before, I probably cared just about things more than the impact I could make. I was always too busy working, opening restaurants all over the country. I don’t want to go all over the country. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do right here and it’s not all about restaurants – it’s about people.

“A lot of people are busy all their life and they don’t want to be part of anything. They just let things happen. I don’t want to let things happen – I want to make things happen. When I get done with a project I want it to be better off with my involvement than without it.”

Beverly Kracher, a Creighton business professor and CEO-executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance, said, “Willy is smart enough to see he has power. He’s also a man of character enough to use that power to take care of our community and to act responsibly.”

Johnson said he admires Theisen’s commitment to the Business Ethics Alliance they serve on together.

“We have events across the city throughout the year and you can always find Willy. He’s known as a man that shows up and I think that’s a real important insight into who he is. I can’t think of a time when I asked for Willy’s help and he said no. I sure hope I’m as generous with my time, talent and treasure in 20 years as he is. He’s such a good role model.”

Theisen said his focus on “giving back and paying forward” is something that “comes with age and from involvement in the community,” adding, “It just evolves into this and it becomes more important than not.”

When presenting he eschews prepared notes for a conversational, freestyle delivery that invites talk-back. His message emphasizes certain principles he lives and works by as well as certain truths he believes. One is the importance of first-time jobs and what they teach.

“First-time jobs give young people confidence. They direct you to come in on time, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It gives you confidence in the things you need to be set up in to succeed. At Godfather’s it just happened that about 80 percent of the 545,000 jobs created during the company’s history have been filled by first-job seekers.

“Working at Godfather’s was a starting point for many young individuals. What’s most fulfilling to me is that they have gone on and bought houses and automobiles, raised children, contributed to society, and that first job was a part of their foundation.”

Growing up, Theisen’s parents modeled and he adopted a work ethic and earning-your-own-way mentality.

“I always had a job. I painted house numbers on curbs, I caddied, I worked in a pool hall, I flipped burgers, I cut lawns, I bagged and carried groceries at Eddie’s Market, I killed chickens in the market’s basement.

“I did a lot of stuff – and all of it matters. All of it got me here today.”

At Skutt he stressed that from humble origins great things can spring forth. Students young enough to be his great-grandchildren listened intently.

“My best audiences are young people,” he said. “I think they’re looking for a direction and I talk right to them, I don’t talk down to them. I relate to them. I want to be something they can count on. I’ve worked with young people in business all my life.”

Dale Eesley, an associate professor in UNO’s College of Business Administration, said, “Willy doesn’t lecture students. He tells them stories from his career and encourages them to look for the best in themselves. He emphasizes hard work – something anyone can do if they set their mind to it.”

Theisen knows any group includes entrepreneurs.

“There’s a handful of them in every audience. They’re there, we’ve just got to find them and show them the opportunity. Hopefully, I can inspire them to maybe have the courage to take it one step further.”

Eesley considers Theisen “a true mentor” figure for youth. “Many times I have arranged for students to seek advice from Willy. On several occasions he has hosted ‘Dinner with an Entrepreneur,’ where four to six students from the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization join him at Pitch and get to know him personally as well as professionally. Students all say it’s the highlight of their school year.”

Creighton’s Hendrickson said, “Willy is a tremendous resource for young people, especially aspiring entrepreneurs. He takes time to visit with students individually, listen to them intently and provide encouragement and wisdom about their ideas. He is quick to share the positive potential he sees in their thoughts and plans but equally quick to provide the kernels of truth they need to hear about the challenges they will face. I have referred many students to him.”

Until recently, Theisen said, what few entrepreneurial classes local schools offered were only for graduating seniors or graduate students.

“It’s too late. We can’t wait until they’re seniors to identify them as entrepreneurs. We’ve got to have entry-level. Now schools have departments and programs for entrepreneurship. This is where these ideas come from. They only need one and from one you can take it and make something out of it, and our schools now nurture that out of people.”

Theisen tells students none of this support existed when he was their age. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ wasn’t even used. We were called futzers or daydreamers.”

So much of what forms us, he tells audiences, is our habits. His checklist of positive habits to follow includes “showing up on time, being a person of character and being credible.” He encourages those working first jobs to foster traits that develop good lifetime habits that connote trust. “Be dependable, come in early, stay late. Make the boss look great. That’s how you advance.”

