Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Charles Brings 'Pride' to Baltimore


Recall the film and musical Billy Elliot, the delightful heart-warming story of a young ballet dancer trying to fulfill his dreams with Great Britain’s arduous miners’ strike as the backdrop.  That strike, thirty years later, is thrust to the forefront in another sweet movie that also shines a spotlight on courage, humanity, warmth, friendship and triumph. 

Pride, a BBC-produced film directed by Matthew Warchus and written by Stephen Beresford, was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival at which it received a standing ovation.  The venerable Charles Theatre, situated in Baltimore’s Station North arts and entertainment district, is presenting this treasure of a film, whereby audiences—gay or straight—should eat up like an English crumpet. 
I understand the reason for the movie’s title Pride given that the plot of the film is bookended by London gay pride parades in 1984 and 1985 and that there is a sense of accomplishment among many of the characters in the film despite challenges.  But it seems a bit simplistic and non-descriptive since the word “pride” is so generic.  Perhaps, Pride and Prejudice would have been a more suitable title, but unfortunately, it was already taken.   #hocoarts

That is my only quibble about this excellent film.  Based on a true story with a few fictional characters thrown into the mix, Pride follows the travails of a group of lesbian and gay activists who felt the need to support the striking British miners in 1984 by raising money for the strikers’ families.
While initially the group questioned why they should support a bunch of macho guys who have historically been unfriendly to gays, their young, outspoken, charismatic and handsome leader Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) argued the miners’ struggles were not that different from their own.  He pointed out that gays and lesbians and the miners have common enemies: Margaret Thatcher, the police and the right-wing tabloid press. 

Their newly formed group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was born in London’s Gay’s the Word—the U.K.’s only gay and lesbian bookstore—a venue where these gay folks hung out.  LGSM attempted to raise money and donate through the national miners union only to notice the discomfort on the part of the union leadership from the public relations risk of being associated with a bunch of puffs. 
Undaunted, LGSM decided to take their donations to a small mining village in the bucolic Dulais Valley lodge in Onllwyn, South Wales. It was there that the odd alliance was formed.  The initial meetings were fraught with tension and awkwardness with the villagers being apprehensive towards “the gays.”  But through the sheer force of getting to know people on a personal basis, minds opened up and bonds were gradually created and fortified. 

As a culmination of their efforts, LGSM formed a wildly successful benefit concert called “Pits and Perverts,” smartly co-opting the word “perverts” that was derisively printed in the tabloids to use as a rallying device.  When that event actually occurred, the group Bronski Beat headlined.   
In actuality, this was a national movement but Bereford funnels it into this London-based group.   What transpires is a beautiful blend of empathy, solidarity and friendship that is both moving and inspirational.  And Pride’s climactic conclusion, which will not be disclosed here, is guaranteed to leave you teary-eyed.
#hocoarts
Besides the New York-born but London-trained Ben Schnetzer who turned in a strong, focused performance, the remainder of the talented cast brought to life Bereford’s poignant and humorous script that entails several sub-plots.  They include the onset of AIDS, the tense discovery by parents that their son is gay, and another gay man who reconnects with his estranged family. 
George MacKay as Joe, the closeted 20 year-old, was convincing and played the role with sensitivity.  Others who were part of “the gays”—Dominic West, Andrew Scott, Joseph Gilgun, and the colorful token lesbian, Faye Marsay as Steph—are solid actors.  

Equally strong were the Welsh characters including Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy.  Staunton as Dulais community leader Hefina provides a good deal of the humor especially when she wields a large pink dildo—a scene not to be missed.
Considine as Dai, the representative from Dulais, provided a soothing, amiable contrast to some of the homophobic characters.  His performance was splendid.

Pride is a must-see uplifting film.  Director Warchus beautifully takes us on an historic journey from the streets of London to the lush South Wales countryside and back while Bereford’s writing shows exquisitely how disparate groups of people can shrug off their differences and meld together for a common goal in this true story.     
The Charles Theatre is located at 1711 N, Charles St., Baltimore 21201.  Tickets and show times are available by calling 410-727-3464 or visiting thecharles.com.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nice Guys Finish First


During the heat of an election campaign we hear some people deride an opposing candidate as being a “nice guy” as if that’s a liability. (For the purpose of this post, the term “nice guy” in the vernacular applies to both genders.)  The context being the person has different values, positions and a faulty record, but his being a “nice guy” might carry him through the day. 
It could if history has anything to do with it.

One of the many axioms in politics is not to downplay a candidate’s likability.  This is not to suggest that likability is sufficient to win an election. Stances on specific issues, party affiliation, the current political environment, the opponent, oratory skills, the amount of money raised and spent, endorsements, record, biography, and voter turnout are among those factors in shaping an election.  #hocopolitics
But likability is a major strength especially if voters are not engaged on the issues or are not informed regarding the candidates.  It could be decisive with other factors being equal, and all politicians would be wise to make that an asset for themselves.

Throughout history, likability has frequently been a rationale for voters.  It became more prevalent starting with the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960 when television, for the first time, was a major element in the election campaign.  Most pundits opined that the televised debate between those two candidates was the turning point.  Nixon looked nervous, sweaty and pale on black and white television though he was the more experienced politician, while the young John F. Kennedy seemed alert, fresh and vibrant.  Of course, Nixon had been suffering from a cold and eschewed using make-up, but he won the debate on the merits.  Nonetheless, Nixon lost the night because of the optics.    
Voters around the country gave Kennedy a closer look and liked what they saw.  They fell in love with his beautiful, glamorous wife and young daughter, and Kennedy himself possessed strong oratory skills, charisma and was inspirational.  In short, enough of the voters liked him, his personality and his family to hand him a slim margin of victory at the polls.  Nixon, seen as glum, was doomed to falter to the more pleasant Kennedy.

