Beaufield Berry-Fisher is expecting.
She’s not pregnant, though some of the most creatively productive times of her life have coincided with pregnancy. Berry-Fisher and her husband Rob have three children. She was pregnant with her youngest, Georgia, in 2019 while writing Red Summer, the play about the lynching of Will Brown that had a wildly successful run at the BlueBarn Theatre.
Before that was her son Oscar in 2017, who Berry-Fisher says represented a turning point in her career. That’s when she did some of her best work. During that pregnancy, she wrote the play In The Upper Room in three days and cranked out a novel, “Childhood Friends.”
This time, the baby is figurative. It’s Buffalo Women, the historical, musical dramedy that will premiere at BlueBarn this summer. It’s Agribella Orbis, a theater nonprofit Berry-Fisher is starting with friends. And it’s her vision for the artistic future of Omaha and its other Black creatives.
Berry-Fisher is camped out in the bedroom with Zoom open on her laptop — her favorite place to work. There’s an office in the house, but she doesn’t use it much.
“I try to get as much done from my bed as possible,” she jokes. “I have an office right next to my bedroom. Just don’t — there’s no bed in there.”
Today, working from the bedroom is a necessity. Berry-Fisher is a founder of an education cooperative in Benson called the Village Co-Op, started in 2020.
Village may not have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic. COVID forced Berry-Fisher to slow down. She wasn’t writing, which gave her a chance to get the school off the ground.
“The co-op’s been a dream of mine for five years,” she says. “I wasn’t publicly schooled, and I can’t homeschool. Like, I wanted something in between. And so we started the school out of necessity during COVID. I was like, ‘Oh my God. I actually can make this happen now.’”
Berry-Fisher starts things herself rather than wait until someone else beats her to it. In another life, if it weren’t for her talents as a playwright, she might have been a producer. After all, she was a self-produced writer for years before her plays began to get national attention.
When Berry-Fisher wrote “Red Summer” in 2019, she showed up at the BlueBarn to pitch it to Susan Clement-Toberer with an entire prospective cast in tow. A first in BlueBarn’s 33-year history.
“She came in in true Beaufield Berry style, super prepared, and she had a cast put together,” Clement-Toberer says. “There was no way after hearing her first draft that we would have ever said no.”
It’s that kind of initiative that makes Berry-Fisher a blessing to Omaha’s artistic community. She is a fierce advocate for other artists of color in the city, and she is vocal about the need to compensate artists for their work. She is driven by the desire to dismantle the traditions that have largely shut out women and people of color from theater in Omaha and the world at large.
“There’s been a very structured way about theater, a very ‘sacrifice everything in your life to make this art or you’re not dedicated,’” Berry-Fisher says. “But to dismantle that is to make it possible and more tangible for artists of color, Black artists, Black women and mothers in the arts to work and sustain a life inside of the arts. So it is an undoing of everything we’ve been taught about how theater must be done, which is all centered around white men.”
In community theater, the backbone of performing arts in Omaha, actors usually aren’t paid. Nightly rehearsals are difficult for working-class parents — especially mothers — to accommodate.
“That decolonization comes at the expense of some tradition, but at the literal benefit for the people who I feel need the stage the most,” Berry-Fisher says.
What’s missing in Omaha, she says, is grassroots investment in new playwrights and other theater artists.
It’s a problem she’s dealing with while finishing Buffalo Women, which will premiere at the BlueBarn in May.
Buffalo Women is a country-western musical directed by Nik Whitcomb with songs by young Nebraska composer J. Isaiah Smith. It follows a group of Black frontier women in 1865 — real figures like Stagecoach Mary and Biddy Mason who have been largely forgotten or omitted altogether from the historical record. They will be played by Tiffany White-Welchen and Breanna Carodine, respectively.
Overlooked and under-appreciated stories are hallmarks of Berry-Fisher’s playwriting.
“I love having Beau as a creative partner in Omaha,” Whitcomb says. “And I love that she is really respectfully engaging with Black stories in this way, in a way that I don’t think our city’s seen often. You know, a lot of times, Black artists in Omaha and elsewhere are boxed into certain narratives. And Beau is finding a way to kind of capitalize on telling a new version of those narratives, which I think is very exciting.”
BlueBarn previewed Buffalo Women last summer after a brief workshop process. Workshopping is essentially a trial-and-error performance of a new work. The creative team gets together to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Scenes are rewritten and structure is tweaked.
Buffalo Women has another workshop coming up in January at the BlueBarn. Berry-Fisher wants to raise $20,000 for the full workshop experience: compensating actors, musicians, and herself. She sent letters to the heads of arts organizations in Omaha to ask for assistance.
“And I said, ‘You know how to get the money, and then you pay me the money. But how do I just get you out of the way and get the money,’” she says. “There’s no place in Omaha right now where you can actually develop a new piece of work. And I think that that’s something that’s fundamentally missing.”
Christi Leupold, Berry-Fisher’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator, was helping with fundraising efforts one night when she suggested cutting out the middleman: Why not start a nonprofit?
“I was like, ‘Yes, I want to help you with this, but this is not the last time you’re going to be doing this. I know that. And I know that the Omaha community is looking for something different and new and innovative,’” Leupold says. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we just lay the groundwork?’”
Berry-Fisher was on board.
“And I was like, ‘Damn,’” she says. “The last thing I needed was another thing to do. But it was brilliant.”
Berry-Fisher and Leupold are filing for nonprofit status for Agribella Orbis, an organization they hope will provide a financial framework to recruit and keep artists in Omaha.
“If it were to grow the way I want it to, as a talent draw to bring in young talent to our city,” Leupold says. “So…people stop moving to Kansas City, people stop moving to Chicago to just do theater, because Omaha is very behind both of those markets when it comes to paying artists.”
Leupold and Berry-Fisher are cautiously optimistic about Agribella Orbis. They also believe in signs. Their lawyer, hired through the legal technology website Rocket Lawyer, recognized Berry-Fisher’s name — Beaufield is a hard name to forget, after all. He’d seen a performance of her play In The Upper Room in 2019 at the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver.
“It was just like, holy shit,” Berry-Fisher says. “This randomly assigned dude in the U.S. knows my name and has seen my work, and we’re literally making this nonprofit about the work based on what I’ve experienced with places like the Summit. It was just like a full circle amazing moment.”
After writing In The Upper Room — her best play, she says — Berry-Fisher was convinced she’d never write something so good again.
But writing In The Upper Room also changed the way she thought about playwriting altogether. No longer was she creating from a place of darkness — a signature of the largely white and male theater tradition she’s working so hard to dismantle. She began to see the joy in her work and the payoff.
“I’d rather be writing, right, like pregnant with ideas and full of life instead of embodying … this proximity to death in this sadness and grief of writing,” she says. “You can write with the same depth inside of joy in life.”
Editor’s note: Nik Whitcomb is no longer directing Buffalo Women. The new director is Echelle Childers.