He said along with doing things right “comes confidence, then ethics and then trust,” adding, “I want to get people to where somebody can look at them and say, ‘I trust you, I can count on you, because you’re here on time, ready to work.’ I tell young people you gotta be ready to work when the opportunity is there. Don’t say, ‘Can I get back to you on this?’ Someone else will do it.”

He said the trust that flows from being ethical in business is not a legal requirement but “it sure helps to be a person of your word.” Besides, he said, “It is the right thing to do and the relationships are so much better when you’re ethical. No hidden agendas, no backroom deals, no going around in an underhanded way.”

He built his first business empire on trust.

“From 1977 through 1979 I opened 450 Godfather’s Pizzas in 36 months. You couldn’t have done it if you didn’t trust each other, if you weren’t ethical, if you picked the wrong partner to go into these things with. None of it would have happened.

“Some of the first franchise deals we had back in 1974, we didn’t have written agreements. You know what we had? You grabbed a person’s hand and you looked at them right in the eye and took them at their word.”

 

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY MAY/JUN/JUL 2017

 

 

Long before franchising became an option, Theisen had to sell a banker on a dream.

“Something life-changing for me happened in late 1972. I went over to Southwest Bank to get a small business loan. I was nervous. The lending manager I met with, Joe Sullivan, said, ‘What’s your idea?’ ‘Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going make a big, thick pizza with a bunch of toppings on it and I’m going to put my store right in the middle of Thomasville Apartments. There’s 500 or 600 people living there and everyone’s going to come there; nobody’s going to cook.’”

Theisen, who worked for a real estate developer then, had no real collateral other than his vision and belief.

“All I had was a rough ballpoint-ink outline of the building on a cocktail napkin. Joe looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the rest of your business plan?’ ‘That’s it.’ He stared at me, and said, ‘I like it, it’s simple, I understand it.’ He gave me Small Business Administration loan papers. He guessed I wasn’t good at filling out forms and said, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ He asked, ‘Do you work at night?’ ‘Yeah, I work at night,’ ‘Will you start tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll start tonight.’ His accountant and I got those forms filled out and I got the loan. You know what Joe made that day? He made a character loan. He made me a loan. That’s what I call the Sullivan Effect.”

Additionally, Sullivan offered some sound advice via an admonition. “He said, ‘When you open your place, I want to see you there.’ I asked my business partner at that time, Greg Johnson, ‘What do you think that means?’ ‘It means you’ve got to be there all the time.’ I was there all the time. That’s the Sullivan Effect, too.”

Business Ethics Alliance activities have given Theisen fresh insights into lifelong practices.

“I thought I was always doing the right thing but now I know I’m doing the right thing, and I get a little more satisfaction out of it.”

Of his fellow Alliance trustees he said, “It’s evolved into quite a good list of individuals. It’s not a coincidence most of them are leaders. They got there being that.”

Creighton’s Kracher said Theisen brings credibility to advising about jobs since he’s created so many.

“He grooms young people to help them understand what it means to work hard, to show up on time, to be accountable, to be trusted – all those character traits that matter if you are going to be a business person.

“He takes the time to educate students that half of life is about showing up and in his fundamental belief that business and life is based on trust.”

She said his charisma plays equally well with students and seasoned business professionals.

“You can’t help enjoy hearing him speak and then afterwards telling five people what you heard.”

Theisen stresses to audiences the building blocks of success must be cultivated. “This just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You don’t wake up one morning and get this when you’re 69 years old. This is the fabric and core of who you are and how you treat and greet others.”

As a veteran restauranteur he knows how key quality control is. It’s why he shows up to observe and listen. He always checks the restrooms to ensure they’re clean. He stops to ask diners about their experience. He follows orders from the kitchen to the table to see if they’re coming out right.

One night at Pitch he followed an onion rings order from the kitchen to a table where two young women sat sipping cocktails. He regaled them with what makes the rings so fresh and special when one woman interrupted to say, “Willy, we trust you.” “And it kind of took me,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever worked for. It’s the core and fabric of what I am. Everything I am is to be trusted.”

Built on Trust.

“Trust”, he told Skutt students, “means everything to me. It doesn’t come quick, it doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to earn it every day. That’s one of your strengths.”

