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September 16, 2014

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People in the arts: Kim Russell, arts advocate

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Steve Marcus

Writer and performer Kim Russell has earned an MBA, which she says helps her see the bigger picture and which she wants to use in the business side of the arts.

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Name: Kim Russell, writer, actor, arts advocate

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor’s degree in theater and media (Chapman University) and Master of Business Administration (UNLV).

Day job: H&R Block, seasonal tax preparer

Who she is: Born in New York City, Russell went to school in the Bronx, lived for a while in San Francisco, attended a boarding high school in Boston, then went to college in Los Angeles. Her father, one of the first Tuskegee Airmen, had a long military career. She’s written and performed several stage productions. “Tuskegee Love Letters” was based on letters between her father, Airman James B. Knighten, and her mother, Luana, during World War II. “Sojourner Truth: I Sell a Shadow” tells the story of the freed slave, abolitionist and feminist. Her recent project, “Life After 50: Survivalist Training Required” debuts locally in March.

She’s served on boards of various arts organizations, was chairwoman of the Las Vegas Arts Commission and is treasurer of Nevada Arts Advocates. She was hired in 1999 to start the Las Vegas chapter of the International House of Blues Foundation and was its program director for nearly eight years. The foundation was developed to bring music, arts and cultural understanding to the schools through various programs and now reaches out to nonprofit organizations, shelters and seniors.

Getting to Vegas: After college Russell lived in Baton Rouge, La., for seven years before moving to Southern California. She calls herself a refugee of the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994. Her parents bought a home in Las Vegas the day before the earthquake. Russell wished them well, but had no desire to move here. Then, she says, “At 4:30 in the morning, God said, ‘You will go to Vegas.’ ” She and her husband arrived that June.

Finding Sojourner: After moving to Las Vegas, Russell went to an acting class with her father, who was working the local circuit as a stand-up comedian using the name Jay Bernard. There, she chose the monologue “Ain’t I a Woman?” to perform. Or, as, she says, “It found me.”

A relationship formed. Russell started doing the speech at women’s club meetings. Someone asked her if she had a whole show on Sojourner Truth. “I said, ‘Sure,’ ” and she wrote a show that was taped for Women of Diversity Productions. She continued her research in Battle Creek, Mich., visiting Sojourner Truth’s home, a library dedicated to her and other memorials. The show now has a life of its own. She takes it to elementary and middle schools in Clark County and to cultural events and centers in other cities.

“Tuskegee Love Letters”: Russell wrote this play with her father using 14 letters sent from her mother and father to her grandmother during World War II. About 400 letters from her parents — to each other and to her grandmother — had been kept. They detail racism in the war and in New York City, where Russell’s mother, who died two days before the opening of her Broadway play, “Take a Giant Step,” lived. Russell is working with Byron Tidwell on “The Harlem Project,” a fictionalized version of the other letters written as a television screenplay.

Why the MBA? Wants to use it for business of the arts. “We artists get so focused that we don’t see the bigger picture.”

On House of Blues: “Sixty thousand kids later, I’m very proud.”

On arts in Las Vegas: “It is still in its nucleus. It still lacks identity. But that’s the growing process. There are a lot of strong, talented, committed people in the arts community. Their efforts are going to pay off. I think we’re in a really strong position for when the economy rebounds because they’re learning how to weather these tough times. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I want to see early startups and investors still around. The arts don’t survive without community funding and a community can’t survive without the arts.”

Hobbies/interests: Reading history and business reports, listening to jazz and blues and spending time with her husband, Wendell.

Sticking around: “Absolutely. I love watching and being a part of the Las Vegas evolution.”

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