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Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry

August 20, 2011 11 comments

Two well-connected players on the Omaha entrepreneurial scene and two stalwart figures in efforts to revitalize predominantly African-American North Omaha are Michael Green and Dick Davis. The Omaha natives go way back together and they share a deep understanding of what it will take to turn around a community that lags far behind the rest of the city in terms of income, commerce, jobs, education, housing starts, et cetera.

Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry
©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Growing up in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Michael Green and Dick Davis knew The Smell of Money from the pungent odors of the bustling packing plants and stockyards near the Southside Terrace apartments they lived in. Buddies from age 4, these now middle aged men began life in similar disadvantaged straits, yet each has gone on to make his fortune.

Instead of the old blue collar model they were exposed to as kids, they’ve achieved the Sweet Smell of Success associated with the fresh, squeaky clean halls of corporate office suites. Education got them there. Each man holds at least one post-graduate degree.

Along the way, there have been some detours. As kids they moved with their families to North O, where they became star athletes. They were teammates at Horace Mann Junior High before becoming opponents at rival high schools — Green at Tech and Davis at North. Both earned accolades for their gridiron exploits as running backs. Green, a sprint star in track, was a speed merchant, yet still rugged enough to play tackle, fullback and linebacker. Davis, a two-time unbeaten state wrestling champ, was a bruiser, yet still swift enough to outrun defenders.

The Division I football recruits reunited as teammates at Nebraska in the mid-’60s — excelling in the offensive backfield under head coach Bob Devaney and position coach Mike Corgan. They never saw action at the same time. Green, a halfback his first two years, co-captained the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl championship team at fullback. Davis was in the mold of the classic blocking, short yardage fullback but he could also catch passes out of the backfield. Drafted a year apart by the NFL, they each pursued pro football careers, but not before getting their degrees — Green in economics and marketing and Davis in education. It wasn’t long before each opted to take a different route to success — one that involved brain, not brawn and three-piece-suits, not uniforms or helmets.

They ended up as executives with major Omaha companies. Today each is the owner of his own company. Green is founder, president and chief investment officer of Evergreen Capital Management, Nebraska’s only minority-owned registered investment advisor. Davis is CEO of Davis Cos., a holding company for firms providing insurance brokerage, financial consulting and contractor development services. Green handles hundreds of millions of dollars in managed assets for institutional clients. Davis Cos., with offices in multiple states, generates millions in revenues and is one of Omaha’s fastest growing firms.

The two men’s stories of entrepreneurial success are remarkable given that in the era they came up in there were few African American role models in business. Back in the day, blacks’ best hopes for good paying jobs were with the packing plants, the railroad or in construction. Few blacks made it past high school. One gateway out of the ghetto and into higher education was through athletics, and both Green and Davis were talented enough to earn scholarships to Nebraska. The opportunities and lessons NU afforded them — both in the classroom and on the field — opened up possibilities that otherwise may have eluded them.

Having come so far from such humble beginnings, neither man has lost sight of his people’s struggle. Both are immersed in efforts to address the problems and needs facing inner city African Americans. Green and Davis are leaders in a growing Omaha movement of educated and concerned blacks working together with broad private-public coalitions to make a difference in key quality of life categories. These initiatives are putting in place covenants, strategies, plans, programs and opportunities to help spur economic development, create jobs, provide scholarships and do whatever else is needed to help blacks help themselves.

Some efforts are community-driven, with Green and Davis serving as committee members/chairs. Others are spearheaded by the men themselves. For example, Davis is the driving force behind the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development, the Davis-Chambers Scholarship Endowment and Omaha 20/20, efforts aimed at community betterment, educational opportunities and economic development, respectively. Green has led a minority internship program that guides young black men and women into the financial services field. He helps direct the Ahman Green Foundation for Youth Development, which awards grants to youth organizations and holds a week-long football/academic camp. The foundation’s namesake, Husker legend Ahman Green, is his nephew.

Individually and collectively Green and Davis represent some high aspirations and achievements. They’re trying to give fellow blacks the tools to dream and reach those things for themselves. The two defied the long odds and low expectations society set for them and now actively work to improve the chances and raise the bar for others. The paths forged by these men offer a road to success. They’re putting in place guideposts for new generations to follow in their footsteps.

Recently, Green and Davis sat down with the New Horizons. In separate interviews they discussed their own journey and the road map for setting more blacks on the path to the American Dream.

Michael Green
Responsibility and leadership came early for Michael Green. As the oldest of five kids whose single mother worked outside the house, he was often charged with the task of looking after his younger siblings. His mom, Katherine Green, worked in the Douglas County Hospital kitchens before getting on with the U.S. Postal Service, where she retired after 30-plus years. Sundays meant getting dressed for services and bible school at Salem Baptist Church. He remains in awe of what his mom did to take care of the family.

“My mother raised us kids as a single working mom,” he said. “A very stable person. We didn’t know what poor was. I mean, she provided for us. We didn’t have the best of everything but we always had a place to live and food on the table. She was always home when she wasn’t working. On Saturday mornings she’d always get up and cook us a big breakfast with eggs and pancakes and everything and it conditioned me so much there’s hardly a Saturday morning I don’t crave eggs.”

 

 

Michael Green

 

It was an era of segregation and limited horizons for blacks but families and neighborhoods were tighter and in many ways, Green said, “it was really better times back then. Our parents worked. They provided for us. We didn’t even have the equivalent of cell phones or iPods and stuff like that, but we played, we improvised, we made our own skateboards and soap box derby carts and sling shots. If you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing bad news, as we’d say, would probably beat you home because neighbors knew who you were and knew who your parents were. They’d call and say, ‘Michael’s down the street doing this’ and by the time you got home you’d hear about it.”

