A few years ago two very different Omaha theater companies did a twinning in the same space to help save costs. The Blue Barn Theatre is known for cutting-edge contemporary work. The Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company specializes in classics. During this pairing of convenience each organization remained autonomous. The arrangement and relationship proved satisfactory and in short order the Brigit Saint Brigit found enough support to go its own independent way, producing at a revolving slate of sites with the hope of finding a permanent home. The Blue Barn meanwhile consolidated its strong niche in the community and is well positioned for the future. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the afterglow of the twinning experiment.
A Theater Twinning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The venues comprising Omaha’s theater scene have their own identities, each as recognizable as any character or setting in a play.
The grand dame of them all is the Omaha Community Playhouse. She’s the well-heeled matriarch and life-of-the-party who throws sumptuous bashes in her plush digs. Her costumes and decorations are to-die-for but that glitter is sometimes more show than substance. Love her or loathe her, you must give the old gal her due. Secretly every ham desires to shine on her stage.
The other extreme is represented by the intimate Shelterbelt, a small, plucky poverty row entree that wears its penchant for arresting new work on its sleeve. This classic overachiever does wonders despite limited resources, consistently garnering top Theatre Arts Guild awards. The John Beasley Theater & Workshop is in a category all its own as Omaha’s only dedicated African American dramatic arts forum. While the shows aren’t always as polished as they could be, no one can question their heart or authenticity.
Then there’s the bohemian Blue Barn Theatre, which enters its 20th season as this burg’s undisputed home for cutting edge contemporary work, and the aristocratic Brigit Saint Brigit Company, now in its 16th season of presenting classics from the American and Irish stage. Although they seemingly focus on incompatible ends of the spectrum both are committed to professional quality theater. They also share a decidedly serious approach to everything from the fringe to celebrated standards of the theater canon.
Despite glowing reputations the Blue Barn and BSB have always just struggled by. That comes with the territory but things are tougher in these hard economic times. As a way to hedge their bets this pair of Omaha theater fixtures has joined forces to secure their present and realize their ambitious vision for the future.
Last summer the Blue Barn was in debt. The Old Market-based theater held an Aug. 25, 2007 fundraiser to help get its financial house in order. Supporters turned out in droves. Contributions poured in. The immediate threat was resolved but Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, along with her board, sought a long-term alternative to what she called the theater’s “treadmill” existence.
“We’ve dealt with debt before. But after 19 seasons it was time to either grow into something new or to stop,” she said. “I talked to the board and to the founding members. None of them were willing to come back and get back on the treadmill either. So we made the decision that if things did not change, if we did not change our view of what we could be, that we would close.”
Around this same time BSB contemplated losing its home at the College of Saint Mary, which gave the company until mid-2008 to find new quarters. Financially healthy but with no permanent facility lined up for its 16th season, doubt hung in the air. Artistic director Cathy Kurz and executive director Scott Kurz searched for a new home. Wherever the couple looked they found sky high rent. Nothing fit.
That’s when Clement-Toberer called with a solution to both theaters’ dilemmas. She proposed partnering by sharing residence in the Blue Barn space at 614 South 11th Street. The principals were already friends and colleagues who shared a similar forward-thinking, dream-big mindset. All parties concerned viewed it as a good fit aesthetically, philosophically and financially.
Teaming up, as Scott Kurz noted, only made sense. “It’s a win-win. Everybody comes out ahead,” he said. “I think it’s not just smart in a business sense but as an opportunity to present the entire gamut of theater in one place and to see both companies flourish in a way that supports the people who are creating the art.”
This marriage between two of Omaha’s most respected theaters got a dry run during a combined production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse this past spring. BSB’s Scott Kurz and Amy Kunz starred and the Blue Barn’s Clement-Toberer directed.
With the 2008-09 theater season kicking off this month, the two organizations will soon find out how their partnership is received in a space that, until now, has been associated with the Blue Barn. In recognition of the bookend theaters operating out of the same location the shared collaborative site is now called The Downtown Space, lending it a fresh, neutral name in what is a new beginning for each organization. A new sign out front announces the change.
With the two companies under the same roof, using the same stage, will this union dilute the audience base for one or both or will it rejuvenate things and grow audiences? No one knows.
Such questions are important in light of a long term goal the two theaters have of founding a combined professional repertory company in a new space. It was a goal each theater was independently desiring already. Now that they’re partners it’s only natural they pursue this vision together.
“The vision came out of a place of stagnation,” Clement-Toberer said. “We were no longer willing to produce theater in the treadmill way.”
BSB artistic director Cathy Kurz said, “We’re wanting to establish a repertory company where actors and other artists are paid an honorable wage.”
It’s rare, BSB executive director Scott Kurz said, that theater artists can make a living in Omaha practicing their art. “And that’s what we’ve both been working towards as companies since the very beginning. It’s the reason we started doing it because it’s our career, it’s not just a hobby.”
Despite the theaters being in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they’ve merged. The artists describe their union as “a partnership,” which has to do with cooperation and sharing resources. The theaters are not morphing into some hybrid that negates or obscures their signature brands. They remain artistically and administratively autonomous but in a mutually supportive environment.
Each theater is keeping its own identity, maintaining its own budget and retaining its own board and membership base while alternating shows in their respective schedules and collaborating on select other shows.
They have their own separate contacts for both individual show tickets and season subscriptions. They have their own distinct web sites.
The theaters share administrative, storage, technical space and pool some resources to effect cost savings. To accommodate BSB’s office-costuming needs some physical changes have been made to the site’s back stage area.
Along the way, it’s meant “figuring out the new rhythms” of two theaters working side by side.
Clement-Toberer said the new model brought about by the relationship offers a best of both worlds scenario. “We stay separate entities creating theater under the same roof and creating a vision to grow towards a true repertory company.”
For Scott Kurz, it’s all about freedom and possibility. Each theater, he said, retains “the flexibility to do the things we do best. The cool thing about where we are right now is the future is ours. It’s a blank piece of paper and we can incorporate any way we see fit. The benefits to the community we provide in terms of art and theater are only enhanced by our independence. That independence will be used as a selling point because you’re getting two for the price of one.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Cathy Kurz said.
Combining the seasons of two companies has meant some adjustments — the end result being more theater opportunities for audiences. The BSB is now running each of its productions four weekends instead of three and adding Thursday shows to its usual Friday-Saturday-Sunday mix.
Programmatically, the theaters’ alternating productions offer a diverse lineup of old and new classics.
BSB presents: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Sept. 4-27; The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Feb. 5-28; and The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, April 23-May 30. The Blue Barn presents: The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Oct. 16-Nov. 8; Wit by Margaret Edson, Mar. 19-April 11; and Reefer Madness: The Musical, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, June 18-July 11.
A collaborative holiday production by the two theaters presents Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Nov. 28-Dec. 20. The schedules do reflect a broad sampling of theater.
Clement-Toberer said the partnership is already paying dividends in the overwhelming response being felt from the theaters’ patrons. “It’s a very smart business deal,” said Clement-Toberer, who reports “increased” individual and corporate support. The theaters are exploring joint venture grants.
For the first time in either theater’s history, endowments are being started to provide the kind of long term security they’ve never known before.
As Clement-Toberer said, ticket sales alone “do not keep your doors open. In order to grow and to be able to continue to produce theater you have to have donors.”
People are jumping on the bandwagon, the artists say, because they see two established theater companies taking steps to assure their sustainability.
“If one thing has staved both theater companies to the longevity we’ve had it’s been the reputation for the work we do,” Scott Kurz said. “I think we’re finding more doors are open to us because we’re together. The idea of an artistic venue being smart and responsible enough to pool their resources and move forward is a good indicator to corporations and larger foundations that we’re serious about what we say.”
“There are so many true philanthropists that are behind both theaters and they’ve very excited,” said Cathy Kurz, adding that each company brings “credibility” to the table.
It’s a fact of life that small theaters struggle. But none of these artists was willing to settle anymore for what Clement-Toberer described as a “hand-to-mouth” scramble to just get by. Being on that treadmill was exhausting.
“Money never leaves your mind. It’s like a vacuum and it’s sucking out your creativity,” Cathy Kurz said. “So then the thing that is your vocation becomes less fulfilling.”
“The vision had to change to get us out of that rut and that’s what happened,” Clement-Toberer said. “The vision became broader and more direct into what we wanted to do and become.”
Money is being raised. A new space is being sought. Chances are it will be an existing site that’s renovated for reuse. Whatever happens though, the two theaters will continue moving ahead together towards their vision.
‘Experience has shown that it’s always about moving forward,” Scott Kurz said.
“There’s a unique energy that’s coming together. It’s a renewal. It’s like a rebirth,” Cathy Kurz said. “We’re actively looking at our own future,” Scott Kurz added, and that future, Clement-Toberer said, “is bright.”
“We’re going to produce great theater here this season — both companies — and I think possibly some shows better than we’ve done before because we’ll be collaborating,” Clement-Toberer said. “We are going to grow into the premier regional professional company in the Midwest. I see that happening.”
- Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene (latimes.com)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company Sues to Stay in Building (legaltimes.typepad.com)
Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’
What actor Kelcey Watson did a few years ago in taking on the lead role in a play only eight days before the curtain went up doesn’t quite rise to the 42nd Street legend of a chorus girl replacing the leading lady on opening night. But considering the part and the script were demanding and the world famous playwright would be in attendance Watson pulled off a minor miracle in not only learning his lines but giving a performance that made it appear as if he’d been rehearsing for weeks or months, not days. He performed his feat in service of a Blue Barn Theatre (Omaha, Neb.) production of Six Degrees of Separation and its author John Guare witnessed the actor’s spot-on work and praised him for it. Director Susan Clement-Toberer found herself in the uneviable position of replacing the actor originally cast as Paul slightly more than a week before opening night. And as my story explains she was about to bring in someone from out of town when Watson, who had shined in a Blue Barn staging of Minstrel Show (by Max Sparber) called offering his services. It all worked out better than anyone could have imagined and my story puts the pieces together of how this conspiracy of hearts made it happen with so short a lead time. Watson from time to time does work at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha. This blog contains numerous stories I’ve written about the theater and its namesake, actor John Beasley.
Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On April 11 Omaha actor Kelcey Watson got wind a lead part was coming available with only eight days before the Blue Barn Theatre opened John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Director Susan Clement-Toberer replaced the actor originally cast as Paul — the axis around which the farce revolves. She was about to bring in someone from out-of-town when Watson called. She took it as fate.
Watson had never seen Six Degrees on stage or on screen, much less read the script. He only knew the story’s premise of how a young, homeless black man (Paul) insinuates himself into the lives of white Fifth Avenuers.
Watson got the pivotal part after assuring Clement-Toberer he was cool having to kiss a man on stage and learning a role full of intricate dialog in a week. Oh, by the way, she added, John Guare will be here opening weekend. Gulp. Serious pressure.
She began working with Watson that same day. It was a crash course of blocking and intentions and memorizing and running lines. Lots of notes and discussion. When it would all get to be too much, they’d cat nap on the set’s pair of red vinyl sofas. Then he joined the cast for a 6 to 10 p.m. rehearsal. They did a full run-through the very first night. He followed that same schedule for a week.
Before he knew it, preview night arrived on the 18th. “It was like, whoosh, and I was there…a whirlwind of nicotine and caffeine and play reading,” Watson said. His motivation was “not failing the cast. These people had worked hard for weeks and I just happened to join in. They were really welcoming toward me. They made it kind of easy to fall into the work.” He used whatever nerves he felt to inform his part. He said, “The stakes were so high. I infused that anxiety into the character. The hardest part was getting it word perfect. It was a lot of complex verbiage to kind of eat and take in and digest.” For him “the mountain” was mastering “the thesis speech” in which he delivers a manifesto about schizophrenia, imagination, the human need to connect and Catcher in the Rye. “I knew I had the part down cold if I could do this speech.”
He’s nailed it enough to earn accolades. He couldn’t have done it, he said, without Clement-Toberer, whom he calls “a very gifted and giving director.” Of their rapport, he said, “We really did have this link that was very earnest and very sensual in some ways.” As she puts it, “We became fast and furious buddies in those eight days. I knew pretty quickly I had made the right decision. He was able to memorize his lines so rapidly and to inhabit the character and fill him out.” She said the way he brings Paul to life is “beautifully done.”
She’s never had an actor have to learn so much so fast. “It’s a helluva role and to have to jump into it in an eight day rehearsal period was a pretty intense process, but also exhilarating. I think Kelcey worked really well under those circumstances. He really rose to the occasion.”
Why did he want the part badly enough to put himself through all that, not to mention risk being unprepared with the play’s author looking on?
“I really, really wanted to do this,” the 29-year-old said. “It really was a rare opportunity that something like this comes up.”
On a deeper level, he identified with Paul. Watson calls Paul “a lost soul” and he said the character’s desperate search for acceptance paralleled his own a few years ago. In 2001 the Omaha native, Benson High grad and former ska band lead singer left to follow his acting dream in New York. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. Things didn’t go his way. A bad attitude didn’t help.
“One of the reasons I left New York is because it really did a number on me. It kicked my ass,” he said. “I got kicked out of the Academy. I couldn’t work with people. I was such an asshole. I was trying really to find myself. I didn’t really know who I was.”
It’s why, Watson said, “I connected with Paul immediately, because he’s a loner. He’s trying to find a home.” Like Paul in the play, Watson didn’t have a place of his own in New York. He scrounged to get by, reinventing himself as needed. He said, “I’ve been down. I’ve been out. I’ve had to stay at people’s houses a few weeks here and there.”
The lure of “doing black theater” with John Beasley brought him back to Omaha. He did Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson at the Beasley Theatre. But he ultimately came back because “Omaha’s my home. It’s a place I feel safe at.”
His rediscovery of his love of acting continued at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he did an intensive three-month workshop in 2004. “Going through Steppenwolf I learned ensemble acting,” he said. “This time I was so receptive. I learned how to trust people…to let myself go.” He brought his nuanced approach with him back home.
Omaha is where he’s come of age as an artist and as a man. Besides the comfort of his hometown, there’s the home he’s found, too, in local theater. In his search to connect with people and ideas and emotions, he’s looking “to find that space where you can really express yourself and your feelings and be vulnerable.” The Blue Barn may be that space. “They bring the stakes up higher,” he said.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Six Degrees. The fact things turned out so well confirms he’s doing what he’s supposed to. “It’s amazing to me the cast said things like, ‘You’re our hero’ and ‘Thanks for saving us.’ This is what I love to do,” he said. “I went to school for this stuff. I’m still in debt because of it.”
