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Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors 


Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Phil Kenny resembles the starstruck dentist with songwriting ambitions in the stage classic The Bells are Ringing. Growing up in Omaha, Kenny played the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma! and appeared in a Ralston Community Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to the Les Miserables cast album became a ritual. He wrote plays through college with the ambition of penning a Broadway musical, The technology law attorney still pursues that dream today.

He and collaborator Reston Williams, formerly of The Blue Man group, hope one day to get their own four-years-in-the-making musical on its legs in New York.

Far from a frustrated wannabe, Kenny’s made himself a theater insider co-producing major musicals through his 42nd Club investors group. As unlikely as it sounds, this married, devout Mormon father of seven living in Utah has co-produced some of Broadway’s most successful musicals the past few years, including Anastasia and Sunset Boulevard.

In 2018 he even copped a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical with Once on This Island. On a side note, one of its stars, Merle Dandridge, shares a hometown connection: Both she and Kenny are Papillion LaVista High School graduates, though not classmates.

Odds are Kenny will take home another statuette at the June 7 Tonys since three of the five Best Musical nominees are 42nd Club co-produced shows: Hadestown, Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Kenny and Co. also co-produced King Kong – nominated for three Tonys and receiving a special Tony for puppetry.

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

Meanwhile, the 42nd Club co-production Be More Chill enjoyed breakout off-Broadway success that’s transitioned into a Broadway run still going strong. The show led all nominees for the 2019 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards nominations.

For Kenny, crashing the Broadway world as a producer never occurred to him as a thing until two people suggested he try it.

“A number of friends and I have been able to participate in Broadway musicals by investing in and co-producing, which we didn’t even know was an available option,” Kenny said.

The investing opportunity was first broached by Greg Franklin, a veteran investor and co-producer. Then again by Jay Kuo, himself an attorney who ended up co-writing the Broadway musical Allegiance.

“I told them both no initially,” Kenny said. “They didn’t pressure me at all. But after I called Greg (Franklin) to grab lunch and get answers to my questions, I decided to get into it. I found out Broadway investing is less like throwing money away and a donation, and more like a high risk investment where there actually is the potential to make money – and possibly a lot of money if you pick the right shows. That excited and interested me because I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what people like in a Broadway show.

“My first investment was a play called Living on Love starring opera star Renee Fleming. It ended up closing early and didn’t return any of our investment.  We didn’t have nearly the same type of access to the best shows then as we do now.  We were just excited lead producers were talking to us.”

Then Kenny got more connected.

“When you invest in a Broadway show you frequently get opening night tickets and after-show party passes,” he said. “Those parties are filled with other people who invest $25,000 or more in shows. I made it my business to meet everybody I could.”

With Greg Franklin, he said, “I came up with the idea that if we all grouped together we could then co-produce a musical rather than just be an investor. By co-producing we get a bigger say and might be invited as the table when lead producers are talking about various marketing initiatives or having creative discussions.”

This let’s-put-on-a-show economic model has paid off well enough that the club’s grown to 100 members.

“Most of our investors tend to be outside of New York. The interesting thing about we do is that we have the opportunity to invest in the very best and highest level of commercial theater – shows like Waitress, Matilda and An American in Paris – where the buy-in to invest in big Hollywood projects is cost prohibitive.

“Our members are all accredited investors who’ve invested in Broadway shows in the past. We are very selective about the shows we invest in.”

Scripts are read. Staged readings and workshops viewed. At a minimum, Kenny said, there must be “a great story and memorable music.” “And this isn’t a hard and fast rule,” he added, “but I do like to have some sort of commercial hook in the plot or title.”

 

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Once On This Island

 

He often bets on proven track records, such as an adaptation of a popular movie or a project featuring music that already has a built-in following.

His metrics also include analyzing the slated budget and calculating how many seats must be filled weekly to turn a profit. He prefers shows play in smaller houses of about 1,000 seats where demand exceeds supply, thereby creating extra urgency and buzz.

“Because we’re now at the co-producer level,” he said, “a lot of opportunities now come to us rather than us having to seek them out. Hadestown is one one them, Tootsie is another. A co-producer credit means the lead producer shares producing billing with you if you help with a variety of things, chief among them fundraising by bringing in an investment amount of a certain level – perhaps a half-million or a million dollars.”

