Saturday, February 28, 2015

Snobbery and Wit on Display in 'Earnest'


What’s in a name?  Apparently, a lot as evidenced by Oscar Wilde’s classic work The Importance of Being Earnest currently playing in the spanking new venue of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) on Calvert and Redwood Streets.  The theatre, which is now housed in the building the Mercantile Bank had occupied, is a horseshoe shaped, three-tier structure that provides a modern-day setting to the presentation of old-time plays.
Travis Hudson as Jack (L.) and Joe Brack
as Algernon 
Photo: Teresa Castracane

The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened in London in 1895, is a farcical comedy that pokes fun at British high society in the late Victorian era and treats such serious institutions as marriage as trivial.  Though successful at the outset, this play led to Wilde’s decline as his homosexual double life was exposed to the Victorian public and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment.
The plot involves two upper crust eligible bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Joe Brack) and John “Jack” Worthing (Travis Hudson), who both create dual identities (one each for the city and one each for the country) to avoid social obligations and to pursue their intended love interests.

As their plan begins to collide, the wealthy, strong-willed and overtly snobby Lady Bracknell (Lesley Malin) implants fear in the duo as the real story of Earnest Worthing is discovered, along with an explanation of his heritage.

…Earnest is one of the most revered works by Oscar Wilde.  An endless parade of witticisms and biting rejoinders throughout spawned as long a list of memorable quotes as you will find in literature.  A good example is Lady Bracknell’s comment to Jack while interviewing him as a suitor for Gwendolyn (Katherine Elizabeth Kelley): “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” There are many more.
Erin Bone Steele directed the talented CSC ensemble with deftness.  The actors moved about with vigor creating the visual action that accompanied the witty dialogue. 

However, there was no sound designer listed in the program, and that could explain why the volume from some of the actors’ voices was uneven as they bandied about the stage.  One could point to the less than perfect acoustics stemming from the theatre’s near in-the-round configuration and high ceiling; if the actors were mic’d, it would have been easier to hear each and every witticism. 
No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair.  His muscular, rich voice and comedic timing is a huge asset to the production.  In Mr. Brack’s sparring with Mr. Hudson’s Jack, he elicited guffaws from the audience with this: “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.”   

#hocoarts
"No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair."


The two male leads played off each other with strikingly good chemistry as did their respective love interests Ms. Kelly’s Gwendolyn character and Lizzi Albert as Cecily.  Playing the uppity Lady Blacknell, Leslie Malin turned in a delicious performance. 
Rounding out the cast are Lisa Hodsoll as Miss Prism, Cicely’s governess; Lyle Blake Smythers, playing dual roles as a servant and butler; and Gregory Burgess as a priest were admirable and added laughs to the production.   

Costume Designer Krisitna Lamdin did a fine job in fitting the performers in period attire especially Lady Blacknell’s exquisitely lush white gown in the second act.  Lighting Designer Katie McCreary brightened up the simple set.
The Importance of Being Earnest will keep you laughing throughout, and you are likely to enjoy a talented ensemble performing the witty brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes with an intermission.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays Thursdays through Sundays through March 22, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore 21202.  For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570 or online.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Truth or Consequences


The recent kerfuffle over Brian Williams’ false statements about a helicopter he was riding in being hit with enemy fire during the war in Iraq motivated me and others to reflect on journalism and our own roles in the press. The wounds from Williams’ fictional accounts or conflation of events were self-inflicted. Williams shot himself in the foot with those mistruths and called into question not only his own integrity and trustworthiness, but he also cast a shadow over so many other journalists—deserved or not.

Though more popular today than other news sources, the Internet as a purveyor of news has its perils, especially because bloggers, tweeters and Facebook posters, who are not necessarily journalists, can essentially write what they want.  Throw in YouTube users who can present a partial picture of real-time events whereby one could speculate as to what actually occurred immediately prior to and following the footage.  
For these Internet news sources, fact-checking has become a nuisance to many, not a necessity, as the inconvenience to take time out to verify a particular assertion would hamper the race to first break a story on the Net.  For bloggers, there are few penalties in place for false reporting, and there are seldom any higher-ups for them to report, so that the authors of these news pieces are essentially unaccountable.
Regardless of the medium, whoever is delivering the news is assumed to be trustworthy, at least minimally.  Over a half a century ago, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered by many to be the most trusted man in America.  That is quite a label to tag someone with the weight of that responsibility adding to the pressure.  If he had faltered in the way Williams did, the country would have been in collective mourning and journalism would never be the same.
So how does a journalist gain the trust of his or her readers, listeners or viewers?  Simply put, do the job properly.  You write or tell the story as accurately as humanly possible; fact-check and verify; and never make yourself the story as Brian Williams did.
It’s not always easy.  In over three decades of reporting and commenting on LGBT news, there have been obstacles to these principles thrown my way, which I needed to navigate.  For one thing, if you have a source, make sure the source is reliable and credible.  This is where the road can be filled with potholes.
To the extent possible, a journalist should rely on first-hand knowledge of an incident; too often our sources are second-hand.  That means, we’re being told of an incident but not from an eyewitness.  The source heard about it or knew someone involved in an incident.  The rumor mill is not a source of news.  Rarely is there any truth attached to rumors, and if there is some relationship to the rumor, it’s usually partial at best.  Verification is essential when given such “leads.”
"There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way."

