Centering the Margins

Denise Chapman continues to lead the way for creative representation on Omaha’s stages


Denise Chapman has built one of the most versatile and impressive creative resumes in regional theater. A run-down of the organizations she’s worked closely with reads like a dossier of successful examples of intrepid leadership, community engagement and art-led education. From her beginnings at Creighton Undergrad, to ensemble and later co-artistic director with The Witching Hour, founder of B-rated theater, performer and teaching artist with Omaha Community Playhouse, creating dynamic pieces for Great Plains Theater Conference, Denise is a multitasking, highly-driven, creative entrepreneur whose work is reshaping the landscape of Omaha theater and building her legacy in tomorrow’s Black theater history.

Denise’s most recent and biggest venture has been becoming the Associate Director of the Union for Contemporary Art’s Performing Arts Collective, a fully integrated program within the Union’s mission and championed by the Union’s founder, Brigitte McQueen Shew.

“The Performing Arts Collective began with a conversation with Brigitte, she knew they needed a new building and was excited about a theater being part of that expansion– and she wanted me to be a part of that process,” Denise recalls. “When we moved into the new space we also opened a 50-seat theater dedicated to the diversity of the experiences of the African American and African-Diaspora experience. And that is an exciting thing, for it to be on North 24th street, continuing its legacy as a cultural hub in North Omaha.”

Though many Omahans seem to have never learned the history of North 24th street, but the reemergence of creative and growing business economies are a return to its origins as a bustling Jewish and Black neighborhood built out of segregation, before the police riots of the 1960’s. That’s another story.

“The PAC is about creating a theatrical home for artists of color in Omaha it is a space where we are not surprised when we walk into and see brown people on stage. Having a space that is dedicated, that challenges and inspires but also allows for artistic growth within the African American theater community in Omaha.”

Representation onstage has long been a heavy topic of conversation for non-white performers and actors and it’s one that the PAC addresses simply by being. They continue to bring that truth to light with Centering the Margins, Denise’s latest directorial venture, inspired by 365 Women A Year: A Playwriting Project that aims to write women back into the social consciousness and promote and empower female playwrights around the world.

365 Women A Year, is an international, women-led playwriting project that attracted many local women writers who were familiar with the guidelines, including Beaufield Berry-Fisher (me!), Peggy Jones and Kim Louise who were eager to work in the new space.

Centering The Margins, is an evening of short plays all dedicated to the stories of historical Black women, some famous, some not, all underknown for their grand achievements, both locally and internationally. UNO professor Peggy Jones, penned the one-woman show Flo, starring the accomplished TammyRa’ Jackson as Florynce Kennedy, a Kansas-City born attorney, feminist, and civil-rights activist once called “the biggest, loudest and indisputably the rudest mouth on the battleground.” Prolific novelist, playwright and educator Kim Louise brings to life the mythology and history of Queen Nyabinghi, an Ugandan tribe queen who was said to have possessed bodies and led revolutions against oppressive colonizers. Louise’s lyrical angle on this story, UMURAGE, takes place in a HooDoo shop, in modern times. And Berry-Fisher’s Branch & Bone, a surrealistic take on the things passed from Grandmother to Granddaughter, and life’s transitions. These plays although written separately have found many common threads tying them together, those of family, history, and story-telling. All three pieces were being newly written, and will make their premiere at the Union this month, a luxury for playwrights to be able to move so quickly from pen to production.

“Within the Union we really do have a focus on contemporary arts. I was very excited to have three Black women who were writing in the 365 Women program in 2017 and I thought it would be great to hear the pieces and once we heard them, I wanted to produce them.”

The playwrights and Denise held auditions over two evenings, seeing a wide range of new talent, stage veterans, men and women of all ages and types walk into the open process. This alone was a testament to the culture that is at the heart of the Performing Arts Collective, each new face being warmly greeted, gently directed and encouraged to come back. The aspiring actors in the community felt welcome to come and try out their chops at the theater on the corner of 24th and Lake, the panel impressed more and more with each audition.

“It comes back to how we support artists, compensate them, fitting all of that into our mission at the Union.” And the title ‘Centering the Margins’, helps drive that even further home, the brainchild of a casual chat between Denise and writer, Peggy Jones.

“We were thinking of the project title that brings these pieces together and Peggy brought about that we were in the margins and we were tired of that so…we put them in the center,” she remembered with a laugh.

Working with Denise has always been a tremendous privilege because she just gets it. As a director she is an advocate of the playwright being in the room, being open in the process and extremely intuitive with the needs of the text and of the writer. Rehearsals begin with breathing exercises, centering of the actors’ mind and body and then an awakening into their characters. As an actress, she is grounded and dynamic, delivering powerful performances and breathing whole life into her characters. Her one-woman, hour long show, Northside Carnation, premiered to audience accolades at the 2016 Great Plains Theater Conference, with Denise both behind the pen and on the stage. As a writer Denise is a risk-taker, seeing the possibilities from all three disciplines she is able to master the big scope of a piece and foster the nuance as well. That’s why having her at the helm of a theater space like Performing Arts Collective at the Union is so masterful. When a multi-disciplinary artist hooks up with their beloved community to foster change and is backed by an arts organization with radical growth and has access to artistic funding–the possibilities are boundless.

Looking into the future the Performing Arts Collective at the Union for Contemporary Arts will continue to fulfill and advance its mission of creating a place of growth for Black theater artists and furthering community outreach. The PAC will be hosting a summer reading series that explores intersectionality in the Black community, including one of Donna Michele St.Bernards pieces and Spunk, an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s work. They will also be premiering their first fully-produced musical in Kristin Childs, The Bubbly Black Girl Shed Her Chameleon Skin.

Centering the Margins runs February 16th-March 4th Thursday-Saturdays at 7pm

Sundays at 4pm

For tickets visit www.u-ca.org/pac/

*The Union is committed to making the arts accessible to everyone in our community and believes that money should not be a barrier to participation. With this in mind, our Performing Arts Collective follows the radical hospitality ticketing model set forth by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.


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