Among the perks that go with getting your name above the title is being eligible to win a Tony Award

“Our first nomination was when we co-produced a new musical called The Visit by (John) Kander and (Fred)Ebb – the same composers of Chicago and Cabaret – with a book by Terrence McNally. Our second nominated show was Waitress – a huge commercial success. It’s been the most profitable investment we’ve been a part of. That show was nominated in the same year as Hamilton, so we knew we had zero chance of winning.”

Then came Once on This Island’s upset win. The odds-on favorite was My Fair Lady, which swept all the pre-Tony awards shows.

“Our winning was really a surprise to a lot of people, including us producing partners. I was in the back of the house pacing back and forth with my wife when they read Once on This Island as the winner. That single moment was probably the most exciting of my life – and vie had some pretty exciting moments.I looked at my wife and took her by the hand and we ran down the aisle with our other partners and we got to be up on stage for something we have such great passion for.

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

Another perk: “Each of us was able to bring home our own Tony statuette.”

Kenny’s already joined a select list of Tony winners from Nebraska in Henry Fonda, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz and John Lloyd Young. A second win would put Kenny and Kurtz in select company as multiple winners.

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

“We’re both huge musical theater fans,” he said. “Our whole family’s really into it.”

The couple met when he saw her in the chorus of a Utah community theater production of, you guessed it, a musical, and he complimented her backstage. Two weeks later he got her pone number and asked her out. Ten months later, they were married.

Even though Kenny’s met stars like Matthew Broderick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he said, “A lot of the people I look up to in the Broadway world are people most folks haven’t heard of. They’re lead producers like Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy, They’re bringing incredible art to the stage and taking huge risks. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the people dedicating their lives to the performance aspect of it.”

Kenny concedes he’s “not the normal, every day co-producer” but added, “I’ve found the Broadway community very accepting of me and my faith and our big family.”

He said he doesn’t currently aspire to be a lead producer. “Part of the reason I don’t have that on my bucket list is the fact that I live in Utah. It would be really difficult to launch a whole production from beginning to end not living in New York.”

Among the shows 42nd Club is backing next season is Jagged Little Pill. The musical opens on Broadway in December. It features music from Alanis Morissette’s best-selling album of the same name.

To date, only one show he’s co-produced has made it to Omaha on tour – Waitress – but Anastasia arrives in June 2020.

Visit 42nd.club.

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

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Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  


Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Paul Serrato exudes a New York state of mind acquired from decades of Big Apple living.

From the time the classically-trained jmusician discovered jazz via radio during his Omaha youth, he was drawn to America’s arts center. Excelling on piano, he no sooner graduated Creighton Prep then went East, first to Boston, then New York. He arrived in the era of The Beats, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol. He was there for the British invasion, the bust of the 1970s, the boom of the ’90s and the terror of 9/11.

This journeyman jazz pianist gigged in clubs, recorded his original music and composed-performed for off-off-Broadway shows. He worked various jobs before becoming an English as Second Language instructor.

At 83 he makes no concessions to age. Since returning  to Omaha in 2011, he’s continued performing-creating and indulging his appetite for literature, art, film, theater and dance. He’s still releasing CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label. His latest, “Gotham Nights,” has charted nationally. He plans a new jazz project for 2020.

“Age for me is mostly a number,” says Serrato. “I can’t spend time worrying about how I’m supposed to feel or what I should be doing at my age. My life has focus in music and education. I have degrees in both. In music I find excitement and energy as a pianist as well as composing, producing and promotion.

“Presently, I’m writing vocal music. particularly setting poetry to music. I’ve always composed and produced what I wrote. The pattern emerged in high school when I went into a studio and made my first single – a song with a fellow student on vocal.”

He teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College. He tries “to make it comfortable” for recent arrivals “to adapt to a new culture and a new land.” “Cultural transference or acculturation – that’s an ESL teacher’s job.” His class assignments encourage students to celebrate their own heritage, too.

The bilingual Serrato stays in touch with former students from around the world.

In 2016 he combined his music and education passions  in a project commemorating 9/11. He was teaching that day near ground zero.

“We had to vacate our building. After we were allowed back in a few weeks later I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Chile, all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about that and I saved their essays. Fast forward 15 years later and I asked some of my ESL students in Omaha to read these testimonials set to music I composed at a Gallery 72 event commemorating that tragic day. I was very proud of how that event turned out.”

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Years earlier, New York’s hothouse of creativity found Serrato working with Warhol Factory personalities Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

“Some of that material for these crazy talented trans performers and underground figures was rather risque.”

In jazz circles, Serrato got tight with “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano, whom he recalls “as just full of energy and vitality and ideas.” “He contributed his deep musicianship to my many recording sessions and New York gigs. We enjoyed that vibe that enables the most successful collaborations. That also includes Jack ‘Kako’ Sanchez. They were a percussion team. It’s evident on my record ‘More Than Red.’ which made the national jazz charts.

“I’ll never find another like Julio. It was like (Duke) Ellington with (Billy) Strahorn – the two of us together. We had a tremendous collaboration. He was a Vietnam vet who OD’d on prescription pain killers. It was tragic. So young, so talented, so brilliant. We were like brothers musically and spiritually.”

Serrato still records all his music in New York, which serves as a muse for his work.

He enjoys traveling. He once used a guide book to see Europe on five dollars a day. He followed bull fights in Spain and smuggled back copies of banned books from Paris. A former ESL student from Japan twice arranged for him to do music tours there.

He accepts that few jazz artists ever really make it big.

“For every artist like that,” he says, “there’s a legion of others like myself that don’t have that kind of profile.”

He describes “a tectonic shift in the jazz culture” that’s turned this once popular music into a niche thing.

“In a lot of people’s minds, jazz is not that important because it doesn’t make much money and doesn’t get much media attention, so we work however we can. But it’s always been a struggle, even in the golden era.”

The Life can take a toll.

“I remember as house manager and sometime performer at the Village Gate in the ’60s you’d have to make it through 2 a.m. gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything.”

Gigs are hard to come by here. His music gets labeled “sophisticated” or even “avant-garde.” He insists “Gotham Nights” is accessible with its Latin melodies.

He enjoys encouraging his students to follow their dreams. Having patience in this age of instant gratification is tough but can be rewarding.

“We are living in a culture of fast celebrity and quick social ‘likes’ – and just as quickly forgotten. My advice to any young artist is to keep focused on long-term possibilities. In other words, stick it out for the long-haul. You never can predict when or how your work will pay off. I speak from experience. I got a big payoff a few years ago from HBO for a song I wrote in 1971 they used in ‘Cinema Verite’ with James Gandolfini.”

Until your ship comes, he advises to get busy living and creating.

Visit http://www.paulserrato.com.

Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts


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Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts

 

North Omaha Summer Arts is back for year nine with:

A Gospel Concert in the Park

Saturday, June 15 at Miller Park, 5 to 7:30 p.m., Free

OMAHA, NE––North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) celebrates nearly a decade of free arts programming in 2019. The summer-long festival kicks off its ninth year on Saturday, June 15 with the annual A Gospel Concert in the Park.

Omaha-based-soloists and ensembles. led by the Church of the Resurrection and Trinity Lutheran Church choirs, will raise their voices to the sky in praise. Music of the soul and spirit takes center stage at this grassroots, no-frills, family-friendly gospel concert in Miller Park.

There is no admission charge.

The 5 to 7:30 p.m. concert happens in the southeast section of the park, at approximately 24th and Kansas Avenue, right across from the ball-field.

Whether you get comfy on a blanket or a lawn chair, you are invited to sit back and let the sounds of inspiration wash over you. And if the spirit so moves, then raise your hands or get up and dance. Somebody, though, remember to say amen.

Hot dogs and refreshments (or bring your own picnic dinner).will feed the body along with the soul.

Look for more NOSA events, including writing workshops, art pop-ups and the annual August Arts Crawl.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase


Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

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Abstract Mindz founder Jose Antonio “Tony” Barrales, 25, wants to give young artists what he didn’t have growing up.

The Omaha Central High School graduate started the artist collaborative in 2013, he said, to give underrepresented youth “an opportunity to showcase their talent.”

“There were tons of people in the South Omaha community whose work wasn’t being seen and who weren’t being offered the opportunities others were. I had this idea to create an arts group that would hopefully become a gallery in the future. No one would be rejected based off their art style, age, ethnicity.

“There’s a ten year build-up of passion behind this group. Growing up in traditional Mexican homes trying to pursue art as a career wasn’t something our parents deemed worth pursuing or spending money on.”

In addition to lack of support at home, he and others found inequity at school, where, he said “certain students got opportunities others didn’t,” such as mentoring. “That’s when my passion to create the group was really sparked because I was one of those overlooked kids. I was like, Hey, I’m doing artwork, too – why am I not getting a shot to show what I’ve got. I saw other people who deserved their shot and didn’t get it, and they gave up.”

Barrales wants to affirm others.

“There’s real talent out there, but people feel like they can’;t make it on their own or there’s no one to help them out. i just want people to have a free wall space where they can express who they are and show people what they do.”

Artist Ari Marquez, 28, helps run the collaborative.

“Art was like my escape for expressing my emotions. A lot of our members are the same,” she said. T”hey don’t like to verbalize what they’re feeling or going through. Instead of saying it, they draw or paint or photograph it.

“Sharing their work can help with the healing process from hardships and darkness they have. It’s hopefully an escape to express themselves in ways that maybe the adults in their lives wouldn’t accept. Some of the kids are expressing a scream for help or attention. We create a safe space for them to express without being judged.”

It’s a catalyst for work to be made and seen.

“We’ve learned there’s a whole bunch of kids who have this secret talent no one knows about,” Barrales said.

“They have that passion to do things, but they might be scared to try or don’t know who to talk to about creating opportunities for themselves.”

 

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Barrales knows from experience “it’s really hard establishing yourself in the art community.” You’re bound to be asked, what have you done? and where have you shown?

“Most of our artists do abstract art, graffiti art – things that are more urban. We want them to know that can be marketable. We have artists who’ve gone to local galleries with their portfolios only to be turned away because the professionals said their art style is not what they show in their spaces.

“That’s something we want to change. This urban art is really popping in other cities and we want it to be seen that same way here.”

He’s working on the organization becoming an LLC.

“We’re looking at getting our own dedicated gallery. We want to be based in South Omaha. Most art galleries around here are collectives, We’re shooting for the same thing. We want this to grow to where we have mentoring programs and can support locations in Fremont and Lincoln, so people can have showcases in their own communities.”

Without a space of its own, Abstract Mindz has thus far relied on partnerships to show work in loaned spaces.

“Luckily we’ve found a welcoming space in the Bancroft Street Market. Our first show in 2015 was there. We had 15 artists. Each sold one piece. That motivated us to continue.”

More shows there followed. A Day of the Dead exhibit included performance by the local band.Mariachi Patria Juvenil. The largest and longest running show displayed 50 pieces for a month at Hotel LR.

Bellevue Social Center hosted another exhibit.

South Omaha entrepreneur Macros Mora donated a booth space for the group at the Cinco de Mayo market.

Local playwright Ellen Struve has worked with the group in different ways..

“She’s been sending us to the right people to talk to. She’s been great in helping with our outreach,” Barrales said. “She also presented us a great opportunity to participate in her new play EPIC for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We were one of the groups she did story circles with. We told our own personal stories to help create the backstory for her play.

“The high school-age kids really loved it. She did an activity to open them up to speak. It’s something they usually don’t do. They felt really comfortable in that circle. They are amazed knowing their story is implemented in this play.”

Abstract Mindz members range from high school and college students to college grads working full-time jobs. Their ranks include Shantee Zamora, Sergio Gomez, Salem Munoz and Gerado “Polo” Diaz.

Abstract Mindz presented a solo show of Diaz’s work.

“He was a little more mature in his craft and body of work,” Barrales said, “so we gave him an individual showcase. He’s one of the main artists we have who wants to make this his career.”

Members pay minimal dues and get help with framing, portfolios and marketing.

The group’s planned next show, Visual Sounds, is in need of a venue. Participating artists were asked to create a large piece based on a song of their choice.

“This collaboration of music and visual arts will be our first interactive gallery. As spectators view each artwork they can put on headphones to listen to the correlating song.”

A place and date is in the works.

Follow Abstract Mindz on Facebook.

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

Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity and roots itself in relationships


Part I:

Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity as a people

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this first installment, he discusses the challenges faced by his indigenous displaced people in asserting their identity and being understood.

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Guatemala’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have come north for decades seeking new lives in the United States, Among them, the Maya comprise an indigenous minority group who escaped persecution by the Guatemalan government. Over time, they’ve made lives for themselves around America. A small community of perhaps 1,500 people of Maya origin live In Nebraska – mostly in South Omaha.

Luis Marcos left Guatemala at 16. After living in California and Iowa he settled here in 2005. Two years later the self-taught Marcos helped form the local Maya community center, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It’s where his people practice their traditional culture and support each other in adjusting to life here and getting others to understand their plight as a displaced people.

Everything about the center, located at 4513 South 32nd Street, is steeped in Mayan ways and informed by the experiences that brought its members to America. Even though Marcos is its executive director, he said, “Our process of decision-making is very collective. We are a community.”

His story echoes that of other Mayans.

“I left Guatemala in 1989 due in part to the war and the genocide happening against my people at the time. The state was recruiting young people my age for forced military service where I would be trained to go back and kill my own people. Lack of educational opportunities was another reason I decided to emigrate.”

Where his story diverges from most is his involvement in Maya governmental affairs. Comunidad Maya’s mission is rooted in social, cultural and political concerns.

“We basically desire to keep our identity,” Marcos said, “and be recognized as a displaced indigenous people and respond to the complex needs and aspirations of the Maya community.”

Macros acknowledged getting a fix on his people’s heritage can be elusive for outsiders since the Maya are dispersed in several Central American nations and yet Spanish is not their first language,

“If we’re sitting face to face you would readily assume I am Hispanic or Latino because I look like one. If I tell you I come from Guatemala, it will seem to confirm I am Hispanic or Latino. The reality is we are not. I am lucky to speak Spanish and English fluently but that does not make me Latino or Hispanic or Caucasian. I just speak the languages. I am not of those cultures. I don’t even understand those cultures, as much as I try.

“That becomes a life and death situation for us when it comes to encounters with the health system. Because of the historical discrimination against indigenous peoples and the desire to avoid pain, most likely a Mayan would indicate they speak Spanish and nod to whatever you’re saying, without really understanding what’s happening when it comes to their health.”

His organization bridges those information gaps.

“Any activity we do is done with the objective of educating the health, educational system, legal systems and religious institutions. Recognition of us as a displaced indigenous people is really important. It has taken a lot of education and explaining.”

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Though he said Omaha and other American cities  are “very welcoming,” there’s still ignorance where Maya are concerned. Many people he meets believe the Maya disappeared hundreds of years ago when the great civilization they built was dismantled by conquerers. Though subjugated, the Maya retained their culture.

“It has not been easy,” he said. “We invite people from the wider community to our festivals so we can introduce our music, our dress, our language. That’s when the recognition, welcoming and support come.”

The Maya still have much to learn about this country.

“It hasn’t been easy for us to understand the values of the wider community. There’s been a lot of lessons for us to learn. Where we have shared our experience, our culture, our language, we also have learned from the dominant culture and from other cultures values that give us hope to be a flourishing community. It’s been a painful experience but also joyful at times.”

The intent, he said, is to help others understand “we are one people as defined in international law.”

“We have our own language, story of creation and spiritual sovereignty. We have clearly defined territories. We have our own philosophical understanding, government and way of organizing socially. We are a people and a people in international law has a right to self-determination.”

He’s participated in conventions with otter Maya leaders from around the U.S. and. he said, “We have chosen to identify not as migrants or refugees but as displaced native people. That’s the path we have chosen.”

That path, he said. is “very similar” to the experience of Native Americans.

“The root cause of our suffering as indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery. This series of papal bulls decreed we can’t govern ourselves and we can’t own land. They declared our land ’empty land.’ European nations used the doctrine as a way to justify their invasion, domination and exploitation of the continent.

“In the process of assimilation you either become Christian or you die. That was the experience of the boarding schools native people’s suffered in, where we were forbidden to speak our language.”

Further binding the Maya with Native Americans, he said, is their spiritual beliefs.

“The spirituality of indigenous peoples is the same. It’s earth-based.”

Formal working relationships exist between the Maya and the Omaha tribal council in Nebraska.

Visit pixanixim.org

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

Next week: Part II – Rooted in relationships

___ ___ ___

 

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EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this second and final installment, he describes how the community center he leads and the overall Maya community here rely on relationships to advance their mission of autonomy and integration.

Part II: 

Maya community rooted in relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

If a nonprofit is to thrive, it needs partnerships. That’s especially true for the Omaha nonprofit Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It represents a minority community of indigenous people, the Maya, who have fled persecution in their Central American homelands.

The center serves Mayans who’ve come here from Guatemala and other troubled nations where they have suffered oppression and violence. The Maya were drawn to Nebraska in the late 1980s-early 1990s by meatpacking and manufacturing jobs. South Omaha is home to most of Nebraska’s Mayan population today.  The Maya community center is located there. Much of its programming centers around celebrating and preserving traditional arts and culture. Some of its key activities are based in and supported by relationships with the larger community.

Those relationships include a pastoral care program with the Archdiocese of Omaha  for Catholics of Maya origin, a Maya Community Health Collaborative through the Creighton (University) Medical Students Association and initiatives with the University of Nebraska Center for Reducing Health Disparities, One World Community Health Centers and the Immigrant Legal Center.

“We educate our community and the legal system on our preexisting rights as indigenous peoples to travel our continent, we provide accompaniment to people seeking political asylum and we provide contributions to attorneys,” Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos said.

The Maya are an insistent but “loving, peaceful people,” he said. “What we want is a true understanding of historical events and to start over from a common  understanding of where we have come from.”

The community center marcos leads presents cultural events throughout the year that incorporate traditional art, music and dance. The group also promotes a health initiative and a youth mentoring program.

Maya youth are paired with area college students to expose them to post-secondary opportunities.

“Most of our youth will be first-generation college students,” he said, “and  we want to plant the seed that college is the ultimate goal.”

English language classes are offered at the center.

Maya are often mistaken for Latino-Hispanic. While they share similar features with their Spanish-speaking bretheran, most Maya are not fluent in Spanish. Instead, they have their own native language.

 

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The organization weathered a 2014-2015 crisis that saw some key local leaders detained and deported.

“It was a very difficult experience to recover from,” Marcos said. “We didn’t do much for a long time. We had to regroup. We were successful in securing the release of two of our leaders.”

The center has since resumed a nearly full menu of events and programs. Resiliency in the face of hardship is engrained in its people.

“We stay together. We survive. We’ve survived multiple cycles of violence and genocide and all this stuff, so we stick together no matter what,” Marcos said.

Following that episode, the local Maya community has focused on civil and human rights.

“We work to implement the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. On that we work closely with the Huehuetenango Maya government. Now we have an extension of the Huehuetenango government in the United States. We have a Maya parliament with presence in California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nebraska. We have a council of elders. I am one of them.”

Mayan communities across the U.S. “are connected on many different levels” and well-established by now. “We have come a long way.,” Marcos said. “We have been fortunate to have very harmonious relationships with institutions, faith traditions, nationalities.” This includes a deep relationship with the Catholic Church. Locally, a partnership between the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Huehuetenango, Guatemala sends delegations there.

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim is supported by the Omaha Community foundation and other groups.

“The Latino community has taken us under their wing,” Marcos said by “inviting us to have a presence at the Cinco de Mayo festival.

The local Mexican consulate invited the Maya community to be part of a binational celebration.

A current exhibition of indigenous Mayan textiles at El Museo Latino includes education programs that highlight various aspects of this traditional culture.

All are opportunities to share the Maya story.

“We continue to articulate our presence as a people as opposed to letting ourselves be assimilated into the dominant culture,” Marcos said. “We have been able to tell our stories.”

 

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Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has presented another avenue for sharing the Maya story. Intrigued by the culture and charmed by the people, she became active with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim and then researched a new play based on the lives of Maya and the stories in their ancient sacred text, the Popul Vuh.

“She’s very loved in the community,” Marcos said of Struve. “She’s learned our Maya language. She’s very open-minded to our concerns. We invited her to be a member of our board of directors. We’re really honored to have her in that role.”

EPIC is the name of the play Struve developed with Mayan themes and shorelines. it will be performed May 29-31 at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“This will be a way to empower, highlight the community and the culture,” Marcos said of the production, “and to show that as an indigenous people we can contribute something to the wider society. I think this will be good for others to know us better, which at this time in our history is what we need most.”

For more information on the Maya community center, visit pixanixim.org. For details on the play’s showtimes and venue, visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfes.

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

South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

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

The Lucky Coin: How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment


The Lucky Coin

How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment

 

photos by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June edition of Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-lucky-coin)

 

 

In the aftermath of the 1969 Tet  Offensive, U.S. Marine Pat Peterson found a Vietnamese coin on the ground while serving a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The date on the coin was 1966—the same year he graduated from Holy Name High School in Omaha. That persuaded Peterson to adopt the memento as a personal good luck charm. He carried it with his dog tags.

As the runt of his infantry squad, Peterson was often lowered by his ankles to inspect openings in underground tunnels. If he saw mounds of steaming hot food below, the tunnel was in active use by Viet Cong. Then they would pull him out and toss grenades inside. One time, after the grenades dropped, screaming women and children fled from the other end of the tunnel. That image—and other horrors—seared into his mind.

He battled post-traumatic stress from Vietnam for the rest of his life. But Peterson was a fighter; he endured, even surviving a bout with cancer.

The coin got Peterson safely home in 1970. He punched a hole in it and wore it on his keychain. He threw himself into veterans affairs. Two decades elapsed before he passed the coin to another serviceman going off to fight in the Gulf War.

So began a tradition that saw him give the coin to deploying servicemen—always on the condition they bring it back. They all did.

Homecoming and a Funeral

The last recipient to return with the coin was National Guardsman Cody Rauch, who carried it to Iraq and Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army.

Now, the coin is in the hands of its latest recipient, Air Force officer Dave Shonegal.

Rauch returned the coin to Peterson in 2017. The coin’s owner passed away the following year. Peterson was 70 when he died from a brain hemorrhage in December. Rauch came to pay his respects. At the reception following the funeral at Holy Name Church, he said, “It got back to its rightful owner in time, and that’s what’s important.”

Rauch also recounted his part in the coin story. He was on leave between tours when, by chance, he and his mates ended up at Nifty Bar on the Radial Highway. The neighborhood watering hole was such a regular hangout for Peterson that a brass plate with his name engraved in it is screwed into the bar at his traditional spot.

The two men met as strangers. By the time the gregarious Peterson swapped war stories with Rauch, and everyone had washed down salutary beers and shots, they were buddies. Peterson offered his coin with the usual stipulation, “Bring it back in one piece.”

“Do you mean bring myself back in one piece, or the coin?” Rauch asked Peterson.

“Hopefully both,” Peterson replied.

Rauch accepted.

Supporting Fellow Soldiers

Peterson’s concern for active duty or retired military extended to serving as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander (VFW Post 2503) and as a volunteer services representative at the VA Hospital.

“He was very active in everything veterans,” says Teresa Burks, Peterson’s longtime partner who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for 32 years. “He cared deeply about veterans. He would come to the hospital for a veterans service meeting and stay there for two hours afterward just going around talking to people. ‘Hey, are they treating you right? Anything I can do?’ It was pretty cool.”

Although Teresa and Peterson never married, her son Jed Burks considered him his stepfather. Jed’s children called Peterson “Papa Pat.”

Peterson’s devotion to loved ones was rivaled only by his commitment to fellow vets.

“He would go to the end of the world to especially help another military member,” Jed says. “If he couldn’t help you, he knew enough people to direct you to whatever you needed. It didn’t matter.”

Peterson proudly wore his patriotism—bedecking himself and car with American flag symbols. His father Bernie Peterson was a wounded World War II veteran.

“You knew from way down the road that Pat was coming your way,” recalls Jed, whose oldest daughter may be entering the military in a year.

Peterson’s goodwill went beyond vets.

“He seemed to hone into people who needed help,” Teresa says. “If he knew of someone having trouble paying their utilities, he would give them some money. If somebody asked him for two dollars, he’d give them two dollars even it was his last two dollars. He was very generous.”

When it came to vets, no request was too much.

“He made sure, if anybody had surplus medical equipment, he’d get it to the VA—wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” she says.

Peterson and a fellow Marine veteran, Nick Sloan (who died in 2015), organized an annual Marine Corps birthday party at Nifty that packed the joint. The Nov. 10 bash celebrated the birth of the Marine Corps.

The Coin’s Journey Continues

The coin tradition was another aspect of Peterson’s giving.

“I thought it was a huge rite of passage to send it off with somebody else and then to get it back,” Teresa says. “I thought it was beautiful. He didn’t brag about it or anything. If he heard about somebody going, he would approach them and ask, ‘Can I give this to you as long as you bring it back?’ He felt like it was a good luck charm. But it wasn’t something he kept to himself—he shared it. It was part of his nature to care and share.”

At his standing-room-only funeral Mass, Teresa shared the tale of handing the coin off to those bound for overseas duty and her desire to continue the tradition in his memory. A nephew, Eric Peterson, knew a friend, Dave Shonegal, who was set to leave for Afghanistan in March on his sixth deployment. The nephew connected Shonegal with Teresa.

Dave Shonegal, who currently has coin

Dave Shonegal, the current keeper of the lucky coin

“She asked me if I wanted to keep on the tradition,” Shonegal says, “and I told her, ‘I’m honored to even be asked to do something like this. I’ll gladly accept this, take it on my trip, and bring it back.’

Shonegal is the coin’s seventh recipient in a tradition now spanning multiple generations, different military branches, and various theaters of war.

Teresa entrusted it to Shonegal on Feb. 16 at a going-away party at American Legion Post 374 in Millard.

The legacy he inherited is not lost on him.

“We’re talking 50 years. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this that longstanding, especially getting passed onto strangers,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, but at the same time really cool. A responsibility comes with it. It’s now my responsibility to carry on this tradition. There’s a  little nervousness about that. I don’t want to be the one that loses it after all these years.”

Shonegal says the legacy will continue after his return from deployment.

“It’s something I hope that, even after I give it back, continues for as long as it can—until we’re done deploying or there’s just nobody left to give it to,” he says. “It’s a really neat story and something I really feel needs to be shared as much as possible.”

Teresa agrees.

“I feel honored, absolutely honored,” she says, “and very, very proud. Pat would be proud.”

She says it was important for her to convey to Shonegal what kind of man Peterson was “because he’s carrying a piece of Pat with him.”

“I told him, ‘I want you to know who you’re carrying,’” she says.

The Legacy of a Lucky Coin

Shonegal is sure he and Peterson would have made fast friends.

“He was for the vets, and I can always stand with a guy like that,” Shonegal says. “That’s really where I feel like I’m heading. When I hang up the uniform, my next purpose is to help veterans in many of their situations.”

Jed learned about the coin in the wake of  Peterson’s death, and it only confirmed what he already knew about his stepfather.

“Learning about the coin was awesome,” he says, “but it didn’t change anything for me because that was him. Not one part of the story of the coin surprised me because he always went above and beyond the call of duty to pay it forward to military members.

“For me, it embodied what Pat was about—taking care of people. That good luck coin got him through Vietnam, and that’s why he passed it on—to take care of others. For me, it showed that even when you’re done [serving], you’re not done. You still take care of your brothers and sisters in the military. It’s a family.”

Inspired by Peterson’s example, Jed began practicing mindfulness.

“I’ve changed a lot of things about myself as far as showing more gratitude, telling people I’m proud of them, thanking them for being part of my life—things that Pat did and that I didn’t tell him enough,” Jed says.

He’s also taken a cue from Peterson’s charity.

“There have been multiple times when I thought, I wish I could help, but I can only do this,’” he says. “Well, why not only just do that? Maybe that’s more than enough. To me, it might be small, but to somebody else it might be huge.”

Meanwhile, Teresa is keeping Peterson’s legacy and wishes alive through the coin. After traveling around the world multiple times, surviving dangerous treks, and escaping so many life-and-death firefights, she says there is still plenty of life left in this memento from the Vietnam War.

“It was very important to him to keep it going, so I’m not going to let it go,” Teresa says.

She suspects many of us carry a protective token.   

“Maybe you don’t know what your good luck charm is,” she says. “If you do, hold that piece dear and share it with others.”

An internment for Pat Peterson is pending at Omaha National Cemetery. The date was not confirmed when this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Vietnamese coin

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