Clement-Toberer said when told what Watson had to do to ready himself for the part that Guare, who attended the April 20 show, complimented the actor, saying, “It was as if he was inventing it right on the spot.” Watson said that before Guare left the theater, the playwright turned to him and said, admiringly, “Eight days, huh?.” Watson could only smile.
She said Guare explained how he “thinks of characters in colors” but often finds oranges miscast as purples. “He felt with this production the cast of colors was appropriate across the board. He said, ‘Of course, if you can’t find the right color, then you cast Kelcey.’” It’s the kind of comment theater legends are born of.
UPDATE I: I have been noticing a major uptick in views of this Dave Wingert profile and I think at one point I even Googled his name to see if he was in the news, but I didn’t find anything. But the views kept right on aggregating. I just happened to email him Oct. 17 about something totally unrelated to this and he informed me he has been summarily let go by KGOR. Obviously a lot of you out there who listened to him knew about the situation. Apparently the dust-up had to do with an FCC violation – a listener calling-in unloosed a forbidden expletive on air that seems pretty tame to me and my ears, “bullshit,” and Wingy let it through and tried covering his ass just as you or I might do — and after serving a suspension he got canned for his trouble. Please explain how the many obscenities (and I don’t just mean words) of reality TV and shock-jock radio are acceptable, even in prime time, and yet its producers, writers, and hosts only seem to get richer, but a stray “bullshit” said over the radio is grounds for termination? He tells me he was fired without severance, only a goodbye and good luck. He wants to stay put and continue doing his radio gigging in Omaha. He and his agent are busily testing the waters. I hope he gets his wish and perhaps a measure of revenge against the station that dismissed him by killing them in the ratings.
UPDATE II: The story finally made the news, though the reports have him uttering the expletive. Does it really matter? I find it interesting that I broke the story via my blog Monday morning and yet that there was no mention by the Omaha World-Herald or other media of getting a lead on this news from this source and/or from readers of this blog, but I assume that’s precisely what happened.
UPDATE III: After fielding dozens of comments and questions about Wingert’s firing, I am happy to report what some of you probably already know – he’s landed at a new radio home in Omaha, KOOO-FM, 101.9, where he will be the morning host beginning Monday, Jan. 30. The station plays hits from the 1970s through today and targets a 25-54 demographic. Does this mean his loyal listeners from KGOR, many of them upset by the way he was let go, will follow him to the new station and boost its ratings? I wonder how many listeners spurned KGOR in the aftermath of his firing? Oh, well, all water under the bridge now. He’s back in the saddle again and if his fans want to hear him they know where to find him.
In my 52 years in Omaha, Neb. I am aware of only a few entertainers and personalities who can compare with Dave Wingert, a multi-talented gentleman who makes whatever medium he’s working in, whether radio or television or theater or cabaret, appear effortless. Those of us who have been around the block a time or two know from experience that things only appear effortless from the outside looking in, and that that apparent ease is only arrived after tremendous study and work. After admiring Wingert from afar for so many years it was a delight to finally meet him and get to know him a bit. I trust you will like the man I portray in this article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) as much as I do.
Radio DJ-Actor-SingerDave Wingert, In the Spotlight
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The words fearless and morning radio personality don’t usually jive but they do in the case of Clear Channel KGOR 99.9-FM wake-up man Dave Wingert. Far from the madding crowd of shock jocks the veteran broadcaster and stage actor is brave enough to simply be himself on air. Enervating, effusive, empathetic, effeminate.
He’s gallant enough to have accepted the fact his biological father no sooner saw him as a newborn infant than went home and killed himself. His mother laid that messed-up heritage on him when he was a teenager.
“What do you with that?” Wingert asked rhetorically in an interview. What he did was learn all he could about his father, a man who was the love of his mother’s life but who also suffered from manic depression. The revelation of how he died came just as Wingert began pursuing radio and theater at Ohio University. That’s when he discovered his father had worked in those same fields in New York. Weird.
Wingert’s resilient enough to have survived a bullet to the chest in Omaha’s most famous shooting spree until the Van Maur tragedy. In 1977 he and Larry Williams had just begun their cabaret act before a packed house at now defunct Club 89 when Ulysses Cribbs opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun. In a few seconds rampage that seemed to last forever the gunman killed one and injured 26, including Wingert, who luckily had the round deflect off his chest.
Superman went on the air the next day helping a city heal. He did the same after the Van Maur shootings. The earlier experience was a lesson in how precious life is. “Since that day I try not to take that for granted,” he said. A recent stalking incident made him relive some of that chaos. “Mr. Crazy” made veiled threats before being arrested. Wingert never missed a show.
A triple-threat actor/singer/dancer, he’s daring enough to take on demanding roles requiring huge commitments of time and energy. “I’m drawn to material, content,” he said. Recent roles in Six Degrees of Separation, Urinetown and The Goat fit the bill. Blue Barn Theatre artistic director Susan Clement Toberer, who directed him in Six Degrees andGoat, said, “His work ethic is purely professional yet he is very willing to try anything at least once. I love working with actors like Dave who are fearless and willing to jump off a ledge and not worry if they look the fool.”