Recently, we’ve heard rumors swirling about a certain bar that had been sold to a drugstore chain.  No one could substantiate it but people expect us to write about it.  The rumor was not only false but potentially damaging to the business.  That’s how you get sued.  Rumors of the demise of gay-owned businesses or LGBT organizations may be fun to gossip about in our communities, but unless they’re backed up by facts, it will never see the light of day in any responsible news medium.
Then we have the “report and retreat” source—a moniker I created for this piece.  That person will tell you of an incident—usually an assault—and quickly call it a hate crime.  OK, but when asked if it was reported to the police, the source says “no.” 
If you do not report any such incidents officially, it’s not a crime for the purpose of police statistics, much less a hate crime. Without a report, there is no way for the police to accurately allocate resources to the affected areas.  And if you refuse to report it, I won’t write about it because the police serve as a collaborating source. 
In addition, there are “report and retreat” sources who simply refuse to go on record for whatever reason.  There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way.  No story was written on the matter, and that person will never be considered a reliable source in the future.
There are exceptions.  Someone who is not out would not want to report such an incident if it occurred in or near a gay establishment.  Therefore, the journalist, after recognizing this sensitivity, must meticulously interview the person and decide if the story holds up under scrutiny.  This would apply to any source who asks to be anonymous in exchange for information.
We also have the “report and contradiction” source.  An alleged attack outside a bar was running rampant on Facebook—a site that should be looked at with skepticism.  I checked with some folks who supposedly “witnessed” the attack and their stories were contradictory.  Their descriptions of the attacker and the sequence of events were completely dissimilar.  Nothing was written about it since there was no consensus of facts, and again, nothing was reported to the police.
These are just a few examples of the frustrating challenges I have faced in trying to ferret out the truth and then report it to the larger community. The key term here is “truth.”  That’s what responsible journalists seek and that’s what they should only report. 
If not, there are consequences as Brian Williams and other journalists can attest.
 
 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Crazy 'Addams Family' Delights at Toby's


Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky—that surely defines that ooky Addams family.  You can add hilarious and goofy to the mix and you have the recipe for a delicious, zany production of The Addams Family currently playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.


The Addams Family cast.  Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Not many musicals include potions to provoke one’s inner dark side, torture apparatus, and de-blooming of flowers but The Addams Family has all that and more.  Toby’s production also includes an incredibly well-cast ensemble under the precise direction of Mark Minnick who also handled the choreography.
This is not a knock-off of the loveable and popular TV series The Addams Family of mid-60’s yore with Baltimore native John Astin and Carolyn Jones as the leads.  Instead, the musical whose music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, was patterned after the ghoulish, comical characters in Charles Addams’ cartoons.  

The Addams Family opened on Broadway in March 2010 and ended its run on December 31, 2011 after over 700 performances.  The show failed to capture any of the eight Tony Award nominations in 2010, even with Nathan Lane in the lead, but did receive a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design.  Despite less than stellar reviews and the lack of accolades, The Addams Family did well financially on Broadway and spawned numerous regional and touring productions both in the U.S. and internationally.
Toby’s presentation is more similar to the touring production than the Broadway original. The storyline centers on the morbid and crazy Addams family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch—whose preoccupation with death and darkness provides most of the humor in the show.  They are visited by the straight-laced Beineke family from Ohio—a swing state as bellowed by Gomez—whereby the son Lucas, the beau of Wednesday, brings his parents Mal and Alice to meet the Addamses in a what-can-possibly-go-wrong scenario. 

Fortunately, a lot does go wrong, which forms the essence of the story and the ensuing hilarity.  The hijinks, nuttiness and zingers, however, are largely packed into the first act, which sets up the show.  The second act lacks that same comedic punch and pace with the characters turning to sentimentality and reconciliation, but it is still enjoyable.  In the end, the Addams clan realizes it’s too crazy, and the Beinekes acknowledge they’re not crazy enough.
 
"The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast. "
Musically, Lippa’s score does not contain the tuneful melodies that will leave you humming as you exit the theater.  Nonetheless, his lyrics are potently funny, and in the manner of Sondheim, the lyrics will get your attention.  #hocoarts

Those songs that stand out include, “When You’re an Addams,” “Trapped,” “Pulled,” “One Normal Night,” “Full Disclosure,” “Crazier Than You,” and “Live Before We Die.” Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a fine job as always backing up the vocalists.
It’s not just the songs and dialogue that will keep you chuckling.  The set, designed by David A. Hopkins, is detailed to the core with 19th century Gothic furniture and other accoutrements including gas lamps encased by spider webs and a Spanish Inquisition chair that is bound to get a response from a person sitting on it.  Even "Thing "and "Cousin Itt" make brief appearances through Mr. Hopkins’ creativity.

Credit Costume Coordinator Lawrence B. Munsey and Lighting Designer Coleen M. Foley for adding the appropriate spookiness to the production.
The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast.  In such a campy production, the temptation is for the performers to go overboard, but under Mark Minnick’s guiding hand, the performers exhibit the right amount of restraint without sacrificing the comedy.

