Never Too Old To Dream: Theater Newcomer Wows Omaha Arts Community
Jun 24, 2020 01:57PM
By Josefina Loza
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Some might say time is humans’ most precious commodity. If people are living longer than ever before, and retiring younger than ever before, one would want to fill that time with activities that heighten his or her quality of life.
Yet, so often, people dedicate so much time to their daily routines; they forget their passions and the importance of learning new skills.
Theater newcomer Karen Fox of Bellevue said people should find a hobby that nurtures their interests. Most importantly, they should try new things, even if they are reluctant at first.
Her daughter, Krystal Fox, urged Karen to explore her hidden talents. She invited Karen to skydive. That was a no-go. She invited her to the gun range. Nope, not for Karen.
“She’s very insistent,” Karen said.
Finally, she took an Omaha Community Playhouse acting class with her daughter.
Karen, who is 62 and had never been on stage before, enjoyed attending productions. But to be the center of attention? “Whoa,” she exclaimed. This was going to be new.
Acting was never something Karen dreamed of doing.
“I’ve always tried to be a people-pleaser by putting on an act,” she joked. “I never thought of myself as an actress. I didn’t want to be a movie star, nor did I ever believe that something like this would happen to me.”
Karen spoke of how quickly she went from being a student to earning a lead role in a local production after taking one acting class.
Her straight-laced career had been focused in her role as an administrator. Her last position, until her 2016 retirement, was working for a housing management company. A typical retirement day for Karen was filled with friends and social engagements. More often than not, she spent the day at her friend’s beauty shop gabbing about random things to make the time pass.
That is until Krystal encouraged her to shake up her routine, which eventually led to the acting class they took together.
“If anything,” Krystal would say, “think of it as an experience.”
“I had so much fun,” Karen stated. “The teacher was so complimentary and supportive.” She did not think anything more of the class after it concluded.
Krystal was impressed with her mother’s talent and began sending her audition announcements as a way of urging her to try out for parts that seemed right.
“The process seemed a bit overwhelming,” Karen said. A year passed, and one day she heard a play announcement for A Raisin in the Sun.
A special role in the production caught her eye.
“It has somebody my age,” she said of the character. “Let me go try out, I thought. I was just going to think of it as an experience and go for it.”
She debated whether she was good enough. She wondered if she would make the right impression. She worried she wouldn’t get the part.
After much internal discussion, she decided, why not? Why not take a chance? What’s the worst that could happen?
The audition day came. Karen didn’t tell a single person where she was going. Nothing to fear now. Secretly, she attended the Omaha Community Playhouse audition for the role of Lena Younger, the matriarch of a South Side Chicago family in the 1950s. In the production of A Raisin in the Sun, the Youngers have received an insurance payout they know can enhance their lives, but the family debates how the money should be spent.
Karen was attracted to the role because she fit the age range and had a historical perspective.
She was raised by a modest family in Denver.
“We grew up kind of poor, close to the projects,” she explained. “By the time I was going to school, we moved into a different area in town.
“We were one of the first black families in Park Hill,” she continued. “We were one of the first black families to go to school there when districts began integrating students in the 1960s.
“At the time, we didn’t know we were paving a path for others,” she said. “My older brother probably did. He took the brunt of it because he has darker skin. I was too young to understand or be affected by [racist attitudes].”
She recalled a time when a man accused her older brother of peeping in his family’s window. Her father worked as a window washer and had her brother alongside him that day, so he knew the man was lying. The frightful accusation opened dialogue in her family to have tough conversations about race.
Reflecting on the play, Karen said it was beautiful and helped people understand certain things. Some of the material involved in the theatrical—racism, red lining, poverty, and more—were sometimes tough to digest.
“With Karen being kind of like the seasoned one of the group, she had those personal experiences that she was able to translate on stage in a way that everyone could relate to,” said Omaha actor David Terrell Green, who played Walter in the production.
During the audition, Karen reflected upon her lived experiences and read the lines provided to her. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes because the emotions and memories were all too real. Days later, she received a callback to read a few more lines and was subsequently offered the role as Lena Younger.
“I thought they were going to call me to let me down easy, but instead the offered it to me,” she said. “I screamed [with delight] over the phone.”
In her first production, she landed a signature role, an achievement in which her entire family took pride. She furthered her theater education with director Tyrone Beasley, who selected her for the callback because she was “such a natural.”
“Tyrone always encourages [people] to be natural and authentic with the acting,” Karen said.
Green said she was perfect for the part. “She is graceful, [and] has a very warm presence about her,” he said.
Her supportive family—daughter Krystal, and sons Jason, James, and Ja Keen—celebrated the accomplishment.
In fact, they have been supportive of everything that Karen has done.
Karen’s voice raised a few octaves as she spoke of her husband, James. The couple met in 1983 on Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, where James was stationed. “It was a whirlwind romance,” she said.
Shortly after the couple met, James received orders that he would be transferring. They didn’t want to be apart. So, in 10 days of knowing one another, he proposed and she accepted.
“We met and fell in love,” she explained. “We’ve been married for 37 years. Let’s just say we had a lot of getting to know one another.”
The couple moved to Bellevue in 1992.
“James is very supportive of me,” Karen said. “When he saw me acting, he said, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ Ha! Neither did I.”
Her 63-year-old husband drove her to rehearsals, which were eight hours a day, six days a week. The couple never missed a day.
She enjoyed acting because she was, “In a character that really was not me,” she said. “A lot of it was but a lot of it wasn’t. I’ve never been that wise nor could I entertain people the way that she did.”
But entertain she did those early January dates in 2020.
Although she didn’t get stage fright, she said there were a few moments while performing that she was caught off guard. “The only time I had a problem is if I looked directly out and saw someone’s face in the audience. But I didn’t want to throw myself out of this play and into reality. So, I avoided looking at the crowd until I became more comfortable on stage.”
“I think it’s no secret that a lot of people were shocked that this was her first time acting,” Green said. “The way she was able to dominate on the stage you’d think she was a veteraness. It was incredible to sit back and watch her as a fan.”
Lena Younger was a pivotal character, as she was the pillar of strength that held her family together. She was loving, but not in a mushy way. More like in a tough-love, straightforward kind of way.
Karen is the matriarch of her family and continues to care for them in the same loving manner as Lena. She said of her four adult children, three still live at home.
Karen hopes to continue acting, but only if the right part comes along. She suggested other retirees open their minds and hearts to the idea of trying their hand at the creative arts.
“It’s going to keep your brain and body active, especially being around people in our retirement age,” she said.
She said those who are physically capable should, “be around people, and young people at that. Don’t just sit around at home and wait until you can’t move anymore. Get out there and find something you like and that interests you. Who knows? It might even lead to you helping other people.”
Green agreed with Karen’s advice.
He said: “Get out of your head. You have to get out of your head. A lot of times we stop ourselves from jumping in to have these amazing experiences and from growing. There are plenty of success stories from people who were considered ‘too old.’ If you’re willing to do [or] learn something new, just do it. Who says that because you reach a certain age you have to just sit down?”
Visit omahaplayhouse.com for more information about future performances.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.