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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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Cathy Hughes: Forging a Media Empire by 
Disrupting the Status Quo

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Cathy Hughes has forged media empire by disrupting the status quo 

photo by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga and Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Originally published in B2B Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/cathyhughes)

Disruptors don’t ask permission. They refuse accepting no for an answer. Neither do they cow to tradition for tradition’s sake, nor let barriers deny realizing their goal.

Make no mistake, Omaha native media mogul Cathy Hughes built the first leg of her Urban One empire by being a disruptor. Doing it in the nation’s capital gave her a national platform. After running radio station WHUR at Howard University, where her innovative programming made waves, she made her move in ownership at WOL, which became the flagship for her Radio One broadcast network.

She developed a reputation as a sharp entrepreneur and tough negotiator. Her intuitive grasp of what the public wanted and her ability to provide it as both a programmer and an on-air host built a brand and a following. In 1999 she became the first African-American woman to chair a publicly traded company. This media magnate added a television network to her holdings when her son Alfred Liggins III launched TV One. Though Alfred now runs things on a day by day basis for a diverse portfolio of companies, including online and gaming divisions, she’s still very much involved and remains Urban One’s public face.

Hughes recently added movie producer to her credits.  She is second only to Oprah when it comes to individual black women wealth. None of it would have been possible, she says, without what she learned in her hometown of Omaha, where Alfred also grew up.

Mentors included civil rights champion priest John Markoe, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and advocate journalist Charles B. Washington. Her activist parents resisted racial inequality as members of the social action group the De Porres Club, Her mother Helen Jones Woods was a professional musician turned licensed practical nurse and social worker. Her father William Woods was an accountant. Her maternal grandfather, Lawrence C. Jones, was founder of Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi.

“My mother, father and grandfather were very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people, and I inherited that,” says Hughes.

Another influence informing her own independent spirit was a group of prominent African-Americans who bought local radio station KOWH.

“Their example inspired me to become a broadcast owner of what ultimately became the largest black media company in the world.”

Her sense of self-determination and aspiration as a single mother in North Omaha, where she worked at both the Star and KOWH and participated in demonstrations, carried her far.

Instead of making her single mother status a negative or barrier, she embraced it and used it as motivation to achieve. Her son was there for her entire struggle and ascent. She sometimes brought him to classes and to work.

National journalist Tony Brown was so impressed upon meeting the vivacious Hughes when he appeared in Omaha that he invited her to be a lecturer at Howard despite the fact she was not a college graduate herself.

“He saw that I was so hungry for the opportunity and that this was a passion for me.”

Brown was one of a string of illustrious mentors who saw her potential. Others included Susan Thompson Buffett, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Johnson Publishing founded John H. Johnson.

Hughes parlayed the Howard opportunity to become D.C.’s first female general manager of a radio station when asked to take the reins at WHUR in 1973. She grew ad revenues and helped WHUR go national after creating the urban format “Quiet Storm,” which hundreds of stations across the country adopted.

Realizing she still had a lot to learn, Hughes studied psychographic programming at Harvard and took a programming seminar at the University of Chicago.

In 1980, she and then-husband Dewey Hughes purchased struggling WOL. She reversed the station’s fortunes by transforming it from R&B to a 24-hour-a-day news-talk format she dubbed “Information is Power.” She hosted an on-air morning show for 11 years, thus becoming the voice and face of black urban radio.

Hughes took cues from her Omaha mentors in remaining connected to her community while finding commercial success.

Years before in Omaha, she said Mildred Brown and Charles Washington “understood that information is power.” She learned from them and the folks who ran KOWH that black media isn’t just about a business, it’s about a community service.” That realization has informed everything she’s done with Urban One.

“Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. Investors and bankers respect that.  They’re interested in numbers and they understand the numbers will be there because the community responds positively to that loyalty.”

Building a radio network was her vision and ambition.

“I always wanted more than one station,” she says.

She sees opportunity where others don’t.

“We have been turnaround experts. That’s what our whole corporate strategy has been. We take under-performing stations and turn them around. Under-performing stations have practically called our name. That’s how we’ve approached broadcasting.

“We built Radio One with numerous formats, including some mainstream white formats.”

Hughes put together most of the funds for her initial purchase of WOL.

“I had $100,000 of my own personal money. That’s why when Dewey and I split there wasn’t a big hassle because it was his opportunity and my money.