Lawrence B. Munsey turns in yet another masterful performance.  He sparkled in recent Toby’s productions playing Javert in Les Misérables and King Arthur in Spamalot, and as Gomez Addams, he continues that solid streak. 
Mr. Munsey’s commands the stage with his well-timed rejoinders, gestures and a rich baritone voice. He is particularly strong in singing “Trapped” and “Live Before We Die.”  Gomez is challenged to placate Morticia because he kept a certain secret from her (she abhors secrecy) and is one of the major plotlines. 

Morticia is played by another Toby’s veteran, the lovely Priscilla Cuellar.  Her stellar singing voice shined in Spamalot, and she brought that vocal prowess to Addams in “Secrets” and “Just Around the Corner.”  Morticia gave a lot of grief to Gomez and was convincing in doing so. Their onstage repartee is excellent.
Wednesday Addams, played by MaryKate Brouillet, did a fine job conveying her sadism towards  her younger brother Pugsley, and her desire to marry Lucas (played well with exuberance and earnestness by AJ Whittenberger). 


Gomez (Lawrence B. Munsey) kisses Morticia's (Priscilla Cuellar) hand
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
She performed nicely in a duet with Jace Franco as Pugsley for the performance reviewed in “Pulled.” (Gavin Willard also plays Pugsley in other performances.)  Ms. Brouillet possesses a powerful singing voice as does the young Mr. Franco.  The latter commands a good range and comedic instincts, which bodes well for his future in musical theatre.
Cross-gender cast as the centenarian Grandma is David James who is funny at every turn. You can laugh simply by looking at him/her.  

Rounding out the Addamses are Shawn Kettering as Uncle Fester who discovered he is in love with the moon and David Bosley-Reynolds as the near silent, methodically plodding Lurch.  Both played their respective characters to the hilt.
Darren McDonnell as Mal Beineke, Lucas’ father, excels as a control-freak whose marriage was about to collapse from deceit and other maladies.  He needed to be crazier, and where would be a better place to start other than the Addams’ mansion in the middle of Central Park?

His wife Alice, played energetically by Elizabeth Rayca, is seemingly victimized by Mel’s bland personality had turned to random rhymes for solace. The marital problems seem to work out at the end. 
The remainder of the company included ten living, dead and undecided Addams’ ancestors, and they did a splendid job of supporting the principals in song and dance.

The Addams Family at Toby’s is guaranteed to keep you laughing, and you will count your blessings that you’re not a relative of that kooky but loveable family.
Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

The Addams Family runs through April 19 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Wood Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  To purchase tickets call 410-730-8311 or visit online.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lively, Joyous 'Godspell' at Olney


Olney Theatre Center launched its 77th season with a joyful and uplifting production of the musical Godspell.  With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who went on to write Pippin and Wicked, and a book by John-Michael Tebelak, the production opened off Broadway in 1971 and has become a staple of high school and community theatre as well as numerous professional mountings and tours since.
Photo by Stan Barouh
Based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show is a mixture of Scripture parables as told by Jesus loosely tied together with songs and dance. 
  Godspell at Olney is an updated version based on the 2011 Broadway revival. The original 1971 production had a hippie clown folk motif in keeping with that era. The Olney production has more of a hipster, rock and amped vibe more in keeping with the generation brought up on the musical Rent.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Revisiting O'Malley's March to Equality


As the final snowflakes dissipated during newly elected governor Larry Hogan’s inauguration, I couldn’t help but think of his predecessor’s legacy on LGBT equality and what an arduous journey it was.    #hocopolitics
Signing the historic marriage equality bill into law
There was much hope on the marriage equality front with the former Mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, defeating Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. in November 2006.  Ehrlich had stated that same-sex marriage would never take place “on his watch” and was generally unsympathetic to LGBT rights in general. Never mind that he employed two openly gay chiefs of staff during his term.

With O’Malley, however, we saw the possibility of a rainbow across the skies of Maryland.  Alas, it did not start off well. 
In his inaugural address in 2007, O’Malley said, “I take responsibility as one leader for never trying to divide our people by race, class, religion or region.”  Unfortunately, there was no mention of sexual orientation let alone gender identity.

When the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down a lower court’s ruling in September 2007 that would have granted 19 plaintiffs and consequently other gays and lesbians the right to legally marry in Maryland, O’Malley stated, “I look forward to reading the court’s full opinion, but as we move forward, those of us with the responsibility of passing and enforcing laws have an obligation to protect the rights of all individuals equally, without telling any faith how to define its sacraments. I respect the court’s decision.”

“That offensive statement represented just one of O’Malley’s tortured positions on the issue,” commented Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff.  “In 2004, O’Malley told a Baltimore TV station that, ‘I’m not opposed to civil marriages.’
“Also in 2004, he sent an e-mail to a plaintiff in the state marriage lawsuit that read, ‘I’m just supporting something I strongly believe in,’ referring to marriage equality. But by early 2006, O’Malley’s position was shifting and he said, ‘I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a fundamental issue of the state’s public policy, and a decision that ultimately should not be made by a single trial court judge.’ When confronted by gay activists after issuing that statement, O’Malley disavowed any previous support of marriage equality.”