He’s courageous enough to be an openly gay announcer in Omaha. Not in a flaming, militant way but with a breezy, emotive patter and Jewish motherly demeanor. By addressing, on-air, overtly heterosexual newsman Rich Dennison with, “Oh, honey!,” or female callers with, “Dahling.” He doesn’t use the show as a coming out platform but rather as context for being true to who he is.
“I have come out — if you listen for it. But it comes out in conversation. I haven’t made it a banner,” he said.
Three years ago Wingert showed the courage of his convictions by abandoning his dream for large market radio fame, which had led him from Omaha to the west coast, to venture back here in search of a permanent home to call his own.
More recently, Wingert proved he has the guts to leave a prime gig as a protest. In a show of solidarity with Omaha Community Playhouse artists who’d earlier resigned he and two fellow cast members deserted a production of Moonlight and Magnolias days before its scheduled opening last month. He, Ben Burkholtz and Connie Lee refused to go on in response to a dispute at the theater that led to the temporary departures of Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, who directed Moonlight, and associate Susan Baer Collins. When Wingert and Co. exited, the show was canceled and Billy McGuigan booked as a fill-in.
Beck appreciated the gesture.
“I was terribly surprised and terribly moved. It received a lot of varied reaction around the city. Some people very much horrified actors would do that. Others, understanding what motivated the actors. I know those actors were taking an uncomfortable positiion and so I admire them seeing it through the way they have.”
Some may view what Wingert did as a grandstanding ploy that undermined the theater. Others, as the loyal action of a man guided by integrity. Either way, Wingert didn’t sit idly by while Rome burned.
Prompting this soap opera was a blunt force effort by executive director Tim Schmad and board president Mark Laughlin to bridge a budget shortfall. The pair reportedly told Beck and Collins their duties and salaries would be reduced. Beck and Collins balked and submitted their resignations. Insiders say it was a classic case of bean counters versus artists.
Once the story broke angry theater supporters deluged the Playhouse with calls and emails. Schmad and Laughlin faced the music at an April 16 open forum that announced the restoration of Beck and Collins to their original posts.
Wingert attended the session, which saw people rant against OCP administrators for what many viewed as their insensitivity, but the actor remained silent. Aside from a comment to a television reporter about Schmad’s well-publicized and much-derided lack of arts experience, Wingert let his actions speak for him.
“What’s really behind this is I keep a list of what I want to be here and do here and one is to make a difference, and this made such a huge difference as it played out,” said Wingert. “I think of that. I guess you could call it a protest. It was saying, ‘You can’t treat my friends this way, this is wrong, you can’t do this.’ It was all about people for me,” said Wingert, who’d worked with Beck before.
Wingert at a script reading
What impact the Wingert-led walkout made in causing Playhouse leaders to rethink their decision no one knows. While Beck and Collins are back on the job Moonlight never made it to curtain, unless you count the fully-dressed and lit but empty set that served as backdrop for the rancorous public forum. A fitting symbol for a show that would not go on in a house divided. Wingert equates what happened to a dysfunctional family airing out some issues.
“I think it’s much like a family having a blowup.”
He said “going to the brink” may have been just the “cathartic” awakening the complacent theater, which has lost much of its membership, needed in order to get both the business and art sides on the same page.
“I see this as all really good for the Playhouse, I really do,” said Wingert. “If this is a situation that has been brewing for some time than the place deserves to implode, it needs to get its shit together. Only time will tell.”
He feels the events that led to Moonlight being canceled sent a message to the Playhouse administration.
“It was more important not to do this show for the reasons we didn’t do it than to get on stage,” said Wingert, who refused overtures from management he reconsider his walkout. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to live.”
Still, he rues losing Moonlight. The play looks at a frantic few days in the making of Gone with the Wind. Wingert went after the plum role of screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose biography’s telling of these true-to-life events inspired the stage comedy. There’s discussion of finding new play dates for Moonlight but that may be difficult given the theater’s tight schedule. Wingert can hope though.
“I would love to play that part,” he said. “It’s so rich and fun.” Wingert said he initially had trouble finding Hecht’s voice, the instrument the actor relies on for fixing in on his characters. Once he did, he said, he “nailed the part.” What he hit upon, he said, was a wry, Woody Allenish, New Yorker smarty pants whine. “That voice had never come out of my mouth before.”
He projects a vaugely Jewish vibe, too, as the friendly mensch who says, “let’s check the morning schlep,” or, “love to schmooze with you.”
Filling time between playing what KGOR tags “the super hits of the the ‘60s and ‘70s” he indulges in canned jokes provided by a syndicator of prefab material. Most commercial stations subscribe to such services. The bits, mostly satiric pot shots at headline grabbers like OctaMom, stand on their own but work best when a host can riff on them. If nothing else, Wingert’s an extemporaneous whiz whose decades of live radio and theater experience make improvisation second nature to him.
It’s why he does his show, not from a chair but standing up, moving around, much the way he works on stage.