There are exceptions, of course, but other presidential contests demonstrated how likability may have been a determinant.  There was the affable, sunny Ronald Reagan winning over the turgid Jimmy Carter.  Folksy, down-home Bill Clinton defeating the privileged George H.W. Bush (with a little help from Ross Perot).  Jocular George W. Bush losing the votes but winning the Electoral College over the stiff and sighing Al Gore (assisted by Ralph Nader and the Supreme Court).  And Bush again edging another stiff one, John Kerry.
Then you have the historic candidacy of Barack Obama—a far more likable chap than the cranky John McCain and mega-rich snob Mitt Romney—winning two terms.  He even gave a nod to the likability factor as he famously told Hillary Clinton during a primary debate, “You’re likeable enough Hillary.”  But that retort backfired on the political neophyte as it was seen as patronizing.

Those likable candidates mentioned above would have won those elections regardless of likability because there were overriding issues that interested and engaged the electorate. But there is no doubt that favorable trait played a role in their success. 
Any political advisor or consultant worth his or her salt would tell you that it is critical to be likable.  This is especially applicable in local contests when issues typically don’t rise to the level of national security and other broad concerns.  It could be a difference maker. 

The way to deal with that during a campaign is to either drive up the likable opponent’s negatives or improve their own favorability.  Those already holding elected office could look back and note that their likability may have helped put them in those jobs. 
The value of likability should never be underestimated even if elections are rarely won or lost based on that alone.  However, on most occasions it seems that nice guys do finish first.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Supreme Court's Punt Gives Us Good Field Position


When the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly decided on October 6 not to take up several appeals of lower court rulings that struck down the existing bans on same-sex marriages, many believed the justices “punted.”  That is, less than four of the nine justices chose not to review these cases and will likely not be part of this term’s docket. 

Both sides had hoped for a sweeping decision by the Court to settle once and for all whether the right for same-sex couples to marry is protected by the U.S. Constitution.  Rather, by choosing to sidestep these cases they allowed the lower court rulings to stand.
To use football parlance, because the Supreme Court punted the hot button issue for a likely date sometime in the future, marriage equality advocates did not score a touchdown they were hoping for but instead found themselves in good field position.

By refusing to review cases from the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, same–sex marriages are no longer prevented from occurring. The Court also did not take on cases arising from the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and in the Tenth Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. 

And in the Ninth Circuit, marriage bans were struck down in Idaho and Nevada by a panel of judges the next day.  This ruling also applies to Arizona, Montana and Alaska.  Nuptials may be delayed in some of these states because of specific legal procedures, but eventually they will be allowed.  In all, the number of states permitting same-sex marriage would jump from 19 to 30 plus D.C. representing states with 60 percent of the U.S. population.  
Though the Supreme Court offered no explanation for their action, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who once officiated a same-sex wedding, indicated last month that for the justices there is “no need for us to rush” unless a split emerges in the various federal appeals courts and one of them decides to uphold a state ban on same-sex marriage.   

Had there been a split, the justices may have taken a look at it. That can happen in that the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati is thought as one of the few that could uphold the bans.  Therefore, the Court put itself in a place where they would likely have to tackle the issue once and for all.
Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy organization Freedom to Marry, said while the October 6 action provided “a bright green light” to same-sex marriage in more states, marriage equality advocates do want the Supreme Court to intervene and provide a definitive ruling covering all 50 states. “The Supreme Court should bring the country to a nationwide resolution,” Wolfson said. 

Those opposing marriage equality do as well and will continue to defend the bans in court (though stalling would appear advantageous to them if a Court vacancy is filled with a conservative).  They strongly believe that the people should decide the definition of marriage, not judges.

Opponents should note, however, that the people are not as against marriage equality as they think.  Ever since 2004 when the first same-sex weddings took place in Massachusetts—an occurrence that became a winning strategy for Republicans during the presidential campaign—support for marriage equality swung dramatically.  In fact, poll after poll indicate that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality.
During the 10 years since gay marriage was used as a political wedge issue, clear evidence of a transformation in attitudes began in 2012 with the startling first-time victories at the ballot box in three states that included Maryland.  Since then, legal challenges to a swath of state constitutions were launched claiming that the denial of same-sex couples to marry was in violation of the U.S. Constitution under the Equal Protection Clause.

As these cases meandered through the lower courts whereby one ruling after another found for the plaintiffs, federal appeal courts have upheld those rulings in a stunning wave of victories, adding great momentum to the movement.  The rationale  for these decisions had been bolstered in 2013 by the Supreme Court’s striking down key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act. 
What was once a political weapon for Republicans nationwide, the changing attitudes towards same-sex marriage has pushed most Republicans to a hands-off approach.  This is consistent with their alleged attempts to demonstrate more acceptance towards gays and other minorities to improve their general election chances.   Indeed, a vast majority of Republicans remained silent following the recent Supreme Court announcement.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas who many regard as an extremist, was one of the exceptions to have lashed out against the Court. “The Supreme Court’s decision to let rulings by lower court judges stand that redefine marriage is both tragic and indefensible,” he said.   He pledged to again introduce a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.  Good luck.
Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, in an effort to keep his job, threw a bone to his base by condemning the Supreme Court’s decision.  He said that if gays were allowed to marry, “America will ultimately collapse.”