There were few, if any, meetings between the governor and Equality Maryland, the organization that was spearheading the effort towards achieving marriage equality during O’Malley’s first term.  A leading advocate who was present at one such meeting said the governor avoided the subject.
From 2008-2010 legislation was introduced to legalize same-sex nuptials but each time the bill died in committee.  All the while O’Malley stated his support for civil unions but not same-sex marriage.

In 2010, Attorney General Douglas Gansler issued an opinion whereby Maryland would recognize the same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.  This development was a significant landmark in the ultimate road to equality.
The effort gained momentum in 2011. When the bill again was introduced in the General Assembly, O’Malley said he would sign it if passed, saying, “I have concluded that discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation in the context of civil marital rights is unjust. I have also concluded that treating the children of families headed by same-sex couples with lesser protections under the law than the children of families headed by heterosexual parents, is also unjust.”  Though he testified for the bill, it failed to garner enough votes to make it out of the House.

Following the passage of marriage equality in New York State in June 2011, O’Malley took a far more proactive role in the 2012 General Assembly.  Allaying the fears of religious conservatives, the bill—Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act—contained explicit language that would not force religious leaders and institutions to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies among other protections. O’Malley vocally supported the bill, testified on its behalf, and lobbied wavering legislators to vote for it.
When the governor gave the State of the State address in February, he said, “It’s not right and it’s not just that children of gay couples should have less protection than the children of other families in the state.”


O’Malley admitted that his reluctance to use the term “civil marriage” early on was based on advice given by his political advisors while he was mayor.


The bill narrowly passed both houses, and the governor joyously signed it into law on March 1, 2012.
During the ensuing Question 6 referendum battle, O’Malley pushed hard for victory as this was to become a legacy issue for him along with the Dream Act, repeal of the death penalty and other social measures, which would showcase his progressive bona fides should he decide to run for President.

He continued to press for a win to uphold the law by persuading leading clergy to support the effort. He went outside the state to raise money for the referendum campaign that was run by the Human Rights Campaign-led Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition. 
It was clear that O’Malley was displeased by the progress the coalition was making. In August, there was only $400,000 in the coffers—a decidedly low amount considering the need to air TV commercials.  He installed Delegate Maggie McIntosh to handle the day-to-day operations as the campaign had been in disarray, and paid staff was cut by a third.  In the end, after $6 million was spent, the voters upheld the law by a 52-48 percent margin.

O’Malley admitted that his reluctance to use the term “civil marriage” early on was based on advice given by his political advisors while he was mayor.  Nonetheless, he saw the light, perhaps motivated by the passage of marriage equality in New York whose governor Andrew Cuomo was a potential rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Regardless, we would not have won marriage equality in 2012 without him.  And the same could be said for the passage of the Fairness for All Marylanders Act in 2014.

It had been a long, hard march towards equality but Martin O’Malley finished it in style

Friday, January 23, 2015

'One Night in Miami' Wins by a Knockout


What perfect timing for Center Stage to present Kemp Powers’ outstanding play One Night in Miami!  The fictional story of four African-American icons who were also friends—Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke—who gathered in a Miami hotel on February 25, 1964, the night of Clay’s upset win over heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston that took place during the height of the civil rights struggle.   
We are approaching Black History Month; we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday; and we’re about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  But where the past is so often prologue, the country is still living under the shadow of racial tensions ignited by the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner—developments not lost on Director Kwame Kwei-Armah who superbly helms Powers’ compelling work.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Hall of Famer Through and Through


Colette Roberts will be inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame on March 12, 2015.  She will be joined by four other distinguished women and those wh o had been inducted in the past. 

Here’s why:

Colette Roberts distinguished herself in Howard County’s efforts to advance human rights by identifying the need for equality and support for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their families and friends.  
 
The mother of four children, one of whom is a lesbian, Ms. Roberts strongly believes that her gay daughter is every bit as worthy and equal as her other children.  She applied this principle to all LGBT individuals, and in 1995, co-founded the Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Throughout the years at the helm of PFLAG-Howard County, the chapter had become a model for the other 500 PFLAG chapters nationally to emulate.  The chapter’s mission includes support, education and advocacy components, and it has excelled in all three under the stewardship of Colette Roberts.

But her contributions to human rights in Howard County transcended the efficient functioning of the chapter.  Over the years, Ms. Roberts had taken countless numbers of phone calls—many during the middle of the night—from parents who have extreme difficulty in dealing with finding out that their child is LGBT. 
 
Additionally, she received frantic, emotional, sometimes desperate calls from teenagers who have found that not only were their parents not accepting such disclosure, but also were frequently hostile.  Because some parents actually evicted the children, Ms. Roberts worked with community services and individuals to seek placement for these children until stability was restored within the family.

Jefferson Jackson Community Builder Award
from then County Executive Ken Ulman
Understanding that children are vulnerable to the hostility and fear in a society that is not always accepting of LGBT individuals, even in a progressive and inclusive area as Howard County, the chapter, under Ms. Roberts leadership formed a youth support group, now called Rainbow Youth and Allies (RYA). It provides a safe place for LGBT youth ages 14 to 22, to meet, socialize and receive support. 
 
