McGhee is a judge by choice, actor at heart and a leader to many
Faced with the decision between going to Hollywood or going to law school, Odell McGhee chose the education path. But he has also found outlets for his love for acting and storytelling.
McGhee, a judge in Polk County District Court, spends time outside of the courtroom with a group of performers called the Langston Hughes Company of Players. McGhee has directed the local theatrical troupe, which presents the history of African America through music, dance and written word, since the late 1980s.
“For me, it’s a labor of love, because I feel there is a great need for this community to be aware of what the African American community has been through,” McGhee said.
The Langston Hughes Players – named for “the most prolific of all African- American writers” – perform around the state, sometimes as often as two or three times a week during January and February in conjunction with Black History Month events, McGhee said. The performers act out one- or two-minute vignettes dealing with scenarios ranging from life in Africa to modern-day relationships.
“In Iowa, there are a lot of communities where they really haven’t taken the time to review things that we’ve gone through,” McGhee said. “I concentrate on African Americans because I am one, but I think there are so many other types of people who have gone through hardships, and the more we can take in the experiences, the more we can learn to get along and learn to understand each other.”
What makes the group special, McGhee said, is that they incorporate humor and don’t try to point fingers during their performance. McGhee said the performers try to capture a moment, let the audience look at it, feel it, think about it and then move on.
“We want to be entertaining, but nonetheless, have them learn,” McGhee said. “We infuse humor, and show that even during these most difficult times, people had a sense of humor and ways to laugh at their conditions and situation. We take the audience up and bring them down and try not to be intimidating or confrontational with the way we present the material.”
McGhee grew up in Liberty, Miss., and his family moved to Chicago when he was 13. He came to Iowa for his education, earning degrees in political science, theater/speech and postsecondary education at Cornell College in Mount Vernon before attending Drake University for law school. As a young adult, McGhee earned some acclaim doing summer stock in Chicago, but when it came time to make a decision on his future, he saw that he was headed to the judge’s bench all along.
“When I was a child growing up in Mississippi, my mother worked for a guy who was a justice of the peace,” he said. “I used to see how he worked with people, and I made up my mind that I wanted to be a judge, even though it was just a child’s dream in those days.”
In addition to performing for audiences with the Langston Hughes players and occasionally directing a show for the Drama Workshop, most recently “Ain’t Misbehaving,” McGhee also takes time to speak to groups of young adults through local programs, including the Youth Defender Program, PACE juvenile center and Urban Dreams. Last month, McGhee received the Heritage Legacy Award from I’ll Make Me a World In Iowa for his commitment to foster change in African-American communities.
“I enjoy talking with young people, and I always tell them that no matter where you come from, or who your mommy and daddy are, you can do anything you want to if you believe,” McGhee said. “A philosophy that I live by is ‘believe that something is possible and then you can achieve.’ I tell them racism is nothing more than a pebble in the road, and if you are strong enough, you can kick it, step on it or move it around.”
McGhee often addresses racism in his discussions with young African-American adults, encouraging them to apply his philosophy that anything is possible.
Whether he’s in the courtroom, acting or directing or talking with young adults, McGhee draws encouragement from knowing that he has touched lives and given back to the community that has embraced him, his wife and their two children.
“Like in this job, when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Sir, you really caused me to turn my life around,’ that’s the same kind of feeling I get when someone says, ‘Your performance touched me. I understand things now.’ My dad always said that if you had one good friend, a couple of kids to love you and if you made a difference in one or two lives, then your life has been successful, and I’m hoping that I have been successful.”