“I do my show standing up because I think best on my feet. It gives me more more energy.
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright John Guare Talks Shop on Omaha Visit Celebrating His Acclaimed ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Radio Day, ‘Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?’ Live from Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tired of Being Tired Leads to a New Start at the John Beasley Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Boy Nicholas D’Agosto Makes Good on the Start ‘Election’ Gave Him; Nails Small But Showy Part in New Indie Flick ‘Dirty Girl’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Miss Leola Says Goodbye (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre. The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her. She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer. The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position. I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County. I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater. My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly
After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.
“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”
Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”
That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”
Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”
Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.
“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”
“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”
She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.
Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.
She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.
“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”
Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”
Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.
After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”
Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.
The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.
As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.
All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.
“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.
It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ‘em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”
Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.
Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.’” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”
She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin‘ with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.
As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.
Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”
She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast. If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”
- Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar Missing From Howard U. (harlemworldblog.wordpress.com)
- All Original Open Mic Night at Hatties on the 26th (thevalleyvoice.org)
- The Peril of Racial Memories (theroot.com)
- Which black women won an oscar (wiki.answers.com)
- Do to racism what did Hattie McDaniel have to do in 1939 at the academy awards ceremony (wiki.answers.com)
- Playwright John Guare Talks Shop on Omaha Visit Celebrating His Acclaimed ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Night Belongs To Hattie McDaniel [Video] (jezebel.com)
This is a story I did about a play whose subject matter brought me into contact with some women who fulfilled various capacities during wartime service, whether as nurses or USO performers. The women I interviewed are sort of the real-life equivalents of some of the characters in the play.
The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I hope you find the words of the women, fictional and nonfictional alike, as gripping as I did.
Lauro Play ‘A Piece of My Heart‘ Dramatizes the Role of Women in War Zones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As U.S. military action in Iraq unfolds, old war stories take on new capital. With women now on the front lines, their wartime roles gain added import. While their presence on the battlefield is new, American women have participated on the sidelines of war — as nurses, clerks, reporters, missionaries, performers — for generations, only their legacy seems lost in the heat of combat.
But since the 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C., a bronze sculpture by artist Glenna Goodacre of three fatigue-wearing females comforting an injured soldier, women have begun writing and talking about their wartime service as never before, the fruits of which can be seen in the acclaimed play, A Piece of My Heart, running now through April 27 at the Blue Barn Theatre.
Playwright Shirley Lauro based the characters of her impressionistic drama on interviews with real-life veterans, including those profiled in a book of the same name by Keith Walker. Lauro uses fast-moving vignettes to tell the larger story of American women in Vietnam. The six women characters represent varied backgrounds, roles and attitudes. There are military nurses, from stalwart Martha to sweet young Sissy to flower child Leeann. There’s the aristocratic Red Cross “donut dolly” Whitney. There’s the hard-ass intelligence officer Steele. And the playful, soulful USO trouper MaryJo. Whether sewing sutures, spreading cheer or performing on stage, they are angels of mercy for soldiers trapped in a hellish quagmire.
The women cope with laughter, tears, booze, pot. Some erect “the wall.” Others fool around. The nurses regret not knowing what happens to the boys whose bodies they patch up and spirits they boost. They fear no matter how many lives they save or how many smiles they elicit, they never do enough. Then, when their wartime service is over, they return home as forgotten as their G.I. brothers, wanting to put the war behind them but finding they can’t.
Even though each character tells her own story, they really all speak in one voice about the shared female experience of being thrust into the surreal, carnage of war. Regardless of where they hailed from or did their tour or what job they held or beliefs they espoused, they were all volunteers who elected to go there.
“The common ground we had, which is why I felt so strongly about honoring these women, was that not a single one of us had to be there,” said Diane Carlson Evans, a veteran in-country Army nurse who spearheaded the creation of the women’s memorial. “We were not drafted. We were not conscripted. Nobody put a gun to our head and said, Go to Vietnam and do your duty. We could have stayed home, got our master’s degree, had our kids, played golf and tennis and had a good life. But every one of us — Red Cross, military, USO — said, I want to do my part, and did during a very unpopular war. We didn’t have a lot of support from home, from peers or from our country…We just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Evans, who made remarks before the Blue Barn’s April 5 show, used her appearance to givr tribute to “the diverse contributions women made” in the war. “I am proud of the women I worked with and how hard I saw them work and how they asked for nothing in return. It was always, Do I need to give blood? Or, Can I work an extra shift? It was that always going above and beyond and never complaining because we had a job to do. I saw how these women saved lives at the risk of their own. And I just believe so strongly they deserve credit from a grateful nation. A grateful nation that needs to acknowledge they participated in a really extraordinary way.”
The story of women’s wartime service is, for many of us, unknown. “I’m just so glad this story’s being told because I lived through Vietnam and I didn’t hear nothing about the nurses…not a thing,” said Omaha actress Phyllis Mitchell-Butler, who portrays Steele. “The nurses went through as much as any of the soldiers. They saw the devastation first-hand. I’m just amazed how long they kept themselves together with all that inside them. All they had was what was inside and they had to keep that. They couldn’t let it go.”