“I raised an additional $100,000 from 10 investors – each putting in $10,000 a piece, and then I borrowed the rest. I needed a million dollars from a senior lender. I was turned down by 32 different banks. The 33rd presentation was to a Puerto Rican woman banker – and she said yes. She was the one that made the difference. I put together another $600,000 from black venture capitalists.”

Part of persevering and being resilient meant having to prove to skeptics that she could go it alone.

“The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I decided to divorce my husband. He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by my advertisers, by my lenders, by my creditors, by my listeners. They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive with Dewey no longer in the picture.”

Survive and thrive she did by leaning into the example set by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, whose “dogged determination” she admired.

“When somebody told Mildred no, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion.”

Like that earlier media matriarch, the charismatic Hughes brings “activism with marketing and salesmanship” to her personal art of persuasion.

Early in her Radio One ownership, when loans were hard to come by, she openly expressed doubts. She credits a male investor-advisor with getting her to speak into action her successful acquisition of capital, stations, listeners and advertisers.

“He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, because I was the first person to hear it.

And guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth.”

Even after her multi-billion dollar company went public, the ever-driven Hughes was anything but complacent.

“I don’t see it as success yet, I still see it as a work in progress.”

Being a woman in a male-centric industry hasn’t fazed her, she said, because “I never put woman first. I am black first and a woman second. Plus, I had my eyes on a prize. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by the fact I was the only female. I really thought because I was the first woman general manager there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. But women have made more progress in sports than they have in media.”

Her business rise took some aback as it didn’t follow expectations. For instance, when she found herself a single mother again after putting together the WOL deal, she and her son Alfred slept at the station until things improved. A black single mom with a penchant for telling it like it is disrupted the prototypical corporate culture.

“It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and so it’s definitely still brand new for African-American women, especially for someone outspoken like me.”

Along the way, she says, she’s had to educate some folks that it was she who actually built Radio One and made it a success, not her ex-husband or her business partner son. Perhaps a sign of progress is that she now gets credit for forming TV One and taking the parent company public when it was her son Alfred’s doing.

She’s grateful that her son, a Wharton School of Business graduate, came to not only embrace her media vision and passion but to expand it to across platforms.

Things came full circle for the pair last May when Hughes was honored in Omaha for her achievements and Liggins joined others in singing her praises.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons,” he says. “First and foremost, I respect her as a human being and as my mother. In terms of our business partnership, we don’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership. I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Hughes now has a boulevard named after her in North Omaha and she is a Face on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part II

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

 
Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part II –  Faith, family, community, business, politics

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/16/interfaith-journ…rfaith-walk-work/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-shepherds-of-northomahaministers-and- churches-making-a-difference-in-area-of-great-need/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/two-blended-hous…houses-unidvided

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/14/small-but-mighty…idst-differences

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/16/everyones-welcom…g-bread-together/

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/gimme-shelter-sa…en-for-searchers

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/09/an-open-invitati…-catholic-church

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/everything-old-i…-church-in-omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/10/the-sweet-sounds…ts-freedom-choir/

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/sacred-heart-freedom-choir/‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader

http://thereader.com/news/a-homecoming-like-no-other/

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/nativeomahadays-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/back-in-the-day-…party-all-in-one

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/how-one-family-d…-during-the-days/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/bryant-fisher/.

A Family Thing – The Reader | Omaha, Nebraska

http://thereader.com/news/a_family_thing/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives/

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/big-mama-bigger-heart/

Entrepreneur and craftsman John Hargiss invests in North Omaha …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/entrepreneur_and_craftsman_john_hargiss_invests_in_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/30/creative-to-the-…s-handmade-world/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/27/minne-lusa-house…on-and-community/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/22/a-culinary-horti…ommunity-college/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/28/revival-of-benso…estination-place

A Mentoring We Will Go | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-mentoring-we-will-go

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/08/tech-maven-lasho…past-stereotypes/

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/22/omaha-small-busi…rs-entrepreneurs

Omaha Northwest Radial Hwy | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-northwest-radial-hwy/

Isabel Wilkerson | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/isabel-wilkerson/

The Great Migration comes home – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/the_great_migration_comes_home/.

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/goodwins-spencer-street-barbershop-we-cut-heads-and-broaden-minds-too/.

