'Memphis' offers Omahans a chance for dialogue about race

Felicia Boswell, center, stars in “Memphis” as Felicia, a black blues singer who captures the eye of white radio disc jockey Huey Calhoun in the 1950s, when such romances were taboo.


Kendra Ingram had been looking for just the right arts event to bring together community groups and spur discussion of issues relevant to the Omaha area.

When she learned the musical “Memphis” was coming to the Orpheum Theater this week, she knew its themes of racial segregation and breaking down barriers in the 1950s were an ideal springboard for dialogue.

Ingram launched her idea — and got an enthusiastic response.

The result is “Memphis Speaks Through Me: A Forum on Culture and Community,” a daylong event that will fill the Holland Performing Arts Center on Wednesday. More than 230 forum participants will see “Memphis” Tuesday night, then take part in dialogue and workshops about diversity and discrimination in the Omaha community.

Ingram said the event is unprecedented for Omaha Performing Arts, where she serves as vice president of programming and education.

“The biggest thing we hope to accomplish is to bring together a real diverse mix of the Omaha community to talk about difficult issues related to race and difference,” Ingram said. “Maybe some people will go away with a different perspective of themselves and others than when they walked in.”

Forums on race relations are not new to Omaha. The City Council, Mayor Hal Daub's office and Omaha's Human Relations Board all addressed the issue in 1998, including town hall-style discussions, and issued recommendations.

The Brown-Black Coalition, formed in 2002, got members of the Hispanic and black populations talking. Starting in 2004, Catholic Charities have sponsored Table Talk, a series of gatherings in private homes and churches to discuss race relations.

Divisions have persisted.

“Memphis,” a best-musical Tony winner, is the story of white 1950s radio disc jockey Huey Calhoun, who wants to play blues and rock, then known as black music, on a white radio station. He also visits the black nightclubs of Memphis and falls for Felicia, a black singer. That stirs trouble on both sides of the racial divide. It also spurs the birth of rock 'n' roll.

The show contains music history and race relations history, oppression, education, dialogue, stereotyping and other elements that a wide range of forum participants can talk about.

Planners said teachers, high school and college students, corporate employees from ConAgra and Wells Fargo, among others, and community members were eager to sign up for the event. The response was far greater than Omaha Performing Arts had hoped for, Ingram said. Every space in the Holland Center will be used during the day.

University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor Doug Paterson said the dialogue is needed in Omaha. It may help those who have resources understand those who need help.

“The extent to which those with privilege do not know the situations of those we want to help is massive,” Paterson said.

Marilyn Sims, vice president of programs for Urban League of Nebraska, agreed that “there's a lot of work to be done,” citing as an example her belief that racial profiling of young males remains a problem in Omaha.

“I can't say we're all harmonious or the playing field is level. Events like this are needed, especially because of our young people.”

The Urban League will bring 20 students to the forum. Ricky Smith, the director of the league's youth programs, said he thinks hearing about the past — the prejudice against black music and the taboo of interracial romance, for instance — will help kids understand what's happening today.

“They'll also get a chance to see others close to their age who are dealing with serious and important issues in a positive way,” he said.

Burke High drama teacher Emily Neve said participating in such a forum may help her students realize what it's like when you're different and you feel like you're on the outskirts. That, in turn, may help eliminate bullying. She's bringing 15 students to the event.

The arts are one of the best ways to teach greater understanding, said Rhea Gill, a Doane College professor who is bringing 30 students to the forum from Crete, Neb. She directs Doane's Arts Are Basic program, in which students learn to dissect the elements of an artwork to understand it.

Seeing “Memphis” and attending the forum will be the peak of her students' intensive three-week course. Gill said there's great interest and excitement in the trip.

“Race relations, the show's music and themes — those things speak to that age group,” she said. “They're looking at this (story) as where the music they listen to came from. And for many this is the first time they've seen a Broadway show. They'll learn about the difference between art and entertainment, the joy when you experience performing arts live.”

Inclusive Communities (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), Urban League of Nebraska, Theatre of the Oppressed, the Anti-Defamation League, the Institute for Holocaust Education and the Latino Center for the Midlands will lead or join in on workshops.

Gill looks forward to presentations from Theatre of the Oppressed, a group that uses role-playing and other games to illustrate oppression of minorities. She hopes she can use some of its methods in her classroom.

Inclusive Communities, a group whose purpose is to confront bigotry and discrimination through education, will lead three interactive sessions. The group's executive director, Beth Riley, said she thinks it's a natural tie-in to the work they do year-round.

Riley said the performing arts are a mirror of what's in our society, making them an ideal vehicle to get people talking.

“We know the show is inspired by actual events, and centered on confronting mainstream media (radio and television),” she said. “That's not so different from the struggles we see today. We've made great strides, but there's still progress to be made.”

Sims of the Urban League said she hopes people at the forum look in the mirror, assess their own beliefs and see how they have affected the community.

“We've made some strides, but in some ways people still judge on outside appearances. This is a great start. What's important is that we continue to have these events, and that there are follow-ups.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

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