No detail’s too small for his attention. Nothing gets overlooked, ignored or abandoned.

“I try to talk to young folks about solving small problems. I’m a master at solving small problems. I try to have big ideas sometimes, but I want to solve small problems. If you’re driving to an appointment and you cut yourself short on time, you make yourself late and thus less credible, and I try to teach people how important that is,” he said.

“I generally ask, ‘How many of you made your bed this morning?’ I make the point it’s the first achievement of the day. There’s research showing you’ll be happier several percentage points by doing that one thing. Your day flows from there because it’s done. Then you clean up, get dressed. It organizes you and gets you set to take on things.”

Kracher said, “He’s a perfectionist and that perfectionism has driven him to the successes he’s had. He looks at every single detail over and over, down to the toilet paper in his restaurants’ restrooms.”

Theisen’s never without a to-do list.

“This is my to-do list,” he said, holding a small sheet of memo paper filled with entries. “I’m going to finish it and then I’ll have another list for tomorrow. But you have to finish things. You can’t leave everything half-assed, half-done. That’s what I tell people. You have to show up, you have to be prepared and you have to finish things.

“That’s who I am, that’s how I live my life. Successful people are finishers. If you’re a finisher, you’re going to be successful.”

In his talks, he said, “I really provoke thought. They remember me when I leave. That’s my job. That’s one of the reasons I’m there. I give them points to think about and I present in an untraditional way.” In a given session, he said he and students get around to discussing “food and beverage, hospitality, politics, education. Omaha’s generous philanthropic community and the philosophy of giving back and paying forward. We talk about a lot of things. It’s fun for me and them.”

Theisen doesn’t just engage with audiences of privilege. Through his work with UNO he visits inner-city schools to interact with diverse students, many of whom come from trying circumstances.

“This past summer my friend Van Deeb and I visited several inner-city high schools together – Blackburn, Central, South and Benson – to let them know UNO is an option to help people be entrepreneurs if they want to be entrepreneurs. It’s not for everybody.”

He said, “Something eye-opening happened at Benson. I was miked up, walking back and forth on stage, chatting, when I looked down in the front row and this young man was sound asleep. I looked over at the guy next to him and said, ‘Wake ‘Junior’ up, would you?’ So he gave him a shot and ‘Junior’ sat up.

“When I got done I was getting my things together on stage to join the students for Godfather’s pizza when I saw ‘Junior’ approaching me stage left. He’s a big guy. I thought, ‘This can go either way.’ He towers over me and I look up and he says, ‘Mr. Theisen, I want to apologize for falling asleep.’ I asked, ‘Who told you to come up here?’ ‘Nobody, I come on my own. After I did get with it, I heard you have to man up and take ownership for everything you do. That it’s not a blame game.’ So he shook my hand and as we walked off stage he put his arm around my shoulder, and I think I changed him for only a minute. He changed me.

“It was humbling. I’m up there to teach some takeaways, positive direction, leadership skills as sort of a life coach, and when he came up it tore at me because he heard enough that it changed him. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be in front of those students. He took my words to heart and that made my day and made it well worthwhile going there and sharing. I know I made an effect on one person for sure and hopefully many more. I take away so much more then these kids get. I’m the beneficiary of this when I get done with one of these groups. I love it.”

He’s well aware many of the urban kids he addresses face challenges their suburban peers do not.

“I was at Blackburn and this girl was asleep when I walked in the room. This was a group of students that had left school and were coming back to graduate. They were a little bit older and they were on a mission. I said to her, ‘You probably need a little more sleep,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I do, because I’m pregnant.’ I said. ‘Well, you know, others have been where you are and you’ll get through it. By coming here you’re going to get a high school degree and things will get better.’”

Connecting.

“They have tough lives. Listening to them, having empathy for them and encouraging them are among the things I try to give back. They don’t want me to sit up there and bark at them for an hour. I talk to them and I draw out of them things. They must trust me or they wouldn’t tell me.”

Todd Johnson said Theisen instinctively reacts to his audience and adapts as needed.

“No matter the setting or audience, Willy manages to engage. He figures out a way. And if you think about entrepreneurs, they always figure out a way. They see or hit an obstacle and they go over it, around it, under it and I think that applies to his community involvement and communication.