Free Radical Ernie ChambersThe Reader

http://www.thereader.com/post/free_radical_ernie_chambers

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/15/deadeye-marcus-m…t-shooter-at-100/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/north-omaha-cham…s-the-good-fight

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/norths-star-gene-haynes-builds-legacy-as- education-leader-with-omaha-public-schools-and-north-high-school…

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/brenda-council-a-public-servants-life/‎

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/carole-woods-har…ess-and-politics/

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-cathy-hughes…

Miss Leola Says Goodbye | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/01/miss-leola-says-goodbye/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/02/leola-keeps-the-…-side-music-shop/

Aisha Okudi’s story of inspiration and transformation …

http://thereader.com/news/aisha_okudis_story_of_inspiration_and_transformation/

Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon | Leo …

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/09/alesia-lester-a-conversation-in…

Viv Ewing | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/viv-ewing/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/02/11/sex-talk-comes-w…rri-nared-brooks/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/29/strong-smart-and…-girls-inc-story/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/13/omaha-couple-exp…ica-in-many-ways

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and …

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/25/parenting-the-second-time…

Pamela Jo Berry brings art fest to North Omaha – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/pamela_jo_berry_brings_art_fest_to_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/its-a-hoops-cult…asketball-league/

Tunette Powell | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/tunette-powell/

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark …

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/24/finding-her-voice-tunette..

Shonna Dorsey | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/shonna-dorsey/

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal …

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/07/18/finding-normal-schalisha-walker..

Patique Collins | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/patique-collins/

A series commemorating Black History Month: North Omaha stories

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, family, community, faith, education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part I
Redevelopment, vision, advocacy. protest and empowerment
 
https://leoadambiga.com/…/when-omahas-north-24th-street-brought-together -jews-and-blacks-in-a-melting-pot-marketplace-that-is-no-more/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/art-as-revolution-brigitte-mcqueens-union-for- contemporary-art-reimagines-whats-possible-in-north-omaha/
https://leoadambiga.com/…/brigitte-mcqueen-shews-union-of-art-and- community-uses-new-blue-lion-digs-to-expand-community-engage…
https://leoadambiga.com/…/carver-building-rebirthed-as-arts-culture-haven- theaster-gates-rebuild-and-bemis-reimagine-north-omaha/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/artists-running-with-opportunity-to-go-to-the- next-level-carver-bank-resident-artists-bring-new-life-to-area/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/the-rhythmboys-of-omaha-central/

 

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

June 23, 2017 2 comments

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Published in July-August 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition ofOmaha Home.

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 3 comments

Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.

My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/15/omahas-black-sirens-of-song-and-spoken-word/

And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:

Mary Carrick

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=mary+carrick

Anne-Marie Kenny

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabaret-the-anne-marie-kenny-story-from-omaha-to-paris-to-prague-and-back-to-omaha-

Karrin Allyson

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

Quiana Smith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/23/quiana-smiths-dream-time-2/

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Lady sings the blues

Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.

The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.

Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.

A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.

Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.

“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”

Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.

Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.

“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”

Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.

“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”

Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”

“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”

 

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A wide music repertoire

Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.

“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”

The same holds true today.

“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.

Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”

She holds Barbra in special regard.

“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”

No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.

“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.

Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.

 

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Race

The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.

“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.

“I got a lot of comments about my look.”

The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”

Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.

Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.

Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.

Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.

At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.

Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did.  “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”

Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.

“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”

Civil rights

Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.

Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.

“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.

She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.

“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.

“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.

“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”

A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.

“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.

Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.

 

Camille and her sister Lanette in Having Our Say
Strong stock

Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.

“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”

Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.

Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”

Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.

“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.

‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”

Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”

Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”

A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.

The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.

For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.

The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

At their various schools the kids encountered racism.

“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”

Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to  “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.

“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”

Finding a foundation for her music and faith

The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”

Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.

“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a       scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,

so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”

Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.

“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”

Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.

“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.

“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”

Her willfulness wilted in the following days.

“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church.  That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.

“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”

A new beginning from a terrible end

Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.

“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house;  showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”

On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.

Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.

“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”

It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.

“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”

The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.

“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I  gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..

“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”

It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.

“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”

She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”

Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.

 

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A performing life

Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.

All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.

She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.

“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”

Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.

“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”

She’s also a rather subdued performer.

“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”

At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.

“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”

Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.

“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”

Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.

“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”

Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”

“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.

“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”

Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”

 587447Surviving health crisis and moving on

Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.

“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.

She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”

Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.

Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.

“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”

She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.

“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”

Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”

It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.

“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”

From her gut, springs all the glory.

Visit www.musicbycamille.com.

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

Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change

August 26, 2016 1 comment

Social movements are part of the American fabric. Black Lives Matter (BLM) began in response to violent deaths of African-Americans. It now addresses all systemic inequities and disparities affecting blacks. Some Omaha BLM activists believe the disfrachisement that holds back many blacks in the U.S. is a root cause of blue on black, black on blue and black on black violence. BLM is a platform for activists to engage such issues. But these activists don’t want all the energy behind BLM to be expended only on protests and dialogue sessions. They want BLM efforts to spur change that improves social conditions, police-community relations, law enforcement practices and policies. so that as concerned citizens they won’t have to still be holding rallies a decade or two from now but can count on elected officials and lawmakers to do the right thing.

Black Lives Matter showcase

SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Borne from outrage over violent African-American deaths, the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement espouses a social action platform to end systemic violence against and mass incarceration of a people. BLM’s loose-knit activists advocate diverting funds from militarized to community policing and to supporting quality of life indicators.

All this resonates across the nation, In Omaha, tensions exist between the African-American community and police and gaps persist in black health, education, housing and employment. BLM activists here and elsewhere have inserted themselves into the political process through protests aimed at disrupting the status quo and campaigns raising awareness about social injustice. This movement without a leader or structure is a catalyst for citizens getting involved to address issues.

The Reader spoke with local BLM activists whose voices are engaged in various public forums.

 

 

 

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Michelle Troxclair, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director Michelle Troxclair has long railed against perceived wrongs, including wrongful killings. She’s seen initiatives come and go..”In all this protesting we have to have a unified message of what we want – that we are not disposable people. Throughout our history we have been considered everything from chattel to cattle, and based on studies I’ve seen not much has changed. So Black Lives Matter represents our voice that we deserve respect and basic human rights guaranteed in the constitution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“The movement’s about self-love and self-empowerment as well as making systemic changes. I’ve seen it in the way black men and women wear their hair, dress and walk. I look at our young people and they are not apologetic for their blackness.”

She likes BLM’s strong language.

“There’s a war on terror, a war on drugs and to that extent, yes, there’s a war on black people. To maintain power and notions of superiority you have to eliminate the competition through education, dehumanization, emasculation and economic means. This is how you completely decimate a community.”

Poet Allen Stevenson said, “I definitely support the movement expressing frustration over the brutality.” He and others have their say on heavy topics at open mic nights.

Musician Dominique Morgan, co-administrator of the Omaha BLM page, said despite differences “our blackness is what unites us. We cant allow division. That’s what will hinder us in the long run – folks trying to appropriate a whole movement.”

Troxclair’s organized and attended rallies, held signs, spoken her mind. She’s drafted and circulated a petition of demands. Now she wants others to assume the mantle.

“When I look back at how long i’ve been doing this and nothing’s changed, I’m ready to pass the baton to others on the front-lines. I feel like my calling is as a poet with a microphone – that’s where I think I can make the most difference.”

 

 

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Dominique Morgan, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until BLM, Morgan’s activism was confined to LGBT rights but he said, “This the first time I’ve seen a movement where my sectionalities as a gay black man meet. These identities that so strongly represent who I am made it doubly important for me to be aware and also to have a voice in what’s happening, especially in a place I call home. I realized I have a stake in this. It made me go harder in advocating for black folks.

“This movement is waking people up.”

Art educator Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru awakened years ago and uses BLM to reach disaffected youth.

“When I work with kids I try to teach them to question things and not to accept everything they’re told – to keep searching for the whole truth and story and needing to move with purpose.”

 

 

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Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru

 

 

She said BLM provides a vehicle to discuss “absent narratives about black life and history,” adding, “There are certain systemic racist powers that prefer it to look like our contributions don’t matter and that hyper showcase negative aspects and issues to deconstruct or denigrate black lives.”

BLM’s emboldened her to speak out. At a recent public hearing she advocated the city budget fund mandatory anti-bias, diversity and mental health training for police.

Gaines Liwaru said BLM must not be just media fodder or a stage for a few. “The movement continues whether televised or not because we have solidarity for a cause. But I see it fizzling out if people don’t do behind-the-scenes rallying to demand the reform within policies. We can’t assume someone else will carry the torch for justice … at hearings or in elections. Rallies won’t mean change or justice – unless we show up to have a say.”

Stevenson said, “I applaud what the movement is doing because people are standing up and making life uncomfortable. The racism discussion is being had. When you have a group feeling suppressed for an extremely long time, something has to give. That frustration and rage needs to go somewhere and that’s where it’s happening.”

Minister Tony Sanders said, “If this emotion is not channeled in the right direction, you will have continued civil unrest or rogue individuals taking the opportunity to further divide us instead of unite us.”

Stevenson said it’s hard remaining calm after a new blue on black incident claims another victim. “Even if there’s an investigation, the determination is there’s no crime and we’re left with nothing except to stew on that frustration,” he said. “Then the next thing happens and the cycle continues. How much of that can you really stand?”

He gets that BLM is a platform for people to vent or debate, but, he said, “once you create this discussion, what do you next? I would like to see something different. It can’t be just like the same old.”

“My hope is our collective voices speaking about the injustices of our people will migrate into calls for action and overdue change,” said Voice Advocacy founder-director Clarice Jackson. “I believe we are seeing that happen now and will see more of this in the future.”

Dominique Morgan said, “There are fires going. We have to fan it to make it grow stronger.”

Some are not waiting for change. Thirty-something social entrepreneur Ean Mikale is running for mayor with the slogan, “Be the change.”

Seventeen-year-old Maurice Jones, vice chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party Black Caucus, is running for the Omaha City Council.

“I hope my candidacy will inspire others my age to enter public life,” said Jones, adding that he wants to amplify the voices of people who go unheard by the political system.

On the streets, Stevenson said blacks face real fears of being profiled. “If you get pulled over by the police, you tell yourself, ‘Survive through this – cooperate.’ But there are people who cooperated and still faced horrible fates. For us to have to teach this extra element is stressful because you have to confront some of your worst fears over something that shouldn’t even be. I think of my sons and I’m like, I need you to live.”

 

Allen Stevenson

 

Rev. Sanders confronts fear head-on in town halls he hosts called S.O.S. (Saving Our Sons).

“The first installment, ‘The Talk,” taught African-American males how to interact with law enforcement should they encounter them,” he said. “No one ever had that conversation with me. I had to learn it the hard way. That’s more common than not.”

Michelle Troxclair bemoans the lengths she must go to to instruct her son on what to say and do should he be detained.

“I’m resentful white mothers don’t have to have these conversations. It’s not a question of cops doing their jobs or good cops versus bad cops, – it is the innate belief some officers have when they enter into an encounter with African-Americans.”

She asserts some officers are prone to overreact because they assume blacks are threats. She acknowledges that’s not the whole story. “All officers are not bad people. I learned that when I coordinated the Michael Brown protest. I had bail money in the glove compartment of my car. Instead, I was met with kindness and great cooperation.”

 

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Tony Sanders

 

Sanders calls for unity from the pulpit and the street.  He’s part of coalitions working with police to remedy alleged discrimination.

“We’re standing, working and moving forward together for there to be a change in policing,” Sanders said. “There has to be more transparency and accountability. We’re working on specific things to make that action and change a measurable, tangible reality. We’re sitting down saying, OK, what can we do to resolve this issue? How do we learn to coexist?

“There will never be equality if there’s a segment of the population not viewed as equal. How do I change that in you?  I can’t legislate that. No policy can make you see me as equal. We have a tendency to be afraid of and treat differently about which we don’t understand. It requires we get together so we learn about each other. Then our fears dissipate and we look at each other from a humane perspective.”

He’s planning table talks to discuss elephants in the room like black on black crime.

Clarice Jackson said, “For some, BLM is solely about the wrongful deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement but as a mother who lost her daughter, Latecia Fox, to gun violence this applies to black on black violence as well. Black on black crime is a huge issue of concern and I feel just as passionately about the injustice of it and the families it hurts as I do when some police officers feel they have the right to be judge, jury and executioners of black people.”

Until action-based change results, expect BLM’s social critique that freedom still hasn’t been fully won to continue.

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