Theatre as Reconciliation in Omaha: KIOS & NOISE Collaboration

“Reconciliation” is now a social and political buzz word, as presidential hopefuls embrace the idea of reparations for those affected by centuries of racism and economic inequality. Religious groups worldwide have also been calling for acts of reconciliation for the LGBTQIA community in recent months. 

The lynching of Will Brown in front of the Douglas County Courthouse in 1919. He had been hung, shot, dragged through the streets, and set on fire while thousands watched and rioted.

The lynching of Will Brown in front of the Douglas County Courthouse in 1919. He had been hung, shot, dragged through the streets, and set on fire while thousands watched and rioted.

And this year, Omaha must reconcile with some of the scars systemic racism that have marked the city. 2019 is both the 100-year anniversary of the lynching of Will Brown and 50 years since 14-year-old Vivian Strong was shot and killed by an Omaha Police officer. 

The Great Plains Theatre Conference and The Union for Contemporary Art in North Omaha are using theatre to further the conversation on racial reconciliation in Omaha.

Dawaune Lamont Hayes of NOISE and Emily Chen-Newton of KIOS, sat down with the Artistic Directors of The Theatre Conference and The Union to discuss their most recent production that documents events around the killing of Vivian Strong in 1969. 

Redlining, the racially motivated and organized process of denying certain areas adequate infrastructure and business opportunities began in the early 1920s, the official HOLC (Homeowner’s Loan Corporation) map was made in 1937. 

Redlining Map of Omaha: A - Best, B - Still Desirable, C - Definitely Declining, D - Hazardous  Dr. Palma Strand/ Library of Congress

Redlining Map of Omaha: A - Best, B - Still Desirable, C - Definitely Declining, D - Hazardous
Dr. Palma Strand/Library of Congress

This process led to North Omaha being declared socially and economically hazardous. Then came the construction of highway 75 North that diminished North Omaha home values as early as the 1960s and displaced over 11,000 residents and physically divided the community.

“We understand it didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were a series of cause and effect that led to us to place that we currently exist within,” says Chapman, producing artistic director of The Union.

Vivian Strong and Officer James Loder

Vivian Strong and Officer James Loder

The cause and effect series of events Denise refers to includes a history of police brutality in North Omaha. The recent production entitled “The Blues of Knowing Why” tells the story one of those events.

Vivian Strong was a 14-year-old girl who attended Tech High (currently the Teacher Administration Center for OPS and home of Omaha Public Radio) and lived in the nearby Logan Fontenelle Projects. She and friends were attending a gathering of music and dancing in a vacant unit when someone called the police about a possible break-in. The children were warned by a friend by Vivian’s sister and subsequently fled toward the back door, followed by police officer James Loder who drew his gun and shot Vivian Strong in the head.

After news broke of the killing, riots stormed the streets of North 24th street for three days, resulting in the destruction of many businesses and buildings. Officer Loder was charged with manslaughter, found not guilty by an all-white judge and jury, and was back on the force. He was later fired for misuse of a OPD radio.

While theatre can interpret this story, is it a form of justice? Chapman doesn’t think so. “There is maybe healing. Maybe a figuring of how do we accept this reality and move forward and accept a space that’s better,” said Chapman, “But I don’t know if justice lives in any of those stories.”

Kevin Lawler, Producing Artistic Director of The Great Plains Theatre Conference, says the play doesn’t bring justice, but it does bring acknowledgment to a story that had been lost. 

“The great thing with the theatre is that we are communally acknowledging the story,” said Lawler.

The play, “The Blues of Knowing Why” written by Christopher Maly, premiered last weekend at The Union, and ran for six performances. It is one piece in a collection of living history plays based in North Omaha through a collaboration between The Great Plains Theatre Conference and The Union for Contemporary Art. 

This story is a collaboration between Omaha Public Radio and NOISE: North Omaha Information Support Everyone. This interview will be available KIOS.org

Listen to the extended verison.