“He can read a room and adjust on the fly if he has to. He’s pretty good at that and he keeps it snappy.”

Van Deeb said he’s impressed by Theisen’s ability to reach people.

“I truly admire how he connects with youth. He relates to them. He commands the room. You can hear a pin drop. They listen to every word he says and he’s not just talking about being successful in business. He’s talking about how to be successful in life. Treat people well, do what you say you’re going to do, be on time. He never brings up his financial success. It’s never about making money, it’s about being a good person, and it’s refreshing.

“What I see in Willy is he cares about people. He wants to be significant in people’s lives. When I look at these students’ faces, it’s clear they’re learning from him.”

Far from the public eye, Theisen also personally intervenes in the lives of young people in crisis or at crossroads.

“Some people come into my life that are on the wrong track and need help getting over humps. I get gratification from seeing somebody get on that right track and do well. As a respected friend of the family I can often come in and talk to kids better than the parents can. I go in pretty straight-forward – here’s what we gotta do, no nonsense, no excuses.

“Many a time I get their attention when everything else has failed. We agree one-on-one what we need to get done. It’s better that way. I make the young woman or man responsible and we get on a timeline and we start. I don’t want to get disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint them. so we’ve both got to do X to get to where we’re going.”

Theisen didn’t come from money and he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s had his own setbacks, both personal and business. He faced a serious health issue several years ago. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, though he likes to think of those misfortunes as “things that just didn’t work out.”

All of it’s given him a heart “for the little guy.”

“I’m a guy for second chances, I really am,” he said. “I don’t give beatdowns. It used to be one-and-done with me. As I’ve gotten older, I feel it’s more important to give second chances. I’ve seen people that have tried really hard to live up and they can’t do it the first chance and so I give them another. I know when somebody’s really trying and they just need a little more time.”

Whether for kids or adults, his how-tos are the same.

“There are steps I want people to take. To be formidable, competitive, resilient. To be mindful. To have empathy. To take and have ownership. To be a person of your word, I want people to know I walk the talk. I’m somebody you can count on.

“These are just words but there’s true meaning behind every one. My epitaph, if I do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Theisen doesn’t dwell on his mortality, not with a granddaughter to dote on, projects to work on and commitments to keep. But he’s aware each passing year brings him closer to the end.

“What I’m not going to do is waste one day.”

He’s never been more content or grateful knowing his purpose in life as a builder and creator is never really done and may even outlive him.

“I have good health and good fortune. I try to eat right. I hit the gym. I get enough sleep. Yeah, I’m very happy. I’ve not been any happier. I look forward to tomorrow and the next day. I don’t look back much. I want to move forward. I’ve got so many things to get done. I have to solve small things in each of them. They need me.”

 

“My epitaph, if i do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried to right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Read more, including what young entrepreneurs have to say about Willy Theisen’s motivational impact on their lives, in our DIGITAL EDITION.

 

South Omaha takes center stage


What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

In Their Own Words – The Greatest Generation on World War II


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 

 

In Their Own Words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha


Murals are the great mash-up the art world. Their size and themes lend themselves to big, bold visions landing somewhere between paintings, posters and frozen film images characterized by dynamic swirls of figures, places, events and symobls. Mike Giron is one of Omaha’s busiest muralists and he’s the subject of an Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.comprofile I wrote that appears in the May-June 2017 issue. Giron’s work for the ongoing South Omaha Mural Project has taken him and his partner artists deep inside that district and its ethnic neighborhoods. But he does more than murals. He makes studio art and he also teaches art at Metropolitan Community College. And he helped design the exhibition spaces for the recently opened South Omaha Museum. 

