Omaha’s Black Sirens of Song and Spoken Word
Here is a collection of stories I have done on some amazingly gifted black singers and spoken word artists whose work enriches all our lives. Just focusing on women artists in this post.
Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald
Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Kathy Tyree as Ella
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Kathy Tyree as Ella
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.
Camille Metoyer Moten
I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style. This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny. You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog. I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.
Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”
Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.
As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.
She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”
Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.
As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”
Camille Metoyer Moten
The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.
While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.
At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.
“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”
The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”
Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.
The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”
Camille Metoyer Moten
Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.
Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.
Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”
Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”
One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.
Here’s my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.
Camille Metoyer Moten
Faith, Friends and Facebook
The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten
When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
Camille with fellow Omaha singer-actress Jill Anderson, who’s dealing with her own health issues (you can find my story about Jill and her journey on this blog)
Robinlyn Sayers transforms herself into Hattie McDaniel in ‘Hi Hat Hattie’
Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre. The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her. She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer. The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position. I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County. I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater. My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.
Image via Wikipedia
A Woman Under the Influence
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly
After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.
“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”
Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”
That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”
Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”
Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.
“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”
“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”
She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.
Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.
She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.
“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”
Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ’em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”
Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.
After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”
Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.
The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.
As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.
All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.
“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.
It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ’em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”
Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.
Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.'” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”
She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin‘ with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.
As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.
Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”
She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast. If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”
Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair
Spoken word. The word-based performance art ranges the gamut in terms of style and form. But it’s best practitioners usually deliver emotive, intelligent work touching on personal, social, cultural, political themes and featuring a lyrical rhythm and rhyme cadence not unlike that of song. Spoken word events can highlight a range of approaches and subjects that stretch your mind. My soon to appear story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiles one of the Omaha metro area’s most diverse spoken word events, Verbal Gumbo, and the two women who stir its pot, Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair.
Images of WithLove Felicia
Spoken Word Soul Sisters Stir the Verbal Gumbo Pot to Keep it Real and Flavorful
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Soul sister poetesses Michelle Troxclair and Felicia “WithLove” Webster stir the pot to make the spicy mix of Verbal Gumbo, the spoken word series throwing down the third Thursday of every month at House of Loom.
The artists launched the series last fall at the invitation of Loom’s Brent Crampton.
“Felicia and Michelle have brought a consistently diverse, experimental and truthfully honest night of poetry and performance. They’re two very strong women in our community that have been really active in the social progressive and arts scene here,” says Crampton. “They help us to live out our mission here with social issues and culture and bringing people together.”
Gumbo’s beats and hipsters fit right in at Loom, 1012 South 10th Street, with its music-dance cultural blends and crafted cocktails.
The spoken word sets are as diverse as the poets themselves. Some pieces are intensely personal. Others, political. Some call for action, others ask you to think.
The mic’s evenly shared across genders and races, with people standing to deliver everything from private testimonies to slam spits to hip hop rhymes to indignant rants to preacher-like sermons to social justice screeds to inspired songs.
“This is a very open, diverse atmosphere and we’re not in judgment of how people choose to be in the world,” says Webster, an arts educator. “Diversity is how we present ourselves here. We’re ‘edutainers.’ If somebody comes up and shares a poem about abuse, well that gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about it.”
“Disseminating information that is going to charge people to heal, to change, to move, to educate, to motivate is also a part of what we do at Verbal Gumbo,” says Webster. “The issues in the community we come from are very deep. There are a lot of wounds, some of them still open. Having a platform where you are not being judged for what you do or what you say or how you say it allows people to get up there.”
“It’s a healing. Like I have anger management issues and I have to write it and say it, it has to come out. It’s a cleansing experience. And that’s what a lot of people are using this for. People share things on this microphone they wouldn’t share anywhere else. We’re here to provide the platform for people to share and to be transparent and vulnerable,” says Troxclair, a former arts and social services administrator.
Poet Ruth Marimo’s raw story of surviving an abusive relationship, being arrested as an illegal alien and coming out as a lesbian has been embraced there. The Zimbabwe native and mother of two reels about the seemingly contradictory facets of her life in her intense yet whimsical piece, “Who Am I?”