The RYA has been a success story that has received national attention.  It has been instrumental in establishing Gay-Straight Alliances in the county high schools and has been a safe haven for youth to come to terms with their sexuality and form social and support networks.   Many straight teens and young adults who are supportive have also participated in the RYA.  Moreover, Ms. Roberts worked closely with the Howard County Public School System and its board to foster a safe environment in which all students—gay or straight—may successfully learn.

Under her leadership, Ms. Roberts also established a very successful support group for parents of LGBT children of any age.  In this endeavor, parents who have completed the journey from denial to full advocacy of LGBT equality lend support to parents who are confronted with this issue for the first time.

 In addition, Ms. Roberts, with other members of the chapter’s Advocacy Committee, had continually met with legislators and other elected officials to present the case for full equality for LGBT individuals.

For her efforts, Colette Roberts received an award in November 2005 from Equality Maryland, the state’s principal LGBT civil rights organization.  She was honored before such dignitaries as then Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and civil rights activist Julian Bond.  Colette Roberts was recognized for her energy and drive in making lives better for the LGBT community and their families in Howard County. 
 
Receiving Human Rights Commission Award
In 2007, she received the Howard County’s Human Rights Commission Award for her efforts to improve the lives of LGBT citizens and their families.  In accepting her award, Ms. Roberts acknowledged the work of the chapter in supporting parents and families of LGBT children but also in trying to eradicate discrimination. 
 
“We welcome everyone who shares in the vision of a world that respects all people,” she said.  Calvin Ball, then Chair of the Howard County Council said after the presentation, “Colette Roberts is a committed public servant, and we’re lucky to have her in Howard County.”

In 2010, Ms. Roberts was honored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) for her years of service to the community. The same year she was honored by the Howard County Democratic Party when she was presented with the Jefferson Jackson Community Builder Award by County Executive Ken Ulman.

Colette Roberts has improved the lives of women by keeping Howard County families together.  She served as a volunteer for the National Organization for Women in its quest to achieve an Equal Rights Amendment.  As a member of an interracial couple, Ms. Roberts experienced first hand the stain of discrimination.  She has fought discrimination all her life and does not want to see her daughter to be a victim of hate and prejudice based on who she is.  Ms. Roberts doesn’t want any other children to be victims either. 

Her achievements in the area of human rights have been bold and enduring.  She helped to create and maintain a viable organization that has garnered an incredible amount of respect and admiration throughout the county.  She succeeded in keeping families together by dedicating much of her time and energy to this cause.  As such, Colette Roberts has made a difference in the lives of Howard County’s citizens.

Ms. Roberts had resigned her post as PFLAG chapter Chairperson in January 2010 for personal reasons.  She along with her now late husband Jim owned a small business for many years on Ellicott City’s Main Street.  She is currently employed as an administrative assistant at Howard Community College.

Colette Roberts’ legacy in the area of civil rights and improving the lives of so many is lasting and, therefore, is worthy of being selected in the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame.

 

 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Localizing for the Right Reasons


The news that a new equality center was planned for North Baltimore that includes the heavily LGBT-populated areas of Waverly and Charles Village was met by a subtle attempt to stir unnecessary controversy by our local mainstream newspaper.  The teaser tweets relating to their story read, “Former head of GLCCB creating her own LGBT services organization” and “Will Kelly Neel’s North Baltimore Equality Center be a GLCCB partner or rival?”
The implication is that Kelly Neel, who had resigned in October from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) as interim executive director and has proceeded to launch a new organization, North Baltimore Equality Center (NBEq), is motivated by her departure in an attempt to stick a finger in the eye of her previous employer.
This is simply not true.

To be fair, the environment at the GLCCB prompting Kelly’s resignation last October was, as she described, “tumultuous”.  She believed the Board members at the time did not communicate effectively with her, did not provide needed support, nor did they share her vision regarding the Center’s finances and event planning.  In turn, Board members were not fond of her job performance. 
The permanent job (assuming the word “permanent” is even appropriate) was clearly not going to be hers although her application would have been considered.  She read the handwriting on the wall, saw no chance of reaching common ground, and said adios.  Joel Tinsley-Hall was ultimately selected to fill the position.

Evidence of Kelly’s commitment to the community and not retribution towards the GLCCB was demonstrated by her actions immediately following her resignation.  Instead of leaving the Center bitterly and with her tail between her legs as others in that situation may have done, she meticulously provided a detailed blueprint and set of instructions for her successor to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.  I know Joel appreciated that.
Her biggest gripe as stated in an email blast to her friends and supporters that announced her resignation was not so much the GLCCB but the “culture of disconnect between the various organizations that provide services to our LGBTQ community.”  Kelly lamented the lack of communication and collaboration among the organizations causing some people to be unaware of available services.

If you know Kelly, you understand her passion for helping community members receive services and participate in programs, not trying to compete with other organizations including the GLCCB.  That is one of the reasons she wanted to start an Equality Center in North Baltimore, an area where she resides.  Simply put, Kelly wants to partner with other organizations to help the community.
 “There is a need in our community and I intend to work to satiate it, not to run other organizations out of the game,” Kelly Neel told me in an interview. “Programs are similar to that of the GLCCB because there is a need for these sorts of programs across the city, not solely in Mount Vernon.”  

