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Omaha Magazine

From Soapbox to Stage

Sep 22, 2014 09:00AM ● By James Walmsley
Whenever Denise Chapman traverses the blight and decay that have scourged North 24th Street for upwards of 40 years, she can’t help but ask questions. From Cuming Street to as far north as Fort Street, what was once known as the “The Street of Dreams” in its halcyon days has remained pockmarked and disfigured from race riots dating back to the 1960s.

Chapman says she doesn’t understand why.

“Those empty lots were burned down in a riot?” she asks. “Okay, well why didn’t something else go up?” she inquires, surrounded by stacks of envelopes and paperwork. “What happened next? Or, more importantly, why not next?”

For the award-winning actor and education director of the Omaha Community Playhouse, these questions don’t require answers—at least not yet, Chapman says. Rather, they’re the underpinnings for what she calls “the right questions,” or questions born from art.

That very sentiment earned Chapman a six-month residency at Carver Bank last May, where the over 30 but under 40-year-old has begun her most ambitious project to date—a play examining the 1969 Vivian Strong riots.

“I didn’t think I was going to get in,” Chapman says before producing a roaring laugh. “I really didn’t. I went in and had one of my soap-box moments.”

Located at the historic intersection of North 24th and Lake streets, Chapman’s Carver Bank performance space isn’t far from the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Project where Vivian Strong was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer 45 years ago.

The 14-year-old girl’s death triggered nearly a week of riots that included the looting and firebombing of North 24th Street businesses. Chapman says the spirit of the community is still as scarred from the incident as is its landscape.

“When a community implodes, if you don’t deal with the core issues of that implosion, they don’t ever really go away,” she says as her voice drops to a solemn half-whisper. “There’s always residue of that. So there’s still residue of mistrust between community and police. There’s still this sort of fleeing from the neighborhood. There’s still that ‘you know you’ve made it when you can move out’ stigma.”

Chapman, a “theatre practitioner who works with bodies and space,” is no stranger to writing plays that explore the plight her North Omaha hometown has endured. Last year, she adapted Euripides’ The Trojan Women as a vehicle to examine the community of women who are affected and left behind by the war on drugs.

“The possibility that we have as artists to affect real generational change — that’s why I’m in the work,” Chapman says, pausing a moment to collect her thoughts.

She can’t help but smile.

“Art changes everything,” she beams. “It really does!”


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