I’m a stranger to my own mother,
A child with no parent,
A sister with no siblings,
An immigrant to this land,
An alien to my own nation.
Who am I?
I’m everything I’m not supposed to be,
A Lesbian who owns no cats,
A literate African,
An educated fool,
A voice that can’t be silenced,
A turbulence that can’t be calmed,
An answer that can’t be found…
Marimo describes how for her Gumbo debut “both Michelle and Felicia really took me in with open arms and under their wing,” adding, “Everyone has just been very supportive.”
Troxclair says Marimo’s “very tragic story that’s had this phenomenal outcome” is among many stories of personal transformation told there.
“Sometimes someone will say something that someone needed to hear. That’s how it works here. We’re all about that,” says Webster.
Judging, formally or informally, has no place at Verbal Gumbo.
Troxclair says, “Part of my housecleaning when I get up there is to say, ‘It’s difficult to come up here and put your soul and your life experience up on this microphone and so if you don’t like what you’re hearing be quiet.’ We do not allow anybody to be criticized belittled or demeaned in any way. That’s not what we’re here for.”
“When somebody’s on the mic, we respect the mic,” Webster likes to say.
“People are comfortable here,” says Troxclair. “They feel loved, respected and honored and part of something bigger than just themselves. People who wouldn’t set foot in a regular church, mosque, temple, whatever, say it’s almost like church because it’s an uplifting and spiritual experience.”
“Verbal Gumbo is my nondenominational church,” says Webster. “We’re speaking life into words, we’re breathing life into the experience. And we make everybody feel like family when they come in. There have been plenty of nights when I have needed to be lifted up. This is like my poetic-spiritual reciprocity. It feeds my soul, it mixes that gumbo pot up, adding spices when I’m needing a little cayenne pepper to get through.”
Cultivating new artists like Marimo is part of the deal.
“We adopt people on a regular basis,” says Troxclair. “I’m very much a mama and so I take in all strays. When people come in here and they share their stories we’re like, ‘You’re family.’ We embrace everybody we come into contact with and we want to make sure everybody feels like this is a home.”
Before her Jan. 17 Gumbo set Marimo said it herself. The author of the self-published memoir Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant says, “It’s something I look forward to every month because it’s such a welcoming space and it’s diverse.”
“The people who come through those doors come from such different backgrounds and are able to share their experiences and it feeds us for a number of reasons,” says Troxclair, “The level of talent is one. It’s always good to see talented people come and do what they do. Some of the things they talk about is another reason. They talk about everything from relationship stuff to political stuff to tragic life experiences. It’s just edifying.”
The styles and themes range from Marimo’s lyrical reflections to Webster’s old-school beatboxing to Developing Crisp’s rap-style hooks to Nathan Scott’s political history lesson to Paula Bell’s black woman identity manifesto that ends with, “So you can take it or you can leave it, I really don’t give a damn.”
The audience of creatives sits at cocktail tables and cabanas or stands at the bar. Onlookers really feeling it lean into a performance. It’s the epitome of Omaha Cool, complete with snapping fingers, knowing, nodding heads, raised drinks and adult conversation .
The women behind Gumbo have a long history celebrating The Word. Webster lays claim to organizing the metro’s first spoken word series at the defunct Dazy Maze in the late 1990s. She then left for Philadelphia, where she and Davina Natanya Stewart formed the spoken word duo Daughters of the Diaspora. Troxclair hails from a family of storytellers and has written and orated since youth. When Webster returned to Omaha a few years ago Troxclair recruited her for the Poetry in Motion series she hosted at Loves Jazz & Arts Center.
The diversity and the vibe of Loom, the pair say, help set Gumbo apart from other spoken word venues and events here.
“It brings people from all walks of life and every community in one spot and everybody enjoys each other and respects each other’s culture,” says Troxclair. “We’re open to all different kinds of audiences and artists.”
Gumbo’s wide-open aesthetic complements Loom’s ultra laid-back scene.
“It’s very chilled, very relaxed,” says Webster. “The antique furniture, the vintage feel, the exposed brick, the music, the artwork, it’s very eclectic. All of that creates the ambience that is totally different from any other place in Omaha. You feel like you’re not in Omaha for one night. It’s a whole other vibration. It’s for grown-ups. There’s this opportunity to be a part of a rich culture of artistic expression.”