His mother, he said, “had one mantra — get an education. I can remember in my childhood saying I wanted to play pro baseball. She said, ‘That’s fine, but make sure you know how to do something else.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. ‘What do you mean? I won’t have to. I’m going to play pro baseball. What else is there?’” Years passed before he knew how firmly her advice sunk in.

“It’s just funny how God works,” he said, “because it wasn’t until I walked across the stage to accept my (college) diploma that conversation popped into the front of my head. It just kind of stuck back there in my subconscious. I had made up my mind I was going to get my degree, so I knew I could do something else.”

Green didn’t get involved in organized athletics until junior high. Pickup games were common at Kountze Park, the YMCA and area schools. He and his kid brother David first flashed their speed at Horace Mann, where gym teacher/athletic coach Bob Rose saw their ability.

“He was a father on the field for many of us,” Green said of Rose. Green’s parents never married and his father was mostly out of the picture.

The Green brothers were not alone making their mark athletically on the north side. The area was then and is now a fertile ground for athletic excellence. A relatively small geographic area produced such standouts as Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Fred Hare. Before the Green brothers there were the Sayers brothers (Gale, Roger and Ron), the Nared boys (Rich and John) and the Boones (Ron and Co.). The same time the Greens were turning heads Dick Davis and his older brother Ricky Davis were doing the same. Leslie Webster starred. Joe Orduna, Phil Wise, Johnny Rodgers, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee and a host of others followed.

Green and his brother David ended up at Tech, rather than at North like his childhood friend Dick Davis, because it was where mom went to school.

“Tech, like a lot of the inner city schools, has a history where a lot of family generations went through that school,” he said. “My family’s a prime example. My mom graduated from Tech. My brother and I did. Cousins. It has a lot of emotional legacy for us Tech grads, primarily because Tech is closed now.”

The feeling runs so deep that Green chairs the Tech High Auditorium Restoration Project that’s raising funds for refurbishing the building’s 2,000-plus seat venue — one that hosted world class performing artists and public figures in its heyday.

“Professionals who have come and looked at it — from acoustics experts to engineers of various kinds — have said it’s in tremendous condition and just needs to be updated and restored,” he said.

Coming out of Tech to play for the “jovial” Devaney was not a hard sell.

“He and I hit it off right away. Very down to earth. He wasn’t like the Lombardi caricature of a coach. More of a father figure,” Green said.

 

Bob Devaney with 1969 co-captains Dana Stephenson and Mike Green, No. 34

 

Something Green didn’t appreciate until years later is how Devaney showed unusual sensitivity for the time by taking into account that except for a few athletes NU had markedly few black students. He said the Old Irishman even expressed interest in enrolling more blacks at Lincoln — athletes or not — in order to create a more comfortable environment for blacks.

Green said admiringly, “He was very concerned about the black experience we would have off the field.” It would be some years yet, he said, before the black population on campus increased appreciably.

When Green played, team captain honors always went to seniors. As a senior in ‘69 he was expecting the quarterback to get the offensive captain’s nod but halfway through fall scrimmage no vote had been taken yet to name anyone. He recalled being upset after “a particularly sloppy scrimmage” in preparation for the season opener against perennial power Southern Cal. “I started yelling at everybody on the sideline. I just went off on ‘em. Then we had a team meeting to elect the captains and somebody nominated me. They all voted and it was overwhelming they wanted me to be captain. I was just shocked.”

The experience taught him something he’s carried with him through life.

“I guess what I learned is that if you’re proactive about the way you go about things you don’t wait for something to happen, you don’t wait for somebody else to do something. You see something you want to do and you figure out how you want to get it done,” he said. Even if that means saying some hard things.

That motivated approach led him to get his degree before he left school for the NFL and to have a Plan B in place in case things didn’t work out with football.

The San Diego Chargers drafted him in the later rounds. He made the cut but this was a time before free agency. Players were property that could be bought, sold, traded with impunity. Seeing veterans traded overnight, their life and the lives of their loved ones disrupted, was a wake up call.

“What was sobering for me was the business end of pro ball where if you weren’t starting you could be living in San Diego today be shipped off to Cleveland tomorrow. That happened to a guy in training camp. You were strictly at the mercy of the team…There was no contract negotiation. You had to be a real star to have some leverage. Your only alternative was to hold out.”

If the NFL didn’t pan out he was going to have other options. He said athletics taught him not only how to compete but “how to grow from defeat,” he said. “It’s not some big epiphany but every single week after a game, win or lose, we’d go into film sessions and get critiqued on what we did right and wrong. Well, that kind of process conditions you to learn from mistakes automatically. It also conditions you to not be afraid to fail. You take a real, unemotional, objective look at what happened.” That same calculated analysis has served him well in life.

When he left the Chargers, his Plan B was already in motion due to some good fortune and foresight. He’d graduated from NU in the spring of ‘70 and was preparing for his shot at the NFL when he and Husker teammate Guy Ingles were invited to participate in a promotion at Omaha National Bank (now US Bank). At the gig Green said he met bank big wig Michael Yanney and “we took a liking to each other.” The next thing Green knew, he was offered a job.

When he saw the writing on the wall after that one season in San Diego, Green came back to Omaha knowing he had a job waiting for him.

“Talk about things happening for a reason,” Green said, still struck by the sequence of events that launched his financial services career.

By the time he worked his way up to the commercial lending area, Green knew banking was a good fit. The work introduced him to small local business owners, whose entrepreneurial spirit planted the seed of a dream in him.

“I was really impressed with these people — that they had their own destinies in their own hands. They weren’t like fabulously wealthy but they were doing quite well. And the thing that attracted me was they were their own boss. That experience made me say, I want to work for myself. It was more of a dream than a plan at that point.”

Harsh reality pushed his dream into action when he realized there was a glass ceiling at the bank for women and people of color.

“I learned after awhile there was a snowball’s chance in hell of a minority becoming a senior officer at the bank,” he said. “The irony is that this same institution paid for me to get my MBA (taking night classes at UNO). They paid for the whole thing and yet they allowed me to walk out the door two years later,” he said, referring to his taking a better offer from Northern Natural Gas Co. (part of Enron).

What convinced him to leave the bank was seeing less qualified individuals promoted or hired ahead of him.

“I was there eight years, working my way up through the organization and I saw people brought into the bank that didn’t have degrees. But they had worked in the agricultural divisions of small banks. Omaha National at that time did a lot of agricultural lending. These guys would be brought in and given titles and positions of authority much higher than mine.”

In some cases, he said, the new hires got the job only because they were the sons of rich cattle ranch owners. They were all white, of course.

“That was the first real dose of corporate racism,” said Green, adding, “I would have stayed had they just treated me like they treated everybody else — because I liked banking.”

Sadly, he said the experience of blacks being passed over for upper management is still common in corporate Omaha, a red flag for a city whose black population has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and smallest middle classes.

“Even today…you don’t have a lot of blacks, women or other minorities reporting to CEOs or to the second in command. And Omaha’s different than a lot of other cities in that,” he said. “For some reason, the practice of inclusion and diversity has not completely permeated the corporate fabric. We haven’t gotten there yet  — even after all these years.

“In a perfect world, if you threw out all the opportunities on the table and everybody had an equal chance to grab at those…and do with them what they would, then Omaha would look very much the same as far as the buildings on the outside. But the makeup of people on the inside would look very different.”

Reversing the dearth of black executives and entrepreneurs and the small black middle class can’t be mandated, he said. “There’s no government legislation that’s going to change that. That’s a social and cultural phenomenon that has to be rectified in the corporate suites.”

In his opinion there’s a disconnect in Omaha between supporting affirmative action with words and implementing it with deeds.

“And regardless of what the corporate leaders in this town say they only need to look at their organizations,” he said.

He said no matter how much lip service is paid to diversity firms will struggle recruiting and retaining people of color as long as they only have white faces at the top. “You tell me you want to welcome me into an inclusive organization,” he said, “but the picture you’re showing me is totally opposite…”

He said racial division lines in Omaha extend to select neighborhoods, country clubs, social groups and high society events that are mostly if not exclusively white.

“When we go into a different or new environment the normal human response is to look for folks who are like us and have had similar experiences to start bonding and getting immersed…” he said. Absent that, you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Omaha pays a heavy price for exclusion. Companies that practice diversity are less likely to locate here, he said, because they don’t see diversity in Omaha’s own executive ranks. And countless black Omahans have left here for more inclusive, more tolerant, more integrated communities that offer more opportunities.

In considering why Omaha’s not on board with diversity he said there “is one phenomenon it might be attributed to. With the exception of Union Pacific, most of the large corporations here — the Mutuals, the First Nationals. ConAgra — grew up here in this environment where there wasn’t that kind of diversity among their corporate brethren.”

After nine years in financial management at Enron Green found the corporate ladder once again only went up so high for minorities. Then the company moved to Houston. Offered a transfer, he instead opted for a buy out. This time, he didn’t have so much a Plan B in mind as he did a dream. To be his own boss. To reach it he struck a deal with Omaha investment banking firm Kirkpatrick Pettis, Smith, Polian Inc., which provided in-kind start-up help in the form of office space, clerical support and computer systems in exchange for half his revenues.

“It worked out pretty good and after three years I went out on my own,” he said.

He formed EverGreen Capital Management in 1989. Dream realized. As his business took off Green’s stature as a community leader grew with his stints on the Douglas County Board and, later, the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, where he oversaw construction of the $300 million Qwest Center. He’s on the board of the Omaha Sports Commission, which under his watch successfully bid for such major amateur sports events, as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

The value-investing strategy he uses to select stocks is consistent with his credo for life. “You don’t get involved with anything that is outside your sphere of intelligence or comprehension. If I don’t understand it, I don’t invest in it. In investing, you just keep it simple.”

That same philosophy applies to his community service, particularly the north Omaha revitalization efforts he’s involved in.

The grassroots African American Empowerment Network he’s a part of has held a series of meetings to craft covenants and strategies that give blacks the means to improve their economic well being and overall quality of life.

“The Empowerment Network has done a good job of bringing together concerned citizens from all over the community to identify issues that if addressed would have a positive impact on the community,” he said. “Instead of complaining about what’s wrong we’re trying to see what we can do to make things better.”

Fundamental to the network is blacks being empowered to take action themselves.
“It’s self-determination,” Green said.

So is the public-private North Omaha Development Project he’s active in. It has major corporate players working in concert with black community leaders on committees that identify needs — from employment to enterprise zones to housing — and formulate action plans for meeting those needs. Unlike previous North O studies-plans, this Chamber-backed initiative has delegated responsibilities, timelines, deadlines and goals. “We have very powerful, committed people leading these committees who have the freedom to explore whatever solutions or make whatever recommendations they deem appropriate,” Green said. “The thing that’s different is that it not only has the support but the involvement of people from the north Omaha community who will be affected by it.”

Why is this concerted, comprehensive effort happening now? “It happens when it happens,” he said. “There are now more educated African Americans than I’ve ever known in this community and that alone equips this community to really find some positive solutions.” It appears a critical mass has been reached to foster change.

Green said finding ways to spur economic development on the north side is crucial and long overdue but will take time: “This whole process will be evolutionary and not revolutionary. This could be a generational endeavor. Do I have hope? Hell, yes.” Macro and micro approaches are needed.

“What we want to do, just like the city and state do, is provide economic incentives for businesses to locate and do business and bring employment to that area of town,” he said.

He said commercial-residential development has flourished everywhere except in Noth O. “It’s the hole in the donut,” he said” He blames negative perceptions that the area is dangerous and its residents unemployable for slowing progress.

“The challenge is to overcome that pervasive fear. It’s nothing more than rooted in racism,” said Green, who doesn’t deny that problems with crime, violence, truancy and unskilled labor exist. “The condition is simply this — poverty, unemployment, undereducation all lead to the kind of social conditions that exist in north Omaha and to stop the wheel from spinning in that direction you’re going to have to put a stake in somewhere. My frustration is that what’s not being explored is the very economic vitality that alleviates those social conditions.”

He challenges corporations to locate plants or offices there to “start creating jobs.” He said, “If you want to deal with crime start giving people the means and reasons not to go out and commit crime. You will give people the means to be consumers and investors.” He points to the rebirth of south Omaha, which not  long ago was a depressed area and is now a vibrant commercial-residential-industrial district. He said the longer Omaha waits to act, North O’s ills will only spread.

Community service runs in the family, as his wife Carolyn Green is director of operations at Girls Inc. The couple’s only child, Angela Green, worked at Girls Inc. and is now a stay-at-home mom raising her two children.

Dick Davis
Hard times in pre-Civil Rights era Omaha did not get the late Mary Davis down and her keep-on-keeping-on attitude served her and her four children well. The single black working mom raised her kids — Ricky, Dicky, Vicky and Micky — to be confident, do-for-yourself individuals who always put family first. Her second oldest, Dick Davis, has taken this approach to unimagined heights — first as an athlete, than as an educator and more recently as a corporate and community leader. Family has played a large part in his success.

His mom worked at packing plants and all kinds of jobs to support the family while dad went AWOL. “My dad was out of the home for the vast majority of our childhood and came back into our lives when I was 34,” he said.

Growing up in south Omaha and then north Omaha Davis moved several times with his family. In some cases the moves were to keep one step ahead of creditors. In other cases, mom was sick and out of work and the kids had to stay with grandma. It was all about “survival,” he said. “You try to find a home where you can.” He and Ricky both worked to help make ends meet. “Friday night was put your money on the table to see how we survive that week,” he said. All that moving around meant he attended four different elementary schools. As he learned first as a student and then as an educator in the inner city this high mobility pattern among disadvantaged kids puts them at risk for underachievement in the classroom.

As a youth he had “his challenges.” He was placed in the “slow” track in school. That affected his self-esteem, especially comparing himself to his big brother, Ricky, who excelled at everything. “I always thought I was a bit thick,” he said.

But his late brother, who died prematurely of pancreatic cancer at age 44, and his mother would not let him get down on himself. “He was unselfish in his commitment to make me as good as I could be,” he said of Ricky. “When you talk about sibling rivalry, there was none. He wanted the best for me.” Davis said he not only admired Ricky but had “strong love and affection” for him.

He recalled how a teacher once criticized in the presence of his mom, listing how he failed to measure up to Ricky. “Unmotivated, lazy, uninspired, dull. Every time he’d say something,” Davis said, “I shrunk in my seat a little bit more. When my mother and I left she said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘He was pretty tough.’ ‘Well, what do you think about yourself?’ I said, ‘I think I’m better than that.’ ‘Well, I think you are, too, son, so don’t worry about what other folks be thinking you gotta be doing. Worry about what you think you gotta be doing.’”

Davis was given the gift of unconditional love by his mother, who told him to not get caught up in comparisons. “She said, ‘I think every kid of mine has their unique talents and gifts, and Dick you just keep doing what you’re doing because your momma still loves you.’ And she had some very good, strong, capable kids.”

By the time he was 16, he said, “we had a stable family living situation.” He began doing better in school. Like his pal Mike Green, Davis’ athletic ability was spotted early onby Bob Rose at Horace Mann. Also by Don Benning, who coached at the north Y before coaching the wrestling team at then-Omaha U., where he developed champions. Benning saw Davis’ potential and worked with him to hone his raw talent. Once at North High Davis was dominant on the mat. For a good work out he’d go to UNO, where Benning had stiff competition for him in All-American George Crenshaw. Dick’s brother, Ricky, wrestled for Benning in college. Ricky also played football on the same teams Marlin Briscoe starred on and ran track at UNO.

Davis said his success in wrestling was the first time he got positive feedback from something he did. It told him, he said, “I am somebody. I’m a winner.” Those positive strokes prompted him “to try and get a little bit better” each day. He said the fact he was surrounded by so many great athletes in The Hood pushed him and others “to want to be better and better.” That ultra competitive environment, he said, may explain why North O owns such a rich history of sports legends.

But it was his attitude that made the difference in going from an average back to an All-American his senior year at North, when he rumbled for more than 10 yards a carry, and in going from a below par student to a high performer. Success, he’s learned, is a function of rigorous self-appraisal and self-motivation. It’s how he managed to make assistant principal at age 24 and principal before he was 30. It’s how he’s gone from one field of endeavor to another.

“It’s mindset, it’s expectations, it’s trying to figure out who you are and trying to do the best you can for who you are and not trying to be somebody else,” he said.
“There are some defining moments in your life. You need to assess who you are, what your abilities are and try to match those up the best you can to the opportunities out there.”

He said it’s vital to “recognize that where you come from doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to end up.” He’s living proof, having come a long way from the projects and his early struggles in school to all his success. He’s done it by looking inward and applying what he’s learned to new situations.

“Knowledge and life experience is highly transferable,” he said. “Just think: I was an art guy, then a pro athlete, then an educator, then an administrator, then a corporate manager, and now an owner. The issue is there still are basic principles no matter what you do in life, so you just live by them.”

Academics and athletics became means to an end but, he said, if it hadn’t been for Nebraska giving him a football scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to afford college. He’s sure he would have found a way to go anyway.

Always an independent thinker, Davis also has a creative side, so much so that he studied art in college, where he added a more practical major in education, which became his career once he was finished with pro football. He said he was “very analytical” in choosing education as something he could be successful at later. To ensure he graduated on time he loaded up on credits each summer.

“I was hugely focused,” he said. “I’ve always been an old soul in a young body. Now I’m finally caught up to myself.”

While at NU he supplied caricatures of Husker coaches for the 1968 football brochure. He was an All Big 8 performer on the field in ‘67, when he was also named to the all-conference and national scholastic squads. He graduated in ‘69.

Drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, he also spent time with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints. His pro career was no great shakes but he did satisfy himself he was “good enough to play at that level.” Like Mike Green, Davis was turned off by the cold, hard reality of seeint veterans who were “gifted athletes,” like ex-Huskers Wayne Meylan and Walt Barnes, ruthlessly cut. He began plotting his post-football life after doing some research and finding that, statistically, he was unlikely to last the minimum five years in the league to qualify for a pension. Even if he did, an NFL vet’s life expectancy then was 55 — the age the pension kicked in.

“The numbers didn’t add up,” he said.

Once he left the game he never looked back. Back home, he began his 10-year career with the Omaha Public Schools, first as an art teacher, than as assistant principal at his alma mater, North, and finally as principal at McMillan Junior High, where he and his mentor, Don Benning, would wrestle on their lunch break to saty in shape. At the time, McMillan was the largest junior high in Nebraska, with some 1,400 kids crammed into a building meant for 1,000. Adding to the tension that comes with overcrowding and the angst that attends adolescence was the school’s transition from a largely white student base to a predominantly black student base. Somehow Davis and his staff made it work.

“We were basically making a difference and you could see the difference. We affected change in terms of student achievement, the school culture, parental involvement. True results,” he said. “It absolutely turned me on to know we were impacting people’s lives.”

He said his success got him thinking, “If I can do this here, why can’t I do it district-wide?” He prepared by earning his master’s from UNO and his doctorate from NU. But when he made known his desire to one day be OPS superintendent he was paternalistically told he was best suited to stay at McMillan. Davis said institutions like OPS historically profile black employees as having “great people skills,” which usually confines them to teaching, principal, human resources, public relations, disciplinary positions but denies them access to the more technical finance-administrative posts required for the superintendent track.

Not seeing an opportunity to go that direction, he left to join Northern Plains Natural Gas Co. (Enron). He held out the possibility of returning but found his niche in business. “Well, life moves forward. I never went back,” he said. Still, he said, “education was the most challenging and rewarding of all the things I’ve done in my life. I’m still a teacher, just by nature, so I approach things in that way. If you look at my business-entrepreneurial career, you will see strong educational components to everything I do, because that’s my thing. Education is my thing.”

At Enron he did risk management and strategic planning but found the proverbial glass ceiling. “No question about that,” he said. But his not rising to the top, he said, had as much to do with his skills set not being the right fit for a company that was basically “nothing but accountants and engineers.” That was especially true when Enron decided “to just do piping,” which in their eyes made expendable several auxiliary companies that began as spinoffs from Northern Plains. Where Enron saw excess, Davis saw “a fabulous opportunity that could be grown.”

He went to the higher-ups to ask if he could take those auxiliary companies off their hands — scott free. To his surprise, he said, he was told yes. Davis got the suits to put it in writing and those businesses now form the core of his Davis Cos.

“Don’t you love America?” said Davis, letting loose his big booming laugh.

The Davis family has been integral to his company’s success. Wife Sharon served as president of Davis Insurance Co., which his brother Ricky founded and his mother and brother Micky joined. His daughter-in-law Lisa Davis is the Davis Cos. controller and soon-to-be CEO. Davis hopes his and his family’s success demonstrates how much is possible when we don’t place limits on ourselves.

“I believe I am an ordinary person doing extraordinary things,” he said.

The Davis story exemplifies a pay-it-forward philosophy that can work on a larger scal. He said the investment he and his wife have made in their children, Dick II and Shaynel, and in other loved ones is helping this next generation realize their dreams and control their destinies. He wants to see more black families move into financial independence and entrepreneurship so they too can invest in their future and in the future of their community.

He feels if he and other successful African Americans can get people to buy into that model than the resulting assets can accrue to the entire black community and pay dividends for generations.

“If by sharing my experiences I can inspire folks who do not believe to believe than I think that’s a good thing. That’s what we should be all about. If you can change the expectations of folks and allow them to dream, you’ve affected life very personally and that makes me feel good. If we can spread the spirit of don’t despair, I think we can move mountains.”

The slogan of the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development he founded in 1980 is, We believe in people. But Davis is about more than slogans. He’s about action. That’s why the foundation — a partnership with OPS — awards grants to youth programs and services. The Davis-Chambers Scholarship, named for Davis family members and for state Sen. Ernie Chambers, has been awarding minority students scholarships since 1989. To date, the public-private fund has given out more than $3 million for students’ higher education. He’s working on plans to grow the fund and the number of scholarships it offers.

 

 

 

 

New North Downtown headquarters for Davis Cos.

 

His Omaha 20/20 initiative is an economic development catalyst aimed at helping blacks achieve full employment in jobs that lead to careers that, in turn, create  entrepreneurs and investors. The alliance partners with many of the same players in the African American Empowerment Network, whose economic and education committees he chairs, and shares the same self-empowering goals. He’s also participating in the North Omaha Development Project and Building Bright Futures. All these initiatives share a common goal of impacting the whole community.

“A rising tide raises all ships — that’s the approach we’re taking.”

Davis said everyone has a role in helping bring about needed change. “My gift is that I can bring people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. I can also give some money, raise some funds, provide some scholarships and spur some economic development. I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘Here’s how I’m stepping up. Tell me how you’re going to step up.’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it.” People are providing expertise and much more.

He said the fact that people from across the entire socioeconomic-racial-religious-political spectrum are stepping up to assume “shared responsibility and accountability is what makes it feel different” than past efforts.

Davis, who mentors youth, said that “in my first conversation with every young person I always say, ‘Do you truly understand that before you take your first step, you need to know what your 10th step is? Because if you don’t know…you’re going to have a problem getting there and you’re going to get there longer and your goal might not be there when you get there.’”

That same deliberate, forward-thinking vision is required, he said, if north Omaha and the black community are to seize this moment and this opportunity in history.

Dick Davis, like his good friend, Mike Green, said he intends to visualize and follow through those steps for success in order “to make a difference.”

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Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

January 23, 2011 7 comments

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

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

 

Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins

 

 

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Q. Smith

Quiana Smith

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Quiana Smith, ©photo by David Wells

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

August 22, 2010 2 comments

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

 

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

 

©photo by David Wells

 

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time


Choir Boy

Image by Shavar Ross via Flickr

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

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

 

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The morning I went to interview then Salem Baptist Church Minister of Music Jay Terrell the first televised news reports of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being delivered.  The uncertainty and fear of those events cast a strange heaviness over our meeting, but we proceeded nonetheless.  Later, I saw him lead the church’s acclaimed gospel choir in rehearsal and in performance.  My story here, which appeared in the Omaha Weekly, tries capturing the charisma and energy and spirit of that choir.  It’s the kind of writing challenge I much enjoy.  I hope reading the piece gives you some joy.

 

Voices of Victory Mass Choir of the Salem Baptist Church CDSalem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

The rafters tremble and the worshipers quake whenever the 110-member Salem Baptist Church mass choir, Voices of Victory, raises their collective voices to the heavens to sing, full-out, a soul-stirring, old-time religion gospel tune like Amazing Grace. Singing with gospel’s characteristic depth of feeling, the nationally renown touring and recording choir produces a big, rich, reverberating sound that, like a cascading wave, sweeps over the sanctuary, sends shivers down the spines of the faithful and spreads the Holy Spirit in every energized air particle in the place.

Voices of Victory is the signature choir among five resident choirs at Salem, 3131 Lake Street, a large, prestigious black church with a rich gospel tradition. Gospel is an integral part of the revival black church, whose energetic services are like choreographed musical dramas. The vibrant music is used as a resounding proclamation of faith and as a crusading tool for ministering to worshipers’ needs. It informs nearly every aspect of the proceedings, creating a mood in some spots and building towards a climax in others. It punctuates the minister’s charismatic spoken words. The music rises and falls, working folks into a fervor one moment and bringing them back down the next. With the robed choir positioned on a stand at the back of the altar, all eyes go to them. Their spirited singing, backed by idiomatic percussion, bass and keyboard, provides the impetus for the congregation’s praise and worship.

Besides being the heart of the black church, gospel is also a well-spring for other musical styles. Its influence can be heard in soul, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. Many of today’s artists — from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston — got their start singing traditional gospel. As the tracks between gospel and commercial music have blended over the years, crossover forms have emerged.

Through all the changes, Salem’s gospel foundation has endured. The church has been a fixture at the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the nation’s most important yearly gathering of gospel artists. Original compositions by past and present Salem music ministers are performed in churches nationwide. Salem choir recordings have garnered wide acclaim, including the 1978 Grammy-award nominated album I Don’t Feel Noways Tired (Savoy Records), which the legendary James Cleveland, often referred to as the father of gospel music, collaborated on.

Now, after a hiatus of some 20 years, Salem has revived its recording activity under Minister of Music Jay Terrell, completing a months-long live recording project that culminated in the October-release of the new CD, They That Wait (2001, Blueberry Records), featuring guest soloist Bruce Parham.

Referring to the CD as “a sleeper,” reviewer Stan North of GospelFlava magazine writes, “Solid material dominates this album, as amazingly, every song grabs attention and merits props for both ministry and musicality. On this version of the classic Jesus Saves (from Jay Terrell, Rudolph Stanfield and Todd Harrison), the power of Parham is complemented by some terrific choir parts. Parham appears on just the one song, and while it is certainly the high point of the project, there truly are several other peaks.”

According to Terrell, a co-producer on They That Wait and a composer-arranger for many of its songs, “Salem has always been at the forefront in gospel music. We’ve had a track record for years. Prior to my coming here 15 years ago, Salem and its music directors were always part of the workshop. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s every Baptist church in America was singing at least one or two songs off the No Ways Tired album. A lot of churches still sing the music that comes out of Salem.”

Formerly known as the Inspirational Choir, Voices is respected for its exuberance and excellence. Omaha Symphonic Chorus director Cina Crisara, who’s worked with the group, said, “I’m a huge fan of theirs. I think it’s probably the most sincere music that happens in this town in terms of their meaning what they say and their saying what they mean. It’s from the heart. They absolutely become that music. It’s a spirited group. They move every audience-congregation that they’re ever in front of. You can’t help, if you’re listening to them, to become completely engaged by them. And the choir members themselves are so warm and friendly, and they work so hard. They’re open to expanding their horizons and learning new things.”

 

 

 

 

President of the Omaha Mass Choir, Jesse R. Sawyer, said Voices stands out from other gospel choirs in town “because they have a style all of their own” and “a harmony that is outstanding. They really do. They have an excellent musical staff. Jay Terrell, their minister of music, is an excellent musician, conductor and teacher. And they’re a very versatile choir. It’s fantastic what that choir can do. They can arise to any occasion.”

Sawyer, who has closely followed Voices and other gospel choirs in the area, said Salem first reached prominence in the 1970s under the late Doretha Wade, whose father J.C. Wade was its longtime pastor. Sawyer said many of today’s leading Omaha gospel singers and musicians, including himself and Terrell, “came under” the Wades’ influence. “We all grew up in this gospel thing together. If you’re part of one choir, you’re part of another choir.”

Excellence is no accident at Salem. Terrell said the church invests heavily in music, maintaining a staff who write, arrange, perform and conduct much of the repertoire the choir presents. “Salem pays a lot of money here for music,” he said. “I would say about 40 percent of the music we do here is original music that I and my staff write. Most other churches are not blessed to have writers on staff.”

He said such an investment brings heavy expectations. “They don’t pay you to mess up. They’re a five-star church and the music needs to be at that level too. You can’t just kind of throw it together. I tell our choir it’s really important for us to work and to perfect our craft. Much is given and much is required.” Choir singer Billy Jordan said the expectations extend beyond singing. “We are really held in such high esteem that we know when we leave these four walls that people watch us. That holds us accountable and keeps us in line.”

Terrell feels the choir derives strength from the volunteers comprising it. He points to members’ “faithfulness, dedication, enthusiasm and spontaneity” and the fact that this choir, which is by-audition only, features the cream of the crop, vocally-speaking, around. “They don’t sound like a regular church choir. They sound like a professional community choir and what that means is you have picked voices, and when you have selected voices…it’s a different sound. And I think this particular choir does have a unique sound.”

He feels that sound results from the choir’s desire “to perfect the art,” adding, “That’s why they’re able to be a signature choir whose songs people sing all over the country.” That desire to get it right, Jordan said, comes in turn from Terrell, whom he describes as “a perfectionist,” adding, “He keeps us at it until we’re feeling what we’re singing. If we don’t feel what we’re singing, than we might as well stay home.” As Terrell said, qualifying for choir membership “isn’t so much, Can you sing?, as it is, Are you dedicated?”

Voices of Victory may indeed be the hardest working choir in town. In addition to singing twice every Sunday, at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. worship services, the ensemble rehearses weekly and performs some 50 concerts annually, including statewide engagements for the Nebraska Arts Council and tour appearances outside the region.

Last summer, Voices performed in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. As a testament to its devotion and discipline, the choir recreates the same glorious sound whether singing at a Sunday morning service before a house-full of worshipers or at a week night rehearsal before mostly empty pews or at a concert hall before gospel devotees and neophytes.

A typical rehearsal finds Terrell working over and over on the smallest details of songs with, at first, sections of his choir and then the entire company until getting it right. “Worship him, you ought a worship him. In B-flat. One more time, go. Worship him, you oughta…Good job. Now, the altos. Sit tall, sit tall. I need some intensity. Right now, from the top. Worship…C’mon, put something into it. Help me out, help me out, that’s all I’m saying. Thank you. Now, sopranos. From the top…pull it, pull it, pull it. You’ve got to worship…One more time. We’ve got to get this for Sunday. C’mon. Whoa! Good job. Have a seat.”

Omaha Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Ernest Richardson marvels at the choir’s “flexibility” in quickly adapting to other musical styles. At, say, a symphony Holiday Fanfare concert, Voices may perform everything from patriotic tunes to hymns to gospel songs to operatic selections and do them with equal aplomb. Making that versatility all the more impressive is the fact the choir learns and performs music using rote memory rather than sheet music.

More than a powerful performing-recording musical ensemble or a means of punching-up Sunday liturgy, the choir is a vital instrument in Salem’s evangelical ministry that seeks to save, embolden or otherwise heal penitents and is a showcase vehicle for representing the church and its mission in the community. Choir members take their music ministry role seriously, too.

As veteran or “seasoned” choir member Betty Hughes said, “Our responsibility as a choir is to help draw the people into the service. People come to church with many different problems. They come looking for refuge or just looking. They may not even know what they’re looking for. We’re not there to put on a show. We’re the vehicle that leads them into the service. The music sets the tone for the service. It sets the background for the minister. That’s why the music always comes just before he comes. And there’s a certain way you have to bring that music in for people to be ready for The Word. Sometimes the music just flows perfectly and goes right into the message and enhances the message and helps drive that fire home to the hearts of people.”

Or, as choir member Michelle McCain put it, “It’s all about ministering to the soul — feeding the soul with what it needs through song.”

Inspiration is the essence of gospel. As McCain said, it’s all about stirring the soul, opening the heart and lightening the load. The music, which developed out of slave chants, and found refinement in the meter hymns, spirituals and call-and-response traditions of the Pentecostal black church, is at its core a call to Christ and an expression of thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

“It’s good news,” Terrell said. “Gospel music means good news. It’s a celebration of life. It’s going to inspire you, it’s going to lift you up, it’s going to bring you joy. It’s a music that will basically give you goose bumps. It’s going to leave you with a smile on your face. And if it doesn’t do all that, then it’s not gospel music.”

Because gospel is vital and life-affirming, it leaves plenty of room for expressiveness and spontaneity. Terrell, who describes himself as “very open and unpredictable,” encourages his choir to move as the spirit moves them. “I would say our choir is really spontaneous because we allow the spirit to come in and take control. We can plan to do a song a certain way but after we get into it and see how it works, and with the Holy Spirit guiding us, that can then take it to a whole other place. I hate a choir that does not grab me, whether vocally, visually or with their delivery. I need all that in the choir. I need all that energy.”

It all starts with feeling. “You can’t sing it, if you don’t feel it,” Hughes said. “As my minister used to tell me, You can’t talk about a place that you haven’t been and you can’t talk about a person you haven’t met. And, so, you can’t sing gospel songs if you don’t feel them.” Billy Jordan said, “If you’re just singing and there’s no feeling there, you’re not ministering — you’re just doing something for show.” That feeling, according to Salem singers, is an individual’s faith-based response to the message in the music. “There’s a message in every song,” McCain said. “I can always go to that music and find a song that’s going to minister to me and to help me make it through whatever it is I’m going through. A song like What A Friend We Have in Jesus comforts me because it lets me know that, even when I feel like I don’t have any friends, I always have a friend in Jesus.”

Choir member Charnella Mims said, “When I’m in a song and I really feel that song, It takes you to a different level and you forget about all the people watching you or sitting around you. It’s just me and my Lord. For me, the tears come, and it’s not tears of sadness — it’s tears of joy, tears of understanding, tears that reinforce the fact I do believe that I am saved.”

Sharon Reed, another choir member, said, “Especially in this time of uncertainty and fear that we’re going through now the music kind of gives us peace inside. When I reflect on a song like Trust in the Lord I’m not fearing what’s going to happen next. I’m not worrying about it. I’m putting my trust in the Lord and I’m going on with my life.”

Reed said when the music becomes a personal expression of faith it resonates with a vigor unlike any other music. “You have to apply it to your own life and then it becomes meaningful to you and then once it’s meaningful to you that feeling is expressed in a sound that touches hearts because it’s already touched your heart.” She said it’s precisely when she and her fellow choir members give in to this heartfelt emotion that the songs develop a life of their own and the singers become vessels for whatever the songs impart.

Before moving people, Terrell said, “you’ve got to get people’s attention.” In a big church like Salem, where a single Sunday service draws 1,300 worshipers of all ages, that means performing a repertoire ranging from old-school gospel to contemporary gospel as a way of trying “to reach not only the grandmothers but the kids.”

He said gospel has undergone “major changes” in recent years with the advent of “crossover” gospel, a movement perhaps best epitomized by Kirk Franklin. “Now we have R&B gospel, jazz gospel, Latino gospel. I mean, choose any aspect of music and they have gospel in that same style now. Personally, I don’t like the flavor of real contemporary gospel music, but it has its place. Here, we do a little bit of everything. And if that means doing some rap or some rhythmic R&Bish songs or going back to some traditional songs for our seasoned people, then we do all of that to get everybody’s attention. We might even do some things where we’re clapping our hands, we’re dancing, we’re doing the whole nine yards.”

Terrell has little doubt his choir and the music it performs moves people. But he cautions his singers not to expect every audience to go into a charismatic fit. “I tell our people, Don’t judge your performance on the crowd’s response because different people respond in different ways. I mean, just because we clap and scream and holler over here doesn’t mean they’ll do the same at a Catholic church, where they’re more likely to sit there and cry on you and be in awe. Some songs will do that, too — they’ll just make you spellbound.”

Meanwhile, Terrell has big plans in store for his showcase choir. An east coast tour is scheduled next summer to New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. and a new CD recording project is in the works. The choir will also be featured at a Salem musical arts seminar next year that will explore, among other art forms, gospel music.

Terrell only wishes more Omaha radio stations would play gospel to provide a larger forum for the music. “There’s a big community of gospel music here. There’s talented singers and groups. But it’s hard to get the word out because, unfortunately, we don’t have gospel radio here. Our CD gets air play across the country, but not here. I wish I could hear it here. That would help.”

 
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