Indeed, there are AA meetings held at the GLCCB, for example, but AA meetings exist all over the city.  No one entity has a monopoly on a program or service; organizations could and should work together.
“I have met with Joel Tinsley-Hall…and have discussed the potential North Baltimore Equality Center and my plans to include the GLCCB as a partner,” Kelly points out.  “Joel expressed that he is 100 percent on board and would love to collaborate in the future. In addition, I see the North Baltimore Equality Center as a way to bring together the various LGBTQ organizations in Baltimore City to collaboratively tackle the issues our community faces.”

Kelly feels the critical issue of money can be best helped by a shared effort. “In my opinion, if we are all working in partnership towards the same goals, it is much more attractive to potential funding groups and foundations,” she explains.  “Applying for grants jointly and in partnership allows the funders’ dollars [to] travel further, allowing two organizations to serve their community through one grant.”

For sure, funding will be a key to success.  Competing for precious dollars from donors and securing grants is a daunting challenge.  Kelly estimates that $60,000-$65,000 will be needed the first year.  She must overcome that competition with other organizations and selling the idea to a steadily disengaging community.  While responses to a needs survey that coincided with her announced launch have been robust during the early stages, completing a survey and writing a check are two different matters.
Should the NBEq Center become successful, Kelly envisions partner sites around the city to help community member access services and programs. “I think it is important to localize the movement but in a cohesive manner,” Kelly says. “Resources and programs that do not cater to the surrounding community's interest will not be successful. In addition, one central organization becomes less effective if the community it intends to serve cannot reach them. Proximity is a big deal in Baltimore. If I cannot easily and affordably reach your services, I am far less inclined to use them.”

This idea of localization is a good one and is something I argued for on a statewide level last March.  We should decentralize the equality movement and establish local and regional outlets, such as Western Maryland Equality, Southern Maryland Equality, Eastern Shore Equality and the several PFLAG chapters already in place throughout the state to more effectively reach our communities.
Local branches would be better equipped to “put out fires” and deal with corresponding local elected officials, school boards, police departments, and business entities since the folks working with them are neighbors.

Kelly Neel’s NBEq venture would apply this principle and make it easier for community members to benefit from the services and programs offered.  This is a smart approach all the way around and should be supported by our communities.  It is by no means intended to settle scores or create rivalries.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rep Stage Scores Big in 'The Whale'


The set of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 The Whale currently playing at Rep Stage’s Studio Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College screams, “I don’t care anymore.”  An unkempt living room, an untidy kitchen, books in shelves strewn about in haphazard fashion, and clothes hanging in various places in this crummy northern Idaho apartment symbolizes the pathetic, self-loathing, apologetic main character Charlie who resides in this disarray.  His apartment is a mess, and so is his life.  Designer James Fouchard crafted this outstanding, realistic set for this play.  #hocoarts

Michael Russotto as Charlie and Wood Van Meter as Elder Thomas
Photo: Katie Simmons-Barth
Charlie, played brilliantly by Michael Russotto, is a gay man who heartbreakingly lost his partner Allan to an early death.  A teacher of expository writing for an online class and a fan of Herman Melville, Charlie previously had lost his wife because he came out to her as gay, and in the process lost his then 2 year-old daughter 15 years earlier with nonexistent contact. 
As a result of this depression, he ate everything in sight and is morbidly obese to the tune of 600 pounds. His blood pressure is astronomical.  He can hardly move and breathe.  He is dying, and he knows it. 
 
But before that fateful day occurs, Charlie wants to reconcile, particularly with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie—a hateful, acid-tongued, potty-mouth, sadistic loner consumed with bitterness over her life and her father’s absence from it.  He also sought to make amends with his ex-wife Mary who struggled to bring up their daughter alone.

Under the direction of Helen Hayes Award recipient Kasi Campbell, a Rep Stage veteran, the ensemble is in complete harmony even if the fictional characters are not.  The actors portray their roles through stunningly realistic performances.  The full range of emotions are carried out expertly, and the audience is made to feel empathy for the “disgusting” Charlie, encased in padding to simulate his obesity.
Scene changes are deftly executed aided by Lighting Designer Jay Herzog’s blackout techniques—sort of like a long blink—so when the lights reappear, characters are seamlessly in a different part of the stage or different characters quietly emerge.

Playwright Hunter, who is gay, originally from Idaho and now living in New York, does not overplay the gay angle.  Though being gay is central to the demise of Charlie and his relationships to others who had been in his life, the theme reverberating throughout the play is the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the biblical tale Jonah and the Whale.
The added layer of  metaphorical references to whales laced throughout are evident including Charlie’s blubbery figure and his ultimate search for redemption, but to me the plotlines in the play are substantial enough to stand on their own.  Even Sound Designer Neil McFadden joins in the whale motif with sounds of surf rumbling during the blackout intervals between scenes—in landlocked Idaho!

Nonetheless, the strength of Rep Stage’s The Whale lies in the performances by the talented cast.  As Charlie, Mr. Russotto is totally realistic by his struggle just to get up from a chair and his difficult breathing efforts.  He skillfully invokes the right amount of humor and pathos in his role, steering the audience to pull for him. 
Megan Anderson plays Liz, a nurse, who has been the only friend to help care for Charlie.  Her true reason for getting involved in his life is revealed during the play and it comes as a dramatic surprise.  Stoic and loyal, Liz is the reason Charlie made it this far.  Ms. Anderson, a Helen Hayes nominee, turns in a strong performance and exhibits well-delivered witty and sarcastic rejoinders.