 

 

Mural Man

Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Hot Movie Takes – “Queen of Katwe”

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “Queen of Katwe”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

Image result for queen of katwe

 

 

India native and longtime American resident Mira Nair deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great English-language filmmakers of the last quarter-century, but I’m afraid that because she’s a woman you’re unlikely to know the name. I have long been an admirer of her work (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) and my esteem just grew after watching her “Queen of Katwe” on Netflix. This true story set in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda follows the journey of a girl who rises to international grandmaster chess champion with the loving support of a coach who recognizes her talent and mentors her to excel despite the severe challenges she faces at home. Living in the kind of poverty Americans don’t know, Phiona is one of four children being raised by a single mother whose strict principles are meant to keep her family together and her kids free from exploitation. The mom doesn’t trust the coach at first but comes to see that chess may indeed be a way out for Phiona, whose prodigy abilities eventually take her far from home. Once Phiona has a glimpse and taste of life outside the slum, it causes her to rebel, for a time, before she realizes that what she wants more than anything is to win enough competitive chess prizes to open up doors that will enable her family to escape the daily threats and struggles for survival that make dreaming a luxury that can’t be afforded by most residents. Phiona must overcome self-doubt and learn some tough learn lessons in order to mature enough to achieve her dream but in the end there’s nothing that can deter her. Against all oddes, she becomes an inspiration to her community and her nation. And as the grace notes at the end reveal, Phiona and the other prinicpal charactrs depicted in the film are no longer surviving but thriving and still inspiring others.

This 2016 co-production of Disney and ESPN films is based on a book by the same title by Tom Crothers, who adapted the story to the screen with William Wheleer. Madina Nalwanga is outstanding as Phiona. David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as her coach Robert Katende, who in real life has gone on to start hundreds of chess clubs throughout Uganda. Lupita Nyong’o is great at Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet. The cast from top to bottom is very good and Nair found many of the children in the film in the slum of Katwe where most of the picture was shot. Having visited some Kampala’s slums myself, I can tell you she shows you just as it is: an unending sea of disheveled shanties pressed up against each other; rutted dirt roads; gullies for sewers; men, women and children on foot lugging by hand jerry cans full of water or balancing atop their heads provisions for home or goods to sell at market; boda-bodas appearing out of nowhere; markets jammed with people, stalls and vehicles; and rainstorms that create rivers of debris and detritus. And everywhere, the colors of the rainbow in the clothes people wear, in the over-laden market stalls, in the red dirt and the green countryside.

Nair also shows the sharp discrepancy between the lives of the slum children, many of whom do not attend school, and those of the privileged children at private schools. Unfortunately, slum kids there are looked down on and made to feel less than there just as they are here. In my visit to Uganda I met many community organizers just like Robert Katende working to improve the lives of children and their families.

 

 

Image result for mira nair

Mira Nair

 

The filmmaker knows Uganda because she lives part of every year there. It’s where her husband Mahmood Mamdani was born and raised until he and his family were expelled during the Ida Amin revolution.

Nair, who comes from a documentary film background, has a knack for realistically portraying ghetto life in her dramatic features. You won’t see stereotypical images or characterizations in her work but rather carefully observed humanity. Her “Salaam Bombay!” won international acclaim for its dramatic story of street children. Most of the kids in the film actually lived on the streets of Bombay. Similarly, her “Queen of Katwe” is filled with people who live and work in the very environment she depicts.

There are a several Nair feature films I’ve never seen that I need to seek out – “The Perez Family,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Namesake” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” – because she never disappoints with her humanistic explorations of the human heart.

 

 
Queen of Katwe - Official Trailer

Queen of Katwe – Official Trailer2:25YouTube · 2,381,000+ views

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4l3-_yub5A

 

So, why isn’t she and her work better known?

Hollywood remains a mail-dominated industry and that extends across production (both behind the scenes and in front of the camera), finance, marketing and even to those who write about the movies. Male filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Ridley Scott. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are lionized by an apparatus that makes superstars and household names of certain directors, almost always male directors. The handful or so of women directors who have achieved some wide notoriety, such as Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Julie Taymor and Barbra Streisand, get their moment in the sun for a year or two, surrounding a certain project, and then disappear again. Women directors don’t enjoy the same kind of popular branding, mythologizing and following that men get. In the annals of film history, I can only think of two dozen or so women directors of English-language films who have enjoyed anything like a sustainable and highly praised career despite doing very good, even brilliant work:

 

Dorothy Arzner

Ida Lupino

Shirley Clarke

Barbara Loden

Lee Grant

Joan Micklin Silver

Martha Coolidge

Penelope Spheeris

Amy Heckerling

Gillian Armstrong

Penny Marshall

Mira Nair

Barbra Streisand

Kathryn Bigelow

Jane Campion

Julie Dash

Kasi Lemmons

Nora Ephron

Tamara Jenkins

Betty Thomas

Nancy Meyers

Jodie Foster

Diane Keaton

Julie Taymor

Sofia Coppola

Mary Harron

 

One of the above is Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, whose sublime body of work (“Hester Street” “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Loverboy”) is sadly neglected.

Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Not many more have been nominated in that category. You can bet there have been many deserving women, including women of color, who have been passed over. Mira Nair is one of them.

Mira Nair – IMDb

http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0619762/

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Southside with You”

April 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Southside with You”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

 

Southside with You Poster
Trailer

Finally saw “Southside with You,” the 2016 dramatic film that lovingly, tenderly, never cloyingly portrays the first date that then-Michelle Robinson had with Barack Obama in 1989. And, oh, what a date it was in forging a bond that would not be broken. I am happy to report that it is a first-rate romantic movie worthy of the future First Lady and the first African-American U.S. president because it depicts them just as they were then – two young, idealistic lawyers still finding themselves and what they wanted to do with their lives. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are sensational as Michelle and Barack, respectively. They capture the fullness of their humanity, intelligence, wit and grace. They nail the dynamic the couple enjoyed as highly educated, aspirational young professionals looking to make a difference in the world.

They nail, too, a desire to find a soulmate with whom they can share their life. But neither will be easily satisfied. Each has defenses and hurts that must be overcome if they’re to let their guard down enough to let someone else in.

Writer-director Richard Tanne very smartly confines the entire story to everything surrounding that first date. The preparation. The anticipation. The awkward feeling out process. The long walks and talks. Viewing an Afroc-centric exhibition at a museum. Taking in a community meeting. Seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The after glow of their day into night first date.

We witness an intimate meeting of minds and hearts. The simple but revealing activities of that first time out on the town encapsulate what formed these two serious people, what drove them and why they were attracted to each other. The film reminds us that when really good writing is provided to well-cast actors under the direction of someone who knows how to stage things, then the mere act of two people talking to each other can carry an entire film. It works so well because the characters are firmly established at the very start and everything that flows from there reveals ever more layers of their personality and chemistry. I wondered during the film if I would care as much about these characters if they weren’t Michelle and Barack and I decided, yes, that these two people are engaging enough that I would still be swept up in their orbit. I would still want them to connect and for their budding relationship to click,

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhd-yvMjImU

 

When the events of the film take place, the two of them work at the same law firm. She’s an associate and he’s an intern. She acts as his advisor there as he learns the ropes. It’s Barack who initiates their seeing each other outside of work on the pretext of taking her to a meeting he feels certain she’ll find interesting. She’s adamant about their outing not being a date and he’s just as insistent that it is a date as far as he’s concerned. We learn he’s been pestering her to go out with him for some time. On their various stops that fateful day in their lives, they learn vital things about each other that confirm they share many of the same passions even if they don’t always see eye to eye on everything.

Michelle really makes Barack work to earn entry into her heart and win her over. The clincher, we think, is when he’s asked to speak at the community meeting and he charms the crowd with his genuine, charismatic message of hope. She sees the common touch he has with people. But it’s really when he buys her her favorite ice cream that she finally melts.

I was amazed to discover this was Tanne’s feature film debut. He is a talent to be watched. Sumpter co-produced the film with him and music artist John Legend executive produced the project. The creators made the film on location in a variety of spots that Michelle and Barack actually traversed that first date – from downtown to the South Side to the West Side. It all plays out very naturally and organically, not forced or contrived.

I didn’t know either of the lead actors before this film but they both have impressive credits and I will definitely be looking for them from here on out because each brings an appealing presence to the screen, Together, they have real chemistry.

I like that the story ends with them basking in their individual homes after the date – each filled with his/her high from the heady experience. Their bright futures are before them and they already know they want to be together for wherever their journeys lead. They couldn’t possibly have known what history they would be making barely more than a decade and a half later. We’re left with two young people on the move, newly in love, and eager to make their mark. They certainly would go on to do that. Hell, the Obamas are still only in their early 50s and may have decades ahead of them to make even more impact.

For some reason the film didn’t do much at the box office but I hope it is finding its audience online. It did deservedly receive many away nominations. I found the film on Netflix and I’m sure it’s available on other viewing platforms as well. Check it out, as I’m sure you’ll find it well worth your time.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: