Sunday, May 03, 2015

Spirited '1776' at Toby's

If you think our modern Congress is dysfunctional, you should have been around when the founding fathers of our nation conducted business in the 2nd Continental Congress in the summer of 1776.  Arguments can lead to physical scuffles.  Personal insults and name calling were commonplace including branding a colleague a “landlord” or worse, a “lawyer”!  A delegate from New York had never voted on any matter because he cannot understand what the people of his state are saying.
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams, Brendan McMahon as
Thomas Jefferson and John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Actually, you can be around because the hilarious three-time Tony Award winning musical 1776 that puts a human face on these iconic figures is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  
With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, 1776 is more of a play with music included (good songs at that) rather than a typical musical whereby the plot is incidental to the score.  A musical comedy would be a more apt description given the reliance on dialogue and banter.

Toby’s production under the co-direction of Jeremy Scott Blaustein (he plays Richard Henry Lee of Virginia) and Shawn Kettering, works beautifully with an incredible attention to detail and precise timing from the predominantly male company. 
Set in steamy, hot Philadelphia in what is now called Independence Hall, the story centers on John Adams and his attempts to persuade his colleagues to declare independence from the British monarchy.  Not only was Adams challenged to make the case, he had to negotiate through hundreds of wording changes as well as to cope with the southern colonies’ desire to maintain slavery.

In the 1776 version of history, Adams was seen as “obnoxious and disliked” with the phrase being repeated a number of times early in Act I to establish the character.  In one of the funnier lines in the show, Benjamin Franklin, who had been suffering from gout, told Adams that his voice is making his toe hurt more.
David A. Hopkins’ superb set design employed the in-the-round cozy confines of the Toby’s stage to the production’s advantage.  Although in reality, there were 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1776 only depicted one to three from each colony.

To convey Independence Hall, the set includes tables with green table cloths to accommodate the delegates, wooden chairs, a podium where the President of the Congress John Hancock sits, feather pens for the delegates, candle chandeliers on the ceiling, a tally board indicating the vote for each colony on the main issues, and windows around. 
Costumes from AT Jones & Sons fit the company in authentic 18th century garb that include canes for the older delegates.  Period coats, waistcoats, cravats, breeches, stockings, hats, and wigs add mightily to the visuals. Hand fans are used to reinforce the oppressive heat going on that summer.

A must-see worthy of a 13-star salute.

In this setting, members of the audience are witnesses to the zany proceedings of the Continental Congress, the passion and pettiness from the delegates and the humor that is sprinkled throughout.  Where the issue of independence from England was debated through countless motions, each colony’s delegation had their own sovereignty in mind, which colored the discussions.  To demonstrate their approval on a matter, the delegates tapped their desks or stomped on the floor with their feet or canes as opposed to applause.
In addition to the superb setting, costuming, excellent sound design by Mark Smedley, and effective lighting by Coleen M. Foley, the production is further enhanced by the efforts from the cast, and in particular, the tour de force performance by Toby’s veteran Jeffrey Shankle.  His acting props are on display as he passionately tries to convince his colleagues to vote for independence.

Mr. Shankle’s brilliant comedic timing, movements and delivery during numerous exchanges excel.  Not to be overlooked is his fine singing voice in such numbers as “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down;” “Till Then,” a lovely duet with his wife, Abigail (Santina Maiolatesi) for whom he whom he pines and sees in a dream; “The Lees of Old Virginia,” an amusing(ly) entertaining number he performs with Mr. Blaustein and John Stevenson (Benjamin Franklin); and a group number “Is Anybody There?” 
Thomas Jefferson, played admirably by Brendan McMahon, was designated to write the Declaration.  He, too, dearly misses his wife, which is a distraction, and Adams asks her to come to Philadelphia so that he could, well, do his husbandly duties and focus on the Declaration afterwards. 

Martha Jefferson’s role played sweetly by Mary Kate Broulliet, allows her to showcase her excellent vocal talents in “He Plays the Violin.”
The musical highlight of the show belongs to Dan Felton as Edward Rutledge, the young delegate from South Carolina.  In the powerful ballad “Molasses to Rum,” Mr. Felton, who sparkled as Jean Valjean in Toby’s production of Les Misérables last year, brings fervor and dazzling vocals to the fore in defiantly challenging the abolition of slavery, which would have scuttled the Declaration had the clause remained. 

Despite Mr. Felton’s extraordinary solo, only half the audience applauded the night that this performance was reviewed ostensibly because of the message in the song, which advocates the triangular slave trade and points out northern hypocrisy.  The slavery issue is clearly the most dramatic point in the show’s storyline.
Though an orchestra conductor is listed in the program, there is no live orchestration to back up the vocals. The theatre does not have the space to accommodate the number of instruments required by the agreement to present the show.  Therefore, recorded music is used.

Toby’s stalwart Lawrence B. Munsey romps through his role as John Hancock who presides over the 2nd Continental Congress.  In a lusty performance, Mr. Munsey amusingly displays his annoyances and impatience with the delegates using an abundance of sarcasm. 
John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin portrays a grandfatherly goofy character in the first half of the show with comedic proficiency, but Franklin demonstrates wisdom when it became crunch time to get the Declaration drafted and signed. 

The remainder of the cast is too numerous to name but they all performed superbly.  Notable among them, however, are Ariel Messaca, Chris Rudy, Darren McDonnell, Scott Harrison, Andrew Horn, David James, Ben Lurye, Russell Silber, Will Emory, and Matthew Hirsh.
1776 is not your conventional musical as evidenced by the fact the show does not end with a song or a kiss but instead the increasing din created by the clanging of the Liberty Bell as each signature is affixed to the document.  Not everyone may be interested in the arcane procedural matters of formal gatherings like the Continental Congress.  But Toby’s fabulous cast and crew make such matters comical and entertaining and a must-see worthy of a 13-star salute. 
Running time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

1776 plays through July 5 (go figure) at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The GLCCB’s ‘Renaissance’ on Display

Only six months ago, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) was clearly at the nadir of the organization’s 38-year existence.  The Center’s officials were still reeling from a town hall meeting in July when they endured testy questions from angry members of the community on a range of grievances from not returning phone calls to a lack of transparency to accusations that minorities are not welcome.  The shift in June of the annual GLCCB-run Pride celebration to a new locale was unpopular, which didn’t help the mood.

Earlier in February, the GLCCB had moved to its new headquarters in the city-owned Waxter Center after a controversial sale of its longstanding grayish white four-story edifice on Chase Street that was in dire need of renovations and repairs.  However, the lease prohibited the GLCCB from making any cosmetic improvements to its new third floor suite at the Waxter Center.  The water was not potable; plumbing fixtures were not operational; and other deficiencies rendered the space unsuitable for an “open house” event that would allow the community members to see it as a new beginning for the GLCCB.
Far more grave was the financial situation.  Debt was accumulating from past years’ difficulties.  Income was slow to come in—less than needed to meet salaries and operating expenses.  Complicating that was the diminishing of the GLCCB brand that was partly caused by the Pride snafu.  Naysayers repeatedly characterized the Center as being in a state of “turmoil”.

Instability on the Board of Directors contributed to the increasing PR damage.  Members came and left with such frequency that one’s head would spin.  In 2014 alone the GLCCB had three executive directors—the latest of whom is Joel Tinsley-Hall who continues to hