As North Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries returns for the Great Plains Theatre Conference's free PlayFest bill, two community icons take center stage as subject and setting.
En route to making her Omaha Star newspaper an institution in the African-American community, the late publisher Mildred Brown became one herself. Through the advocacy role she and her paper played, Brown intersected with every current affecting black life here from the 1930s on. That makes her an apt prism through which to view a slice of life in North Omaha in the new one-woman play Northside Carnation.
This work of historical fiction written by Omaha theater artist Denise Chapman will premiere Sunday, May 29 at the Elks Lodge, 2420 Lake Street. The private social club just north of the historic Star building was a familiar spot for Brown. It also has resonance for Chapman as two generations of her family have been members. Chapman will portray Brown in the piece.
Directing the 7:30 p.m. production will be Nebraska Theatre Caravan general manger Lara Marsh.
An exhibition of historic North Omaha images will be on display next door at the Carver Bank. A Union for Contemporary Art show featuring work by North Omaha youth will also be on view at the nearby Wanda D. Ewing Gallery, 2520 North 24th Street.
Two nights later another play, Leftovers, by Josh Wilder of Philadelphia, explores the dynamics of an inner city black family in a outdoor production at the site of the home of the late Omaha activist journalist Charles B. Washington. The Tuesday, May 31 performance outside the vacant, soon-to-be-razed house, 2402 North 25th Street, will star locals D. Kevin Williams, Echelle Childers and others. Levy Lee Simon of Los Angeles will direct.
Just as Washington was a surrogate father and mentor to many in North O, Brown was that community's symbolic matriarch.
Chapman says she grew up with "an awareness" of Brown's larger-than-life imprint and of the paper's vital voice in the community but it was only until she researched the play she realized their full impact.
"She was definitely a very important figure. She had a very strong presence in North Omaha and on 24th Street. I was not aware of how strong that presence was and how deep that influence ran. She was really savvy and reserved all of her resources to hold space and to make space for people in her community – fighting for justice. insisting on basic human rights, providing jobs, putting people through school.
"She really was a force that could not be denied. The thing I most admire was her let's-make-it-happen approach and her figuring out how to be a black woman in a very white, male-dominated world."
Brown was one of only a few black female publishers in the nation. Even after her 1989 death, the Star remained a black woman enterprise under her niece, Marguerita Washington, who succeeded her as publisher. Washington ran it until falling ill last year. She died in February. The paper continues printing with a mostly black female editorial and advertising staff.
Chapman's play is set at a pivot point in North O history. The 1969 fatal police shooting of Vivian Strong sparked rioting that destroyed much of North's 24th "Street of Dreams." As civil unrest breaks out, Brown is torn over what to put on the front page of the next edition.
"She's trying her best to find positive things to say even in times of toil," Chapman says. "She speaks out reminders of what's good to help reground and recenter when everything feels like it's upside down. It's this moment in time and it's really about what happens when a community implodes but never fully heals.
"All the parallels between what was going on then and what we see happening now were so strong it felt like a compelling moment in time to tell this story. It's scary and sad but also currently repeating itself. I feel like there are blocks of 24th Street with vacant lots and buildings irectly connected to that last implosion."
During the course of the evening, Chapman has Brown recall her support of the 1950s civil rights group the De Porres Club and a battle it waged for equal job opportunities. Chapman, as Brown, remembers touchstone figures and places from North O's past, including Whitney Young, Preston Love Sr., Charles B. Washington, the Dreamland Ballroom and the once teeming North 24th Street corridor.
"There's a thing she says in the play that questions all the work they did in the '50s and yet in '69 we're still at this place of implosion," Chapman says. "That's the space that the play lives in."
To facilitate this flood of memories Chapman hit upon the device of a fictional young woman with Brown that pivotal night.
"I have imagined a young lady with her this evening Mildred is finalizing the front page of the paper and their conversations take us to different points in time. The piece is really about using her life and her work as a lens and as a way to look at 24th Street and some of the cultural history and struggle the district has gone through."
Chapman has been studying mannerisms of Brown. But she's not as concerned with duplicating the way Brown spoke or walked, for instance, as she is capturing the essence of her impassioned nature.
"Her spirit, her drive, her energy and her tenacity are the things I'm tapping into as an actor to create this version of her. I think you will feel her force when I speak the actual words she said in support of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company boycott. She did not pull punches."
Chapman acknowledges taking on a character who represented so much to so many intimidated her until she found her way into Brown.
"When I first approached this piece I was a little hesitant because she was this strong figure whose work has a strong legacy in the community. I was almost a little afraid to dive in. But during the research and what-if process of sitting with her and in her I found this human being who had really big dreams and passions. But her efforts were never just about her. The work she did was always about uplifting her people and fighting for justice and making pathways for young people towards education and doing better and celebrating every beautiful accomplishment that happened along the way."
Chapman found appealing Brown's policy to not print crime news. "Because of that the Star has kept for us all of these beautiful every day moments of black life – from model families to young people getting their degrees and coming back home for jobs to social clubs. All of these every day kind of reminders that we're just people."
For the complete theater conference schedule, visit https://webapps.mccneb.edu/gptc/.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.