That expression may include music, dance, body painting and moving to whatever groove grabs you. Small community vendors are invited to promote their side hustle goods and services. Webster and Troxclair say Gumbo’s also a networking-information forum, ala the black barbershop-salon, where community issues and events get discussed and personal problems get aired and vetted.
“It’s a lifeline,” says Webster.
The next Verbal Gumbo is Feb. 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
For series updates visit http://www.facebook.com/verbalgumbo.
This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter. Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin. Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year. Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.
Bomb Girl Zedeka Poindexter Draws on Family, Food and Angst for her Poetry
©by Leo Adam Biga
For The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.
“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.
But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.
“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”
Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.
“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.
In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.
“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”
She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.
“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”
Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.
She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”
“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”
In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”
Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.
Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.
“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.
“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”
©photo by Eric David Herrera
She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.
“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”
She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.
Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.
“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”
Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.
“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”
She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.
“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”
She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.
Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”
She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.
“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”
She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.
“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”
She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.
“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”
She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”
She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,
“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.
“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”
Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.
View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.
For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.
The Jeanpierres and Family
I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with a remarkable group of women musical artists in Omaha who are all related to each other. Once in a while they gift the community with their individual and collective talents in concert. Their DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church will commemorate Black History Month with performances of arias and spirituals from the classical canon that celebrate the legacy of African-American women in classical music. Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch possess powerful, dramatic soprano voices that will raise the rafters and give you goosebumps. They are all classically-trained. Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna will add her fine vocals as well. As if that’s not enough this musical line, those three generations of performers will be joined by a fourth generation, in the person of Nola’s aunt, Claudette Valentine, who will accompany this family of vocalists on piano. It will be a program you won’t soon forget. Your heart and soul will never be the same. I’ve always thought that if someone with a video camera would record oen of this family’s concerts and post it to YouTube that the video would stand a good chance of going viral because people all over world will be struck by the magic of their music. Nola, Carole and Elyssia deserve the recognition.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC
Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.
The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.
Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She’s the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She’s done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.
Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children’s book.
Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman.
Nola’s sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice’s aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.
This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift from On High they feel called to share.
“As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit,” says Carole. “It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That’s the bottom-line.”
“I’ve always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back,” says Nola.
“Music is love,” Valentine says simply.
Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day.
“We’d have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times,” recalls Carole.
“The piano was the center of everything we did,” Valentine says of growing up.
As each next generation came into the family’s musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola’s music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.
Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, “She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She’d touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I’ve ever known. She can sound like anybody.”
“I picked up everybody’s gift,” says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.
“I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down,” says Nola.
Truthfully, it probably started in the womb,” Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom’s “the best.” Nola and Carole both teach vocal students.
The family’s closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.
“We feel each other,” says Nola. “We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up.”
Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother’s and mother’s voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.
“I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way.”
For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.
DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.
For more information, call 402-281-5396.
When Omaha jazz vocalist Richetta (Lewis) Wilson sings, she can’t help but sound a little like icons Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington and Nancy Wilson, as she worked and forged friendships with these legends when they performed here. Once a featured artist in Omaha’s finest clubs, Richetta naturally drew on the impeccable phrasing and posh stage craft of divas she admired. “I had a little bit of all of ‘em in me because I dealt with all of ‘em,” she said from her showplace of a home. With sophisticated ladies as models, it’s no wonder the petite Wilson has been the epitome of art and class among Omaha song stylists for half-a-century.
“Those were all my favorite people. I loved ‘em,” she said. She “especially” cherishes how she was able “to get to know” them as human beings. She got particularly “close” to Dianah and Ella. “Practically all of ‘em stayed at my house. We’d cook. We had a lot of fun together. Dianah Washington was my idol. From 10 years old I always wanted to sing like her. I did every tune she did. She put so much feeling in her tunes. She was a great person. Ella was a dream. I did her hair. We’d go to work together. She was a honey. I really enjoyed her.”
Getting schooled by old souls was nothing new for Wilson, whose father, Richard Lewis, mother Camille, and uncles and grandpa, all played professionally. Early on her dad saw his little girl’s talent and hunger to perform. She was so enamored with his life in music she’d “wait up on him” to come home from the Trocadero Club, where he played with Cliff Dudley’s band, pumping him for all the details.
“I had to know everything that went on,” she said. “He always sang ‘Laura’ to me because I loved to hear him sing that. When I got to be about 12 he let me go to rehearsals with him down to the Trocadero. I’d be wide-eyed.”
He bought her a baby grand piano for her 7th birthday and saw to it she and her four siblings learned their chops. “He dearly loved music. He instilled it in all of us,” she said, adding that a brother, Victor Lewis, has enjoyed a long career as a jazz drummer-composer. “Everybody had to play.” She balked, declaring, “‘All I want to do is sing.’ She later appreciated the training ”because that’s how you learn to phrase and get your chords down and everything.”
At home she imitated Dianah, crooning into a lamp while her brothers made believe brooms were horns or saxes. Her dad eased her into show biz by having her sing at American Legion halls. “That’s when I took off,” she said. “I told him, ‘This is what I want to do, Daddy. I want to sing.’ I threw my lamp away and picked up the real mike.” When he felt she was ready, he had her audition for bandleader Dudley. Shy Richetta was coaxed to sing “Tenderly.” She recalls finishing the tune and Dudley turning to her dad to declare, “’She’s hired.’ That got me on the circuit,” she said.
Dudley became her mentor. “He made me sing some of everything. I couldn’t just do jazz. I did country western, all the show tunes…so I have a rep where I can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He was a heck of an arranger. He was my foundation, I’ll put it that way. He was stern…I cried a lot, but he taught me everything I know. It was worth it. It got me good jobs and sent me on my way.” She was 17 when she joined Dudley and 19 when she hooked up with Preston Love’s territory band, touring the South on a big yellow bus with a pot belly stove in it. She was the group’s only female. Before her dad let her go he made pianist Roy Givens “promise he’d take care of me.” Givens kept his word.
Life on the road with a 17-piece orchestra was “an experience” she said. They played Jim Crow venues where the band had to enter through the back door and the crowd on the dance floor was separated by a rope — whites on one side, blacks on the other. The band slept on the bus. She got teased by the guys. Nine months away from home with all those crazy cats was enough for her.
She performed many more times with Love and Givens. She regarded them and players like Sonny Firmature and Buddy Graves “my musical family.” With her real family she sang in a trio that had her dad on sax and her mom on piano.
In her heyday she performed at swank local night spots — The Colony Club, Angelo’s, the Carnation Ballroom, Mickey’s, the M & M, the Blue Room — and the best hotels. She headlined a Joslyn jazz festival. Her “great following” went wherever she did. She took gigs in Denver, San Francisco and once had an extended, nine-month engagement at a hip Kansas City club. By then she was married with kids. It meant a weekly routine of getting her house in order before hopping a Wednesday charter for K.C, performing through the weekend there, then flying back to Omaha Sunday night to begin the cycle all over again. Her late husband, Richard Wilson, generally didn’t like her going on the road.
“I was amazed he let me do it that long,” she said. “I had many opportunities to go and do a whole lot more than I did. He said, ‘We’ve got four daughters here and I don’t think you’re going to be going away leaving girls.’ So, I made myself happy with working around here. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the good times we’ve had.”
She only plays the rare gig anymore. There’s still nothing better than blending her sweet voice with the sound of a full, swinging orchestra. She last did that in 2005 at Harrah’s Casino, singing a duet with Omaha native Eugene Booker McDaniels on his classic “Feel Like Making Love” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame awards dinner. She was inducted for her lifetime as a consummate jazz interpreter.
Much of the old gang’s gone now, but she still performs from time to time with Buddy Graves at Touch of Class Lounge. She sings at her annual birthday bash, too. She and her brother Victor Lewis jammed at a recent Jazz on the Green.
“I’ve had an adventurous life with all the things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard to kind of believe. But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”
Hip-hop artist Shannon Marie, whose real name is Shannon Ennis, was in the first group of resident fellows at the Carver Bank in North Omaha’s historic Lake Street district. She grew up a few blocks from the Carver and she’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.