As we have witnessed in the states where marriage equality is in place including Maryland, the sky has not fallen; society has not been destroyed; and the institution of marriage has not deteriorated.  Instead, children of same-sex couples are now protected, couples receive the same benefits, rights and responsibilities as their heterosexual counterparts; and the local economies have received a much needed boon.
As same-sex marriages continue to take place across the land, it will become increasing difficult to invalidate all those nuptials should that day eventually arrive when the ball lands in the Supreme Court justices’ hands.  Too much chaos would result.  Accordingly, we’re in a good position now to ultimately take it to the end zone.

Monday, October 06, 2014

4.48 Psychosis at Iron Crow


In keeping with the Iron Crow Theatre Company’s tradition of staging unconventional, thought-provoking, often dark dramas, the kick-off to their three-play 2014-2015 Season did not disappoint.  You know you’re in for a signature Iron Crow theatrical experience when before the play begins the audience observes a body dressed in white, highlighted by occasional red lighting, lying prone on the otherwise darkened Theatre Project stage with some gloomy New Age music droning in the background prior to its presentation of 4.48 Psychosis.   #hocoarts

Nick Horan (L.) and Katie Keddell  Photo: Zachary Z. Handler
Though Iron Crow bills itself as Baltimore’s queer theatre company, 4.48 Psychosis by British playwright Sarah Kane stepped aside from past Iron Crow plays that usually have LGBTQ themes woven into the scripts.  Research reveals, however, that Kane had affairs with women, so this presentation does have an LGBTQ connection even if the subject matter was mostly devoid of it.
In fact, 4.48 Psychosis doesn’t even have a plot, structure, timeline or staging directions.  Iron Crow’s artistic director Steven J. Satta attests to that fact in a press release announcing the season: “The play is written in a manner, which is not realistic or linear but rather abstract and disjointed, which is appropriate when dealing with issues of mental health—the rational does not apply.”

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The GLCCB's Mounting Challenges


The resignation of interim executive director Kelly Neel from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) further brings to light the mounting challenges facing the 35 year-old institution.  In a candid email sent to 180 friends and colleagues, Neel, who served in that capacity for about five months following the resignation of her predecessor Matt Thorn, wrote, “It has been a tumultuous time for the organization, which has been in transition for quite some time now. While I believe that we have navigated the past year to the best of our abilities, I no longer feel that my values and my vision align with those of our leadership.”
Kelly Neel at 2014 Baltimore Pride
Prior to the resignation, a search for a permanent executive director was underway.  Neel saw the handwriting on the wall: she was not going to win the job through a competitive process.  Neel told me that she did not receive support from the board of directors; there was a decided lack of communication between the board and her; she did not feel valued or respected; and there was a “disconnect” regarding her vision on financial strategies and event planning.
A member of the board acknowledged she was not likely to be offered the permanent position though she would have been considered along with other candidates.  For their part, the board was dissatisfied with her handling of the job, managing and presenting budgets, and the manner in which she interacted with board members. 

Without getting into the he-said, she-said details, one thing is clear: they didn’t get along, and she resigned on her own terms without having to go through the process of inevitably losing out to another candidate.  Cohesion is critical in any organization, and perhaps a better effort could have been undertaken by both sides to improve the relationship.
To be clear, Neel was just one person given formidable tasks to manage the Center. As she had previously pointed out in an open letter, “it takes a village.” All the essential operations and programs of the GLCCB should not be the responsibility of one person.  The board should not simply supervise the executive director but to also assume an “all hands on deck” posture to actively help out as well.  That has not happened.  

To the public (and the executive director is indeed the public face of the Center) Neel demonstrated a calm temperament and demeanor during the contentious town hall meeting at the Waxter Center in July.  She was among those in the cross-hairs during that event, handling the barbs with professionalism, class and respect.  She pledged and followed through on the prevailing theme of establishing transparency by posting minutes of previous board meetings (to the extent that they were available), financial reports, and board applications (since removed) to the GLCCB’s website.  She also arranged for open board meetings of which two have taken place.
As Neel pointed out, she functioned in an environment that she termed as “tumultuous,” – a generous characterization.  She assumed the post of interim executive director just a couple of months before Pride whereby decisions had already been made to shift the location.  Her task was to implement those decisions in a tight timeframe, and despite some cracks in the walls, she and her staff of volunteers pulled off the huge event quite well. 

Prior to Neel’s appointment, the GLCCB’s move to new digs at the Waxter Center last winter did not go over well.  The new venue was and still is not physically and cosmetically ready for prime time depriving the Center from holding a welcoming open house to help reset their image. And the sale of the previous building as well as the move itself was controversial because of the lack of transparency and community input.  
During the town hall and since, Neel issued a public warning that the Center needs the community to survive.  The financial picture for the GLCCB looks dismal with mounting debt and a lack of a reliable income stream to sustain a minimum of $10,000 per month for operations and personnel.  This doesn’t even include program-related expenses.

Neel rightly acknowledged there is a growing apathy among the LGBT communities towards the Center, which would take an enormous effort to reverse. Two months ago I outlined some common-sense suggestions to right the ship.  If followed, there is a chance the Center could build a brand that will provide a rationale for its existence and the donations would possibly follow.
The key to success is community buy-in.  The GLCCB must express a vision that it rightly has a place in Baltimore and whose mission is not centered on Pride alone.  It needs to extend their hands to all communities and allow representatives to help formulate and act on the Center’s mission. It needs a diverse board with a broad range of experiences that would be willing to roll up their sleeves and work.  The Center should continue what Neel was beginning to accomplish by holding small, inexpensive and affordable events to raise money and to show more visibility and relevancy.