In her role as state commander of the Nebraska Council of Vietnam Veterans of America, Dottie Barickman, who served at Offutt Air Force Base in the Vietnam era, has come to appreciate what women did in that war.
“I’ve never walked in their shoes, but I’ve heard their stories and I understand what they mean when they say they sacrificed their youth and their emotions. They were the nurturing ones for a lot of young boys hurting over there. Combat soldiers always mention to me that if they ever saw a nurse it was like Welcome Home, and that is what these women were…a touch of home that took them away from that war zone for a few hours.”
The stories in A Piece of My Heart echo those of thousands of women that served in Nam or nearby environs. Diane Carlson Evans is one of them.
“I was 21…right out of college…and I was assigned first to the 36th Evacuation Hospital in a beautiful place (Vung Tau) right on the South China Sea beach. I didn’t feel the war there as much as I did when I was transferred up north…to Pleiku, in the central highlands jungle near the Cambodian border,” Evans said. “I was with Two Corps supporting the 4th Infantry Division (in the 71st Evacuation Hospital).
“The war was very different there. It was the spring of ‘69…a pretty bad time. The 4th Infantry had something like a 75 percent casualty rate. I was made head nurse in a post-surgical unit where the patients were very sick. We had them on respirators and blood transfusions and chest tubes. It was very hard to see so many young men with such horrific wounds. We had to deal with patients dying on us and, in triage, we had to deal with setting aside dying patients to attend to the most salvageable ones. We blamed ourselves. We carried the guilt. And we were young…and so on our little time off we filled our days in human ways, whether it was playing volleyball or getting drunk or doing drugs or going on dates or falling in love.”
Playwright Shirley Lauro
In addition to the stress of dealing with crushing trauma patient loads, the threat of death was ever near. “Pleiku was not a safe area. We were under attack many times. We got to know the difference between the outgoing artillery and the incoming rockets and mortars that would fly in and hit our hospital, sending shrapnel everywhere. We were not only worrying about our patients — we had concern for our own safety,” said Evans, a Helena, Montana resident.
Since getting the Vietnam women’s memorial installed, Evans, whose efforts to make it a reality took 10 years, has become THE champion for female volunteers in that conflict, focusing her efforts on “encouraging women who served to share their stories…so we can understand what the memorial is all about.”
She helped start a storytelling program at the memorial site and on the web that invites women to speak their piece. She said telling it like it was is “very painful. It takes a lot of courage for women to admit how scared they were some young soldier was going to die on their watch or how they were so tired they could have made a mistake or how they were sexually assaulted or harassed. All of this anger and anguish comes out in the play.”
An admirer of the Lauro work, which had its debut in Philadelphia and has been performed across the country, Evans feels it gets to the heart of women’s Vietnam odyssey. “It does not show our service through rose-colored glasses — that we were all these heroic young women who went off to save the world and wore white halos — but instead it shows we were young women who went to Vietnam and did the very best we could amid all this crazy stuff going on. That’s what makes it very real, very authentic.”
As the war in Iraq rages on the director of the Blue Barn show, Susan Clement-Toberer, feels the conflict lends the play added urgency.
“Knowing that it’s happening now it brings it all very close and deepens everything we’re doing,” she said. “It’s real, just like the stories of these women are all real…taken from a myriad of interviews with different women.”
Cast member Erika Hall, who plays the USO entertainer, said, “You know, before it was important to do this piece, and now like it’s necessary.” Most of the cast and crew are too young to remember the war and therefore have immersed themselves in it via books, articles and tapes and by talking to actual veterans.
“What an interesting learning experience this is for me,” Hall said. “I was born after Vietnam and, you know, you read about it in school but you don’t really understand what they (vets) went through.” In her own research Clement-Toberer said she was surprised to learn “the extremes the women survived. I knew Vietnam was a dirty war, but I just didn’t realize they (the women) saw such extremes so quickly. I understand now why these women went and what they mean by honor…they believed in their country. It’s just a very strong feeling in what is right and what is true and what needs to be told.”
The characters have real-life counterparts in Nebraska. Lincolnite Judy Knopp, a former Army nurse at Camp Zama, Japan, treated G.I.s choppered in from Vietnam; Martel native and longtime Lincoln resident Brenda Allacher toured Nam as a member of the all-girl country-western band The Taylor Sisters; and Marie Menke of Superior, Neb. was a fellow Army nurse with Diane Evans at the 36th evac in Vung Tau, regarded as an in-country R & R site except for the grueling recovery and care that went on there. For vets like these, Vietnam seared into their memories and hearts the best and worst of humanity.
“I joined the Army nurse corps and in six weeks did my basic training at Fort Sam Houston and went straight to Japan…Camp Zama, 35 minutes southeast of Tokyo and an hour by chopper from Saigon. I was charge nurse in the orthopedic ward of a 1,000 bed hospital,” Knopp said.