Wood Van Meter effectively plays a 19 year-old Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, who simply walks in on Charlie as he is masturbating to porn on his computer.  Can’t a man have privacy?  I suppose in Idaho doors are not locked, but the practical reason is that it would take too much effort for Charlie to answer it.
The relationship between the two is complex; immediately the sexual possibilities are demolished, but Charlie is curious about the Mormon Church.  Eager to oblige, Elder Thomas, who has a troubled history himself, toils to educate him.  The reason for Charlie’s partner’s death is linked to the man’s involvement in the local Mormon Church, and the young missionary is asked to look into it.  Mr. Van Meter is effective i playing the clean, white-shirt and tie-clad missionary and demonstrates solid chemistry with Mr. Russotto’s Charlie.  He aptly displays anger and calm when called upon.

As the hot-tempered daughter Ellie, Jenna Rossman is dynamic but at times could be a bit over-the-top.  The frequent use of the politically incorrect word “retarded” is wince-worthy, to be sure, but Ms. Rossman defines her character expertly with her no-holds-barred insults towards her father.  It’s hard to melt a block of ice, but in the end, she manages to show a glimmer of warmth.
Late appearing in the play is Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife played by Susan Rome.  Bursting through the door with a purpose, she confronts Ellie and Charlie where she participates in an outstanding dramatic scene.   

The Whale is a potent addition to Rep Stage’s 22nd season.  It hits on issues, such as parenting, teaching, overeating and being gay with religious opposition.  It’s a well-directed play that should not be missed if you enjoy extraordinary acting, well-timed humor, and can manage a tear or two.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains profanity and is not suitable for children.
The Whale plays through February 1 at Rep Stage’s Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets call 443-518-1500 or visit online 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Equality Organization Planned for North Baltimore


In an effort to provide needed services and programs to residents in Charles Village and Waverly, a new non-profit called the North Baltimore Equality (NBEq) Center is being planned. Using the catchy theme “Let’s be Bmore Equal,” the goal, according to founder Kelly Neel, is “to bring a small community center environment with programming and resources through partnerships for all ages, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, etc. with a focus on LGBTQ individuals, in addition to programming and services for all underserved populations.” 

On the new website, an additional explanation is offered stating, “While our main focus is to provide a safe and welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community, we also provide support to the broader community by offering low-cost access to technology, programs, events and educational workshops that boost involvement in the arts and environment, and provide skills for healthy, smart, sustainable living. All we ask is that those who choose to use our services make a conscious effort to treat everyone they meet kindly and equitably and strive to “Bmore Equal”. 
Before any plans are set in concrete, Neel is requesting the community to complete a brief survey on the website.  Respondents are asked to choose among a series of potential community programs ranging from adult education/job readiness to bicycle safety.  People can write in their own choices as well.

For community services, among the available choices are a drop-in center, a media center and studio space available for artists and performers for a nominal hourly rate.  Again, the public can add others as they see fit.
In addition, several support groups were proposed including a youth group, a transgender support group, LGBTQ-friendly Alcoholics Anonymous among others.

The website offers a Project Outline, an About page, a Volunteer Application page as well as the survey.  The Project Outline provides the organization’s leadership structure and responsibilities as well as details concerning the proposed programs and services.
Neel, who was the interim executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) before resigning this past September, acknowledges that NBEq intends to offer programs and services that have historically been operated by the GLCCB.  She points out that these services are needed throughout the city, not just in Mount Vernon and that GLCCB executive director Joel Tinsley-Hall is “100 per cent on board.”  Neel is seeking the GLCCB to be a partner in this endeavor along with other community organizations.

Kelly Neel
“I see the NBEq Center as a way to bring together the various LGBTQ organizations in Baltimore City to collaboratively tackle the issues our community faces,” Neel told Baltimore OUTloud.  “If we are all working in partnership towards the same goals, it is much more attractive to potential funding groups and foundations. Applying for grants jointly and in partnership allows the funders’ dollars to travel further; killing two birds with one stone, or in a more PETA friendly terms, allowing two organizations to serve their community through one grant.”  A first year budget is estimated between $60,000 and $65,000.
Space to house the NBEq Center’s programs and services are dependent upon the extent in which the partnering organizations become involved and location feasibility.  Initially, the 29th Street Center is thought of as a good fit because planned programs overlap with existing programs at the Center; however, a partnership has not yet been established. Additional space options are indicated on the Project Outline on the website.

The area in which NBEq intends to serve contains the most concentrated population of LGBT folks of anywhere in the Baltimore vicinity.  However, Neel intends to offer programs and services throughout the city and beyond if this project is successful.


"These services are needed throughout the city, not just in Mount Vernon."--Kelly Neel

“I have stated before that the needs of the community in North Baltimore are different than the needs of the community in say Canton/Fells Point, which differ from the needs in Midtown or Mount Vernon, and from Federal Hill to Druid Hill,” Neel explains. “My hope is that down the road, this type of targeted resource can be established through the North Baltimore Equality Center project by people in those communities. I do want to stress that this in no way implies that programs that are already established will be taken over; my goal is for the project to help support these programs and find a way to more easily house programs/resources in one cohesive location in each community in the city.” 