Instability at the top (and that includes the revolving door on the board) is not the way to maintain rapport and business relationships with other entities nor will it help bolster confidence in an organization that is in need of it. Kelly Neel was not the problem and a search for a permanent executive director could have waited.
The focus should be on developing a clear strategy to deal with the financial crisis and fast.  Perhaps most importantly, however, the communities must feel there is a reason to keep the GLCCB going.

These are challenges, to be sure, but if not met, the doors could shut down for good.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Awake and Sing! at Olney Theatre Center


Anyone who had lived through the Great Depression could tell you how difficult and scary that time was.  Not only was there real concern that one day you would lose the roof over your head or not being able to put food on the table but that these real fears and pressures could tear a family’s fabric to the point that dreams are tossed aside in order to live for the day.  The Depression meant a severe economic downturn but it also meant a state of mind that resulted from it.
#hocoarts
Rick Forcheux (L.) and Alex Mandell  Photo: Stan Barouh
Such was the backdrop in Clifford Odets’ potent Depression-era drama-comedy Awake and Sing! that is now playing at the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center.  In 1931 Odets, as an actor, was a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company led by Lee Strasberg.  Group employed a new acting technique in U.S. theatre that eventually was called “Method Acting.”  Odets became the Group Theatre’s principal playwright, and in 1932, experiencing the financially bleak conditions during that period, began working on I Got the Blues, which turned into Awake and Sing!
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

No Mediocrity in Center Stage’s 'Amadeus'


Some people spend their lives searching for fame and fortune only to find out disappointingly that they are merely mediocre as such lofty goals become elusive.  Others find that such gifts are natural and their fame comes easy and enduring. When such people intersect in their life’s journeys, it may not always be pleasant.
That is in essence the core plotline of acclaimed British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus now playing at Center Stage.  It revolves around18th century Vienna Court composer Antonio Salieri (played by Bruce R. Nelson) who was having things go his way until the child prodigy of Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (Stanton Nash) comes on the scene.        
Shaffer is known also for his award-winning work Equus—a completely different type of play from Amadeus though the psyches of the main characters of each are explored.  The latter captured the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play, and the 1984 movie collected four Oscars including Best Picture.
It seems as though Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who also directed this fine production of Amadeus, has an affinity for attracting works that cogitate how real people would interact with others had such exchanges actually occurred. 

Last year’s The Mountaintop contained such imagination regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conversations with God following the civil rights leader’s assassination.  In 2015, Center Stage will present One Night in Miami, which speculates how Cassius Clay would spend time in a Miami hotel with the likes of Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown after he won a boxing title.
Shaffer’s Amadeus and the relationship between the title character and Salieri is also a fictional account.  Though a definitive cause of Mozart’s early demise has yet to be established, he attributes the composer’s death to Salieri’s poisoning him, or does he really do it?

Salieri loves Mozart’s music but is resentful of the talent in which he believed was bestowed upon Mozart by God.  As a devout Catholic, Salieri assumed God would have rewarded him with that gift instead of the uncouth Mozart.  The resentment builds and Salieri, searching for weaknesses in Mozart’s personality and life, is determined to destroy him while Mozart is convinced he is on his side all along.   Salieri realizes his mediocrity but flourishes while the prodigy declines.
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.  He envelops such diverse characters in Center Stage productions as well in performances in other local venues.  Mr. Nelson’s chillingly dark portrayal of Edgar Allen Poe and his depiction of the loony, hilarious Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers are examples of his versatility.

The part of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, though somewhere in between the aforementioned roles, provides yet another vehicle for Mr. Nelson to showcase his acting chops.  As the narrator for the story, Mr. Nelson changes wigs and clothing tops onstage to journey back and forth from present-day 1823 when he is old and supposedly on the verge of death to the 1780’s when his life changed with the arrival of Mozart. 

Mr. Nelson is the anchor of the play delivering several long soliloquies—a difficult challenge for most actors—with seeming ease.  Though the play is not a comedy per se, Mr. Nelson brings home the few witty retorts through his commentaries adding lightness to the plot.  He pretends to be an ally of Mozart but all the while plotting his demise.  Salieri attempts to seduce Mozart’s wife Constanze (Kayla Ferguson) in an attempt to undermine his rival with Mr. Nelson relishing that role with mischievous enthusiasm.
 
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.
 
His counterpart, Stanton Nash as Mozart, is wonderful.  His part calls for more action, more physicality than Salieri’s, and Mr. Nash rises to the occasion.  Playing the rather childish, and at times, vulgar Mozart, he come through superbly employing exaggerated voice inflections and mannerisms to amplify his churlish persona. 

Mr. Nash effectively becomes dramatic during the second act to convey Mozart’s desperation for trying to impress the Emperor Joseph II (Kevin Orton) and the court so that he (as is the situation for Salieri) receives salaries and enjoy the freedom to compose music.
Ms. Ferguson plays the role of Mozart’s fiancĂ© then wife nicely as she must contend with his behavior but at the same time, pushing hard for his success.

The remainder of the large cast (by Center Stage standards) does well in their roles.  Jay Russell and Lucia Spina stand out as Venticelli—the court’s local gossips, adding a fun touch to the proceedings with their banter.
Mr. Kwei-Armah’s technical crew shines in this production. David Burdick outfitted the cast in colorfully lavish period garb. 