“Back then, we had to make our own IVs and pump our own blood and everything. After the Tet Offensive we were working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week. They used to call us the zombie squad. We didn’t even eat. We went home and slept…then came back. We’d have 30 to 40 evacs a day…20 to 30 surgeries a day, just on my ward. One-half of our cases were dirty wounds…shrapnel wounds or single and multiple amputees. Guys with half their faces blown off. One young man I especially remember…Billy. He was 18. He’d stepped on a land mine and everything was gone from the belly button on down. He was unconscious. We were pumping him full of blood. You wanted to save him but…you wanted him to go, too, because there was no way he could live.
“The guys, they were so young. They used to call me grandma and I was 22. They were all like little brothers. We used to stay up with the guys at night who were crying over having killed women and children. They had a real hard time dealing with what went on over there and the stuff they had to do to survive. A lot of ‘em came back injured and a lot of ‘em we never saw again. We never knew what happened to ‘em. The ones going back to the states we’d iron their uniforms, sew on their patches and go to the chopper to kiss ‘em goodbye. I have very fond memories of the guys and just atrocious memories of the wounds.”
She still regrets how, when her ward was busy, “there was no time for dignity with death…to get patients prepared and stay with ‘em and see ‘em through it. It was like, OK, this one’s dead, clean out the bed…there’s another one coming in.”
A Piece of My Heart cast members marvel at what women like Knopp endured at such a tender age. “They all have stories of their first day…just like in the play where my character takes off a soldier’s boot and his severed foot is in it,” Christine Schwery said. “They were so fragile and so young and yet they survived,” Julie Huff said. “With a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs,” Schwery chimed in. “Yeah, but they survived and they saved a lot of lives,” Huff added.
Riverdale, Neb. native Marie Menke, then Daake, was a 22-year-old nursing school grad when she got to Nam. Nothing could prepare her for what she saw:
“I was pretty naive about the war. It was very shocking to most of us to see the kinds of wounds and the tragic loss of life,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be. My thoughts about the war didn’t matter because we were there and people were getting hurt and we had an enormous job to do. We were tremendously needed. It was beyond comprehension almost. The nurses did do a lot but most of us downplayed it. We were just there to do our job and to take care of patients and to support them.”
Besides caring for American G.I.s, nurses treated Vietmanese, including children.
An estimated 265,000 American women service in support of the war. U.S. Army estimates place the number in-country between 10,000 and 12,000. Most were nurses, either Army or Marine enlistees or even civilians attached to field hospitals or more rear echelon units. American Red Cross volunteers were so-called “donut dollies” — a sort of comfort girl corps boosting morale with their short-skirts, smiles and care packages. Others were entertainers touring under the auspices of the USO or, like Brenda Allacher, as contract entertainers via private booking agencies that provided minimal security and scant creature comforts.
Blue Barn Theatre’s Susan Clement Toberer
Allacher, then known by her stage name Brenda Allen, got to see a lot of Nam during her three-and-half month tour in ‘69. She has bittersweet memories of her time in Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division:
“That was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember the commanding officer, ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson, said, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man,” she said. “The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers.
“We’d come back exhausted. One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. A G. grabbed me and threw me down under the bar.” It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”
The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. The incident shook Allacher to her core.
“What really gets me is it very easily could have been me, and not her.” she said. She recalls happier times there, too, like when the Taylor Sisters did an impromptu show for Nebraska National Guard troops, leading off with “There’s No Place Like Nebraska.” “The tin roof went off on that quonset hut. They just went nuts.” Or when she was secreted away to give a private performance for some special ops forces who, upon her finishing, “lined up and saluted me” she said tearfully. “As I was walking out, the commanding officer placed his Green Beret on my head.” She still has it. “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”
Allacher and Knopp have made the recognition of women’s work in Vietnam a personal mission. Together eith Evans they are featured in a NETV documentary, Not On the Frontline, that follows their story from the wartime service they rendered to the emotional “culmination” of seeing the women’s memorial dedicated, something Knopp worked for as state coordinator of the project. More recently, Allacher, who describes herself as “a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” was instrumental in bringing A Piece of My Heart to the attention of local theaters. She and her big booming laugh have become fixtures at the Blue Barn.
For Allacher, Knopp and Evans, the stories told in the play and documentary are part of the healing that’s taken place after the war. Acceptance of women’s service has come slowly, even as they have died alongside their veteran brothers from Agent Orange-related illnesses and have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Evans said there was once resistance to honoring women’s war record because “I don’t think people wanted to look at women as warriors — as soldiers. But women are soldiers, too. We fought just as hard as the men. We just fought with different instruments.” Or, as Judy Knopp puts it, “The guys were on the physical front lines, but we were on the psychological front lines trying to hold it all together. And we did it with a loving heart.”
- Woman who says she was nurse from WWII photo dies (dailycaller.com)
- Honouring nurses (bbc.co.uk)
- What did many American Women hold jobs as (wiki.answers.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)