But now Neel’s focus is to get the organization established and running successfully to serve the North Baltimore population. “Haste makes waste; therefore, I want to make sure everything we do is well planned and supported so that each program can be executed successfully before taking on additional responsibilities and tasks.”
To keep up with developments, follow NBEq on Twitter @bmore_equal or on Facebook at facebook.com/bmoreequal.  Questions can be emailed to thecenter@bmoreequal.org.

Monday, January 05, 2015

‘Gayzing’ Into My Crystal Ball: What’s in Store for 2015?


One thing about crystal balls, they’re not always crystal clear.  However, I’ve relied on them for some time now to make my annual predictions.  Twelve months ago, when I tried to forecast how 2014 would likely work out for the LGBT world, I was accurate in some cases and blew it in others.  That’s the risk you take when you depend on an inanimate object.

Graphic: Joe Velazquez
Looking back, I wrote correctly that 2014 would be a good year for marriage equality advances throughout the country, which came true in stunning fashion.  I also said that an interesting development would take place regarding at least one local LGBT organization.  Bull’s eye on that one, too, as the GLCCB found a new home.
Happily, I was off the mark regarding non-discrimination protections in Maryland based on gender identity.  I reasoned that with 2014 being an election year, the folks in Annapolis wouldn’t touch the hot-button issue.  Well, they did, and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act is now the law without the anguish from a referendum battle.

With some trepidation from a history of mixed bags in predicting, I will keep the tradition going with some forecasts for 2015. 
I’ll start not with a prediction but a statement.  In Maryland, this will be the first year in a decade where neither the major issues of marriage equality nor transgender protections will be a focus by advocates in Annapolis.  There remains other work to be done, for sure, but unfortunately these initiatives are not headline-grabbers like marriage equality.

Equality Maryland, who has helped fight those eventual winning battles, laid out their agenda for the 2015 General Assembly consisting of three bills they would like to see passed: 1)  a bill that would allow transgender people to change their Maryland birth certificate when it’s right for them; 2) a bill that would ensure  equal insurance coverage for same-sex married couples in the area of in-vitro fertilization; and 3) a bill that would ensure  that when parents separate, the best interests of the children will be the criteria to determine a non-legal (de facto) parent’s rights and responsibilities.

Though not glamorous, these are worthy measures and we should support them. In addition,  I would like to see  Equality Maryland, FreeState Legal Project and other members of the coalition comprising the Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) attempt to advance at least some of the recommendations contained in the YEA report released last August. 
This report focused in stark terms on the way LGBT youth are subject to poor treatment in schools, and in the foster care and juvenile justice systems—the “school to jail pipeline."  I predict, however, not much will happen in that regard.

Nationally, marriage equality will again be front and center.  While they’ve punted in the past allowing various federal Circuit Courts of Appeals’ decisions prohibiting same-sex marriage bans to stand, the U.S. Supreme Court justices will have to hold their collective noses and issue a national ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage once and for all.  There is that much momentum going; 2015 should be the year.
I predict the tragic suicide of young transgender Leelah Alcorn will be the big fight in 2015 as activists will go all-out in an attempt to ban conversion therapy and to fight intolerance.  Sadly, we tend to rely on suicides and murders as catalysts to get people energized.

The decades-long attempts to end workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (ENDA—Employment Nondiscrimination Act) during this Congress will continue to be met with frustration.  Though the Senate a year ago passed a bill by a 64-32 majority, the House leadership refused to take up the measure despite the likelihood it would have passed (since there were more Democrats in the 113th Congress before the election) and President Obama would have signed it into law. 
As we approach the 114th Congress—the one with the largest GOP majority in 83 years—there is no incentive on the part of Republicans to move on the bill and cause further fissures between social conservatives and establishment, more pragmatic lawmakers.  The newly elected and empowered representatives will not support ending this discrimination.  Thus, ENDA will continue to languish at least through 2015. 

As interest in the presidential race for 2016 heats up, there will be anti-marriage equality rhetoric from potential contenders—especially from socially bigoted, er, conservative hopefuls Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, which could push other candidates to the right.  It would be a certainty should the Supreme Court rule favorably on marriage equality.
In sports, I believe another pro athlete will come out.  It would be great if it originated by a player from our national pastime, but I would be celebrating no matter who it is. Baseball umpire Dale Scott set a promising tone with more support than not.  Also, look for Michael Sam to land a spot on an NFL roster.

An even more confident prediction is that should a gay athlete come out, anti-gay folks will declare they “don’t care” or they “don’t want to hear about it.”  That is the new meme for disliking the fact a male pro athlete announces he’s gay. 
Back home again, Chase Brexton Health Care, after establishing an LGBT Health Resource Center, will likely take on an expanded role in providing other LGBT services that had not been done before by Chase Brexton.

And one thing I will predict with sure-fire certainty: now that Pride has moved—at least temporarily to July where drag queens and leather folks could melt and form puddles in the summer’s heat—people will find a way to complain about the dates and location.  It’s a Baltimore tradition like crabs, Natty Boh, and snow panic.
Have a safe, healthy and happy 2015 and let’s toast that the good predictions come true and the bad ones don’t.