The set designed by Timothy R. Mackabee presents an ornate drawing room complete with, two large crystal chandeliers, light blue patterned wall paper and gilded door frames.  The cast uses all the entrances and exits in Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater to keep the action paced well and flowing.  A scaffold above the main stage is designed to simulate the back of an opera stage but is used sparingly.  Mr. Mackabee also transforms the theater’s lobby into the Court of Vienna to add more to the experience.
Michelle Habrick’s lighting design beautifully illuminates the stage and is employed effectively during dramatic moments.  Victoria Delorio provides good use of sound effects especially when coordinating with lighting changes during selected stage entrances through the main door—a clever device.

This production under the direction of Mr. Kwei-Armah sparkles with all the moving parts meshing well.  The performances of the two leads alone are worth a visit.  But you will also enjoy the work of the entire cast and crew.  It is far from mediocre.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.#hocoarts
Advisory: The play contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
_________
 
Amadeus runs through October 12 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. in Baltimore.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-332-0033 or online .

Monday, September 15, 2014

Racial Taboos, Rock and Blues at Toby’s Memphis


As was the case throughout the South during the mid-1950’s white folks in Memphis referred to African-Americans as coloreds and by the N-word.  Radio stations played either white music or black music—not both.  People dared not set foot in an establishment whose ownership and clientele were of another race. Interracial relationships were forbidden and dangerous.


Greg Twomey as Huey and Ashley Lauren Johnson as Felicia
While things have improved significantly but not entirely over the years, these conditions provide the backdrop for the hand-clapping, toe-tapping musical extravaganza, Memphis the Musical, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
Under the direction of Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with choreography by Christen Svingos, the extraordinary cast more than did justice to the four-time 2010 Tony Award-winning show that included Best Musical.  With all the superb performances and technical precision, Memphis joins a growing list of elite productions at Toby’s famous in-the-round theater.

David Bryan’s music and lyrics and Joe DiPietro, who co-wrote the lyrics and penned the book, brought the message of love, ambition and race home through a score brimming with rhythmic gospel, R&B and rock numbers along with melodic ballads. 
The story revolves around Huey Calhoun (played by Greg Twomey) a rather poor good ‘ole boy ninth grade dropout who loves R&B music.  One night he saunters into an underground black dive club where he was far from welcomed.  He meets Felicia Farrell (Ashley Lauren Johnson), the sister of the owner Delray Farrell (Sayne-Kharyi Lewis). Upon hearing the young black woman sing, Huey promises to find a way to get her noticed.

Huey, a braggart and a self-promoting conniver, manages to get himself a trial audition as a DJ on a white radio station playing “race music.”  In Memphis, no one had ever attempted this before.  Huey’s unique style and personality (he uses the nonsensical “Hockadoo” as his signature word on the air) plus his playing this type of music, which was the foundation for the upstart Rock ‘n Roll genre, endeared him to the listening audience much to the chagrin of the skeptical and resistant station manager Mr. Simmons (Robert John Biedermann 125).
"Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed." 

Nonetheless, Huey’s popularity leads him to a local television gig whereby he can showcase Felicia’s vocal talents.  As Huey’s interest in Felicia grows, he has to overcome the defiant opposition of his racist mother Gladys Calhoun (Lynne Sigler) who clings to old-time prejudice.  Her brother Delray is not too keen on this relationship either.  Though Felicia herself understands the dangers, she moves closer to Huey but wants to do so in secrecy.

While their careers rise their relationship is challenged by personal ambition and the lack of acceptance of their relationship by the outside world.  To find out how this plays out, you should see the show.
Although the entire ensemble can sing, dance and act like it’s nobody’s business, Twomey and Johnson soared high as the leads.  It was difficult for me to believe that Twomey hadn’t performed on stage for over three years prior to being cast in the role of Huey.  His performance is so refined, so adroit in every way, one would think he is a seasoned veteran with a mantle full of trophies. 

In that regard Twomey’s acting skills demonstrated more gold than rust.  Playing the role of a fellow who is paradoxically big-hearted and self-centered, his movements on the stage, facial expressions, body language, posture and Southern drawl demonstrate he was perfectly cast as Huey.
Besides his solid acting performance, Twomey proves he can sing and he can dance.  Though there were no solos for his part, Twomey excels with his smooth, pitch perfect voice in such numbers as “Music of My Soul,” “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss,” and “Tear Down the House.”

Photos by Kirstine Christansen
For her part, the lovely Ashley Lauren Johnson is also perfect for the role of Felicia.  Performing in her tenth show at Toby’s, her acting skills shine throughout, and her strong onstage chemistry with Twomey is palpable.  In addition to possessing superb vocal chops, Johnson delivers a beautiful solo rendition of “Colored Woman,”  and she hit the mark in “Love Will Stand”—an outstanding number she performs with the company.
Also notable in the cast is Lynne Sigler as Huey’s bigoted mother who eventually transforms her attitudes towards race.  Her number “Change Don’t Come Easy” is a virtual show-stopper.  Wait until you hear that final note!

Sayne-Khayri Lewis as Delray, the over-protective brother of Felicia, also turns in a fine job. His duet with Twomey, “She’s My Sister” is emotionally strong and well performed.
Tobias Young, a Helen Hayes nominated veteran of Toby’s sparkles in the role of Bobby, a janitor and a friend of Delray’s who helps the illiterate Huey to read a beer commercial.  That scene, by the way, is the funniest moment in the show.  Young’s performance of “Big Love” is joyful.

In the role of Gator, Jonathan Randle’s rendition of “Say a Prayer” is superb as it is moving.  Robert John Biedermann 125 as the cranky Mr. Simmons performs splendidly.
The talented ensemble proficiently supported the leads, performing in most of the numbers.  They sang and  danced expertly and added a high-octane presence.   Give credit to choreographer Christen Svingos for the well-designed dance numbers with some of them infused with breathtaking acrobatics.

Ross Scott Rawlings six-piece orchestra coordinated effectively with the on-stage performers, allowing their vocal talents to stand out. Set and  Light Designer David A. Hopkins and Sound by Drew Dedrick provided the technical support to keep the production glowing.
The period props are great part of the production.  They consisted of old phones, a television camera, actual vinyl records, 50’s-style kitchen furniture, microphones and radio equipment.  To go along with these, Larry B. Munsey outfitted the ensemble in representative 1950’s southern costumes including lovely robes for the church choir.

Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed. 
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
_____________       #hocoarts
Memphis
runs through November 9  at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or online.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Domestic Violence Hits Us Too


The infamous video showing Ray Rice punching his then fiancĂ©e Janay Palmer in an elevator of a now defunct Atlantic City casino hotel and its ugly aftermath triggered a firestorm of anger and recrimination throughout the country.  One positive effect, however, was that the horrific incident shed light on the shadows of silence concerning the ongoing problem of domestic violence or intimate partner violence and abuse (IPV/A).

IPV/A had been seen by many as a heterosexual problem.  Yet statistics gathered from studies indicate that same-sex relationships have been afflicted by IPV/A at similar rates to straight couples. 
A spokeswoman for Baltimore-based House of Ruth Maryland, an organization whose mission, in part, is to provide safe shelter to abused women, children and men and have recently expanded to include LGBT clients, said, “Rates of physical partner violence victimization are higher among gay male and transgender relationships and happen equally as often in lesbian relationships when compared to IPV in heterosexual relationships.”

This is backed up by the Center for American Progress,   which notes, “One out of four to one out of three same-sex relationships has experienced domestic violence.  By comparison, one in every four heterosexual women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime.”
At this point, there aren’t any available IPV/A police statistics in Baltimore pertaining to same-sex situations.  “We track all domestic violence and domestic disputes. We do not break those statistics down by orientation,” said Lt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Police Department. “We are now in the process of building a system to do just that.”

Intimate partner violence is defined by House of Ruth as “a pattern of coercively controlling behaviors used by a current or previous partner to gain or maintain power and control over the other partner.”  This could include physical, psychological and/or emotional abuse and intimidation.
Baltimore area resident R.J. Ladd lived together with his boyfriend on and off for three years.  The boyfriend had a tendency to get drunk and to fight. “I’d try and walk away from him with no success,” explains Ladd who believes IPV/A is an important issue and from which the LGBT community should not feel they are immune.

“We were in multiple fights, three of which I lost teeth that are still evident to this day.  I would just try and do things his way and just agree even when he was wrong. It still didn’t work, and we would continue to have fights.  He would assume I was sleeping with all my friends—I wasn’t—but the fighting still continued.”
Victims of IPV/A who are in same-sex relationships encounter issues that are distinctive from IPV/A in heterosexual relationships.  For instance, an abusive partner may threaten to “out” a partner’s sexuality to family, friends, or co-workers as a tactic to get that person to stay in a relationship or to coerce the victim in order to get what he or she wants.



“I’d try and walk away from him with no success.  We were in multiple fights, three of which I lost teeth that are still evident to this day.”—R.J. Ladd
 

LGBT individuals whose families/friends don’t support their sexuality have fewer sources of support, increasing isolation and making it hard to end abusive relationships.  Abusers use this to keep a relationship going; they remind the victim how alone he or she will be if he or she leaves.
Additionally, the Center for American Progress points out that lesbian and gay victims are more reluctant to report abuse to legal authorities. Survivors may not contact law enforcement agencies because doing so would force them to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Gay and lesbian victims are also reluctant to seek help out of fear of showing a lack of solidarity among the gay and lesbian community. Similarly, many gay men and women hide their abuse out of a heightened fear that society will perceive same-sex relation- ships as inherently dysfunctional.

Gay and lesbian victims are more likely to fight back than are heterosexual women. This can lead law enforcement to conclude that the fighting was mutual, overlooking the larger context of domestic violence and the history of power and control in the relationship.
Abusers can threaten to take away the children from the victim. In some states, adoption laws do not allow same-sex parents to adopt each other’s children. This can leave the victim with no legal rights should the couple separate. The abuser can easily use the children as leverage to prevent the victim from leaving or seeking help. And in the worst cases, the children could end up in the custody of the abuser.

House of Ruth, which is now partnered with the Baltimore Ravens and has received an increase in donations as a result of the Ray Rice matter and who has a 24-hour Hotline, 410-889-RUTH (7884), offers the following tips:
●Plan for your physical safety

●Inform those closest to you about what's going on

●Establish a code word to check in with friends or family

●Take threats seriously

●Consider applying for a Protection Order and carry it with you at all times            

●Plan for your cyber safety

●Screen your calls and save all voice mails, emails or texts s/he sends

●Do not use apps like Snapchat

●Do not use mobile apps that track your whereabouts such as Foursquare or “tag” on Facebook

●Turn the GPS function of your phone off

 
IPV/A strikes people of all races, age groups, socio-economic status, sexual orientations and identities.  It is critical to be on guard against possible IPV/A and to take the necessary steps to deal with the situation.  Clearly, IPV/A has been around forever and is not going away soon.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Colossal Scores Early and Often at Olney


The timing of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere production of Colossal could not be better.  The play is about football (the new season has just begun); it’s about a gay male player dealing with the macho world of organized sports (the journey of openly gay football player Michael Sam has caught the nation’s attention); football injuries (constantly in the news); and it’s about love and family (always timely).   #hocoarts

Photo by Stan Barouh
Colossal, written by Andrew Hinderaker, makes its debut at the Olney Theatre Center before the new play appears in three other venues in the country.  Director Will Davis guides the talented all-male cast with great skill accentuating the physicality of football and dance and how these conflicting elements can sometime be fused.  The visuals are as much a part of this unconventional play as the dialogue.

If a set could define a production, Micha Kachman’s design clearly does.  Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab was converted into a miniature football stadium consisting of four rows of grandstand seating the length of and on opposite sides of the black-box stage with an overhanging electronic scoreboard and functional clock.  The latter is used to denote the play’s structure that contains 15-minute quarters, a pre-game and a halftime and is a metaphor for how the time in our lives is precious and finite.  There is also a dance barre and mirror at one end and lockers on the opposite end.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

History Will Have to Wait


It was the day the entire sports world was watching.  Would Michael Sam, an openly gay man, survive yet another round of cuts by the St. Louis Rams and in the process make history?  No other player on the “bubble” received such national scrutiny.  As NFL teams were mandated to trim their final rosters to 53 by 4 p.m. EDT on August 30, all eyes were on the St. Louis Rams who drafted Sam in the seventh and final round this past May. 

Photo by mtv.com
Instead of sacking quarterbacks Sam was sacked; he did not survive the final cut.  According to NFL rules, Sam and all those cut became available to the other 31 teams of which any of them could claim him.  None did. 
As such, Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, not the first to play in the NFL regular season. 

The fact that Sam was drafted at all was surprising to most football experts.  Although a standout performer during his collegiate career—he was the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Missouri in 2013—he did not fare well at NFL’s combine.  The combine is an auditioning process that takes place for a week in front of coaches, general managers and scouts.
Sam was picked 249th out of 256, and the news of his being drafted by the Rams reverberated around the world.  So did his passionate kiss on the mouth of his boyfriend carried live by ESPN. 

The selection by St. Louis lifted the spirits of LGBT America.  At the time, President Obama said he “congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey.”
However, analysts and those in the football industry said Sam was too small for a defensive lineman position while he was too slow to be a linebacker.  It would be an uphill climb for Sam to make a team that already was deep in the lineman position.

Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Rams, gave Sam every opportunity.  In fact, it was Fisher who called Sam to give him the good news about the selection, leading to the tearful celebration with his boyfriend.  Who among us did not shed a tear or two along with him?  His number 96 Rams’ jersey became the sixth biggest seller among NFL players’ jerseys through July 17.
But Michael Sam lost out in a numbers game.  The Rams, who kept nine defensive linemen, chose to retain undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks over Sam.  While their statistics were similar, Westbrooks provided the versatility to play all four defensive line positions, while Sam had been playing virtually exclusively as a left defensive end.

Those who blog about homophobia in sports believed that Sam’s release from the team was a merely a football decision. 
“We believe Sam was cut for purely football reasons and there is zero evidence that it had anything to do with him being gay,” wrote Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “The Rams organization, from General Manager Les Snead to Fisher to the players, treated Sam as just another player, even though they were aware of his historic nature. Snead and Fisher even attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles in July, where Sam received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage.”

 Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?

Coach Fisher made a point at his news conference announcing the cuts that Sam was not a distraction.  He explained he was in Michael Sam’s corner from the start and that having the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team was no distraction at all in training camp.
“Mike’s got the ability to play someplace. It’s got to be the right place, it’s got to be a fit,” Fisher explained. “He’s a much better player now than he was when he got here.”

He added, “We’re proud to be a part of [history], it was a great experience, but there were no issues. I just think there was a lot more made of it that there should have been.”
Oh, that distraction thing! Just prior to the August 30 deadline, an ESPN correspondent released a shameful ill-advised report of Sam’s showering habits and how that related to his teammates on the Rams.  Following the expected firestorm from a multitude of LGBT rights organization to comedian Jon Stewart, ESPN made a public apology.

While the Rams are deep in defensive linemen, that could not be said for all of the remaining 31 teams who passed Michael Sam up.  Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?
That’s the million dollar question—one that is unlikely to be answered by NFL officials.  Clearly, the distraction factor from the media had to have been considered as teams evaluated the possibility of claiming Sam.  The Rams insisted the locker room culture was not negatively impacted by Sam’s presence.  The players acted professionally and did their jobs.  So did Michael Sam.  But apparently other teams are not yet ready.

Some believe that Michael Sam by declaring publicly that he is gay rolled the dice and put his chances for an NFL career at risk, though the rumors about his sexual orientation had already surfaced.
After the deadline to claim Sam passed, Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, tweeted, “Beginning to think that if Michael Sam stayed silent about his sexual orientation he would currently be signed to an NFL roster or psquad.”

However, Michael Sam has been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys to play on their practice squad.  That could lead to a chance to be on the roster and play with the team but it’s no certainty.  In the meantime, and until he does play on the 53-man roster, history will have to wait.

 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Baltimore, Baseball and Gay Love—'Queen Henry' Touches all the Bases


Begin with a straight, homophobic, narcissistic, womanizer who happens to play for the Baltimore Orioles.  Add to that his out-of-the-blue discovery he is gay, which is followed by his falling head over spikes for a man.  Toss in the swirling rumors of a gay player on the Orioles and the inherent clubhouse homophobia from his manager, some of his teammates, and his father, and you have the recipe for a glorious, deliciously written work of fiction, Queen Henry, by local author Linda Fausnet, a lifetime Orioles fan.

A successful screenwriter and a professed ally for LGBT rights, Fausnet announced that all proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation. 
Set in Baltimore, Henry Vaughn, Jr., who has a thing for Peach Schnapps, is a rather fun-loving outfielder who is immensely popular with the fans mainly because, as a self-described “attention whore,” he leads them in the seventh inning sing-along to Y-M-C-A while standing atop the dugout.  After a game, Henry carouses with his teammates, and since he is attractive, famous and single, he effortlessly finds a different woman to take home each night.

Despite his macho image, Henry secretly longs to be a Broadway performer.  His homophobic father, manager and teammates instill the anti-gay dogma in him, and he frequently uses the f-word primarily because this is the environment in which it is expected and accepted. 

Weakness or the perception of same is one of the greatest fears of a male athlete.  That is why Henry hides the use of an inhaler to deal with his asthma and instead decides to participate in a clinical drug trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  After taking the drug, administered by a medical technician named Sam, a gay man, Henry finds out shockingly while jogging the next morning he is attracted to men and lost his desires for women.  Just like that.
Panicky and confused, Henry tries to explain the situation to Sam who vehemently denies the drug had anything to do with this condition and that Henry must have been suppressing his true sexuality all along.  They don’t hit it off well as Henry’s homophobia comes through loud and clear; the tension between the two remains throughout a good portion of the book.

Nonetheless, Sam introduces Henry to a close friend and colleague at Hopkins, Thomas, who has helped people come to grips with their sexuality.  They experience a deep attraction to one another and ultimately fall in love. 
Like any good author, Fausnet seductively draws the reader into the romance and sexual steaminess with great skill, describing the relationship between Henry and Thomas with sensitivity and emotion. To her credit, the passionate sexual scenes are tastefully conveyed—full of affection and heat without seeming tawdry.

The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along and the career and family choices he will be confronted with or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
Without proceeding further to reveal the outcome, I can say that some readers may be disappointed with the ending (as I was initially) but others may like the ending (as I did eventually). 

Fausnet’s writing is extraordinary in this fluid, fast-paced tale.  Narrated in the first person by Henry, the story reads like his own journal as he reflects upon each conversation he has and reveals his inner thoughts.  We get to delve into Henry’s psyche enabling us to not only understand the challenges and quandaries he faces, but also to enthusiastically root for him.  He wins us over.
Fausnet demonstrates an uncanny understanding of gay male emotions and sexual desires (she is a happily married heterosexual mother of two) and will keep you absorbed as Henry and the other characters in the novel navigate through the events shaping their lives.

Her character development is splendid.  You feel that you know each one intimately, and most of the characters are endearing and sweet.  This is especially true of Alice, an attractive bartender at a bar Henry frequented to pick up women, sidestepping Alice by not recognizing her myriad appealing qualities.    
The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along ... or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
I suspect Fausnet purposely left out specific physical descriptions of the characters other than vague images such as beautiful eyes, muscular arms, etc. so as not to distract the reader from the underlying messages in the novel.  But I think it would have been fun and would have added context to be able to visualize each person as we turn the pages.

Fausnet’s references to Baltimore provided additional enjoyment to the storyline especially for us locals.  Besides Hopkins and Camden Yards, the Hippo is frequently mentioned throughout.  The Pride parade is a turning point scene.  The Baltimore Sun plays a vital role, and even Baltimore OUTloud is mentioned albeit as a support group marching in the Pride parade, not the wildly popular LGBT newspaper that it is!
Though there are many cleverly written light moments throughout Queen Henry—one that is particularly hilarious is when the Orioles players were speculating as to whom the gay player may be—Fausnet touches upon key social messages that are in play today. 

Despite the revelations by Jason Collins, Michael Sam and other athletes that they are gay, there is still great concern by gay male athletes to come out and face the potential hostilities.  Fausnet effectively describes the homophobia that exists in the locker room and the pressures that result. 

She began writing the novel a few years back when the environment for gays and lesbians was not as favorable as today. Therefore, I don’t think the current local media would be in the “gotcha mode” as portrayed in Queen Henry.  The same is true for the teammates who now would be wise not to publicly utter the f-word in dealing with the subject.  Moreover, the real Orioles today would not be inclined to openly express any anti-gay epithets as owner Peter Angelos, who was a substantial contributor in the fight for marriage equality in Maryland, would put the kibosh on that.
The other main theme is how Henry recognized his own homophobia, and once he learned he was gay understood how other gays and lesbians can be easily hurt and their lives wrecked by this bigotry and hatred.  He transformed his attitude once he saw himself as a victim.  It is a powerful message.

Queen Henry is a truly well-written novel with potent drama with campy humor laced throughout.  Though it contains important messages to LGBT folks and others, it is also a gorgeous love story and one that should not be missed.  Fausnet swung and hit a home run.
___
Queen Henry, Linda Fausnet, published by Wannabe Pride; July 2014; 360 pages; paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9916525-0-1); $10.62 on Amazon.com or wannabepride.com, her website to promote writers and books; $2.99 on Kindle.