When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
Here’s another piece that didn’t make it into print, and so I’m publishing it here. It’s the story of how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.
Camille Metoyer Moten
When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
©by Leo Adam Biga
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.
That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I am healed.” Anyone unfamiliar with her spiritual side before discovered it once she began posting positive, faith-filled Facebook messages about her odyssey and ultimate healing, which she attributes to a Higher Power.
Her frequent “Fabulous Cancer-Free Babe” posts gained a loyal following. Many “Facebook Prayer Warriors” commented on her at-once intimate, inspirational and humorous musings. One follower quipped, “Your posts are like going to church at the Funny Bone.”
Metoyer Moten decided cancer was an experience she couldn’t deny.
“When you perform your whole thing is pulling people into this artistic moment with you. When I got the cancer and started posting about it I thought, Well, this is my song, this is the song I have right now and I want people to feel everything I’m feeling, the good parts and the bad parts, and at the end I want them to see the glory of God in it.”
The humor, too. She described the asymmetry of her reconstructed breasts. While losing and regaining hair she called her bald head “Nicki MiNoggin,” then once patches came back – “Chia Rivera.” She’s since dubbed her swept-back scraggle, “Frederick Douglass.”
“I wrote it as I saw it. If it struck me funny, that’s what it was. I will talk about anything, I just will. I’m just like this open book.”
That extended to shares about weight gain and radiation burns
Mainly, she was a vehicle for loving affirmations in a communal space.
What support most touched her?
“Probably just the amount of prayer,” says Metoyer Moten, whose husband Michael Moten heads One Way Ministry. “Every time I said, ‘Please pray,’ there were people right there and sometimes they would put their prayer right on the post, which was awesome. Some of the encouraging things they would say were really special. The Facebook people really did help to keep me lifted and encouraged and they said I did the same for them.
“It almost never failed there were things I read I needed to hear. We had this beautiful circle going of building each other up.”
Camille with fellow Omaha singer-actress Jill Anderson, who’s dealing with her own health issues (you can find my story about Jill and her journey on this blog)
The sharing didn’t stop at social media exchanges.
“The thing I loved were the personal notes I got from people asking me to write to loved ones going through something, and I wrote to them just to encourage them because that was the whole purpose – to tell people who you go to in time of trouble.”
She’s writing a book from her Facebook posts.
“My goal is to encourage people and to glorify God and to talk about how social media can be a meaningful thing.”
Camille being Camille, she went beyond virtual sharing to invite Facebook friends, all 2,000-plus of them, to “chemo parties” at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “I usually had about 12 to 15 people. The nurses were very sweet because sometimes we’d get too loud and people would bring food. Other patients sometimes joined the party, which was kind of my point – to liven it up. We just had a ball.”
It wasn’t all frivolity.
“We would pray on the chemo machine that the chemo would affect only the cancer cells and leave the good cells alone. Once, a woman rolled her machine over for us to lay hands on hers as well. It was just a beautiful testimony.”
Cancer didn’t stop Metoyer Moten from cabaret singing or acting
“Even though I had a little harder time every now and again it didn’t stop me from doing anything.”
She even believes she came out of it a better performer.
“I’m not a very emotional person but sometimes to connect spiritually you have to have a little more emotion involved. I think now the stuff I’m doing on stage is better because I think I’ve connected to myself better emotionally. I think I had stuffed things down a long time ago. This made me realize it’s okay to have some emotions.”
Fellow performers David Murphy and Jill Anderson walked with her on her journey. Now that they’re battling their own health crises, she’s
there for them.
She’s glad her saga helps others but doesn’t want cancer defining her.
“A long time ago I decided there’s no one thing that’s the sum total of your entire life. I’m happy to talk about what God did for me during this experience, but I’m not going to dwell on the cancer bit forever.
“I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Cancer.’ I want them to look at me and say, ‘Healthy…healed.'”
Here is a short profile piece about an Omaha couple whose lives revolve around film and family, Mauro and Christine Fiore. He’s an Oscar-winning cinematographer who works on A-list projects. She’s a costume designer and the producer of an in-development indie feature based on the best-selling novel The Persian Pickle Club. They met on the set of a film they both worked on. They have three children together. Whenever the film Christine is producing ends up shooting, Mauro will light it. That’s keeping it in the family. Mauro is a native of Italy who moved to the States with his family when he was young. Christine is a native Omahan. The couple have made their home in Omaha for the last several years even as Mauro’s career blew up. She and the kids often travel to his far-flung sets. They also travel as a family to his small hometown in Italy, where he has many relatives and where they regard him as a kind of hero and superstar. It may surprise some folks to know that Mauro is one of three Oscar winners living in Omaha. He won his for Avatar. Then there’s recently retired editor Mike Hill, an Omaha native who won his for Apollo 13. And then there’s Omaha native Alexander Payne, who won his writing Oscars for Sideaways and The Descendants. This article never made it into the local magazine it was written for, so I’m publishing it here for the first time.
Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge a union based on film and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s among three Academy Award recipients residing here. The others are editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13) and filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).
Fiore’s most recent director of photography feature work came on The Equalizer last summer in Boston, The projected 2015 release reunited him with Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington from Training Day.
But Fiore, originally from Italy, isn’t the only film pro in his own household. His wife Christine Vollmer Fiore, a native Nebraskan, is a costume designer and the producer of an in-development feature adaptation of the best seller, The Persian Pickle Club. Mauro’s slated to light it.
The couple actually met in 1997 on an independent picture largely shot in Neb., Love from Ground Zero. At the time each lived in L.A., traveling wherever projects called them. Christine finds it “ironic” the film that brought their itinerant lives together happened in her home state. They settled here after marrying. He regularly goes off to do commercials and features.
They are the parents of three children – Olivia, Tessa and Luca. The Fiores view Neb.’s as a healthy grounding from the hustle, bustle and hype of L.A., where they also have a home.
“We knew we didn’t want to raise kids in L.A.,” Christine says. “It’s kind of nice to be here and have blinders on and not be affected by what’s out there.”
It’s a stable sanctuary the can count on.
“It’s nice to have a firm place and not really worry about Christine when I’m gone because her family’s here,’ Mauro says. “I feel really safe there’s somebody here to support her. I’ve come to really appreciate it because when I’m here it’s all about the family and helping Christine any way I can.”
During his absences Christine runs a tight ship.
“I’m very schedule and routine-oriented,” she says.
She purposely doesn’t make a big deal of his departures.
“It’s kind of no-nonsense, no tear because it’d be too much tough emotionally. It’s like, ‘Dad’s leaving but he’s going to come back and now I need help around the house from all of you.’ Then when Mauro comes back home we still have the same routine. Dinner’s at 5:30. I think it makes it easy for Mauro to kind of slide back in.”
The family visits his far-flung movie locations, such as Puerto Rico.
His Hollywood colleagues are surprised he lives far afield from film industry centers.
“They find it very odd,” he says. “But with Alexander Payne Neb. sort of has a mystique. They appreciate it’s a different way of living, more old fashioned or traditional.”
That normal, laidback lifestyle is what appeals to the Fiores.
“Omaha is manageable,” Christine says. “It’s easy to go to the airport and to the zoo…”
“It’s easy, it’s familiar,” Mauro adds. “We’ve found several friends around the community of schools the kids attend.”
They enjoy, too, how much more house they can afford here. They lived in Hawaiian Village before moving into their present home last year. The ranch-style in Elkhorn sits on a 6-acre lot with a view.
“We really love the property,” Mauro says. “It has a piece of land that stretches out to the river. You don’t really find that too much anymore.”
They appreciate the open floor plan, banks of tall windows and homey features.
He says, “It’s just the uniqueness of the place and the fact we can really grow into this and make it our home.”
“It’s not like a builder’s model home,” Christine says. “It’s different, it has personality.”
They’re now updating the downstairs to accommodate a craft room for the sewing Christine and the kids do.
In her spare time she wears her producer hat trying to get Persian Pickle Club financed. Setting up a film is a new experience for them.
“It’s been a great learning process to see the inner workings because I never really knew what it took. I’m never on that side of it,” he says.
He admires how “Christine’s done it all from here – figuring out ways to push it along.”
They’re admittedly anxious to start production because making films is what they know best.
Mauro eagerly shares his expertise. He photographed an Omaha Film Festival promo. He’s served as a panelist-presenter at OFF and Film Streams. The couple support the opera, the symphony, Kaneko and other local arts-cultural offerings they find on par with anywhere.
Follow her project on Facebook or at http://www.thepersianpickleclub.com/.
Review his credits on the Internet Movie Data Base at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0278475/.
Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland: African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories
Here’s the story I wrote for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the African Culture Connection and its founder-artistic director Charles Ahovissi in advance of their Dec. 8 production at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Pam and I went to that show expecting we would be thoroughly entertained having seen the company perform before and if anything our expectations were surpassed. There may be more positive energy and life-affirming love in a single ACC show than there is in a season’s worth of shows by other troupes. Combine that with the fact that there just isn’t anything else like what the ACC does in these parts and you have the makings for a singular experience that as my story tries to communicate is a rich cultural immersion not to be missed. It was a packed auditorium and those of us in the audience returned the energy and love received with our own warm, good vibes. By the way, the ACC show on the 8th was part of an alternative programming series the OCP offers. The programs are free and a welcome change of pace from the usual.
Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland
African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.
Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC’s dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series.
Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.
“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, “Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”
At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village’s purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.
Ahovissi says, “”There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I’m teaching a dance I’m also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.
“Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I’m teaching kids here the initiation dance I’m also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things.”
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit’s on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.
Ahovissi, ACC’s ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.
Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”
NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, “No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”
Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”
He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.
“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”
In a real sense he’s carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..
“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that.”
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. “That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.
He conducts NAC residencies around the state.
“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I’m grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”
He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”
He says as Omaha’s welcomes migrant populations from around the world “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”
Ahovissi’s still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. “I’m they’re hope,” he says. They’re his roots and inspiration.
Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.
Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world
If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.
“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”
An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.
“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”
With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”
Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.
“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.
Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.
“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.
“It was all about illusion.”
Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.
“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.
“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”
Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.
“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”
It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.
“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”
He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.
“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”
Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.
That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,
“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”
Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.
“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”
Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”
A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.
For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.
Native Nebraskans’ own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.
Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.
Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.
A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.
“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”
Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.
Gabrielle and her superstar husband Dwyane Wade
She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.
“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.
Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.
“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.
“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”
Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.
“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.
Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.
“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”
She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”
She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.
“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”
Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.
Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.
“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”
Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.
University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”
Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.
“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.
Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.
“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.
“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”
She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”
Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.
Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.
“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”
Mara Brock and Salim Akil with Gabrielle
The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.
“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”
Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.
It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.
Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.
Union, Wade and theri instant family at the couple’s wedding
After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,
“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”
Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.
Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.
After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.
“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”
Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.
“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”
Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.
Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”
In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.
Union in the documentary Half the Sky
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”
She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.
“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.
“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”
Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.
“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”
Gabrielle and her mother
Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.
“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”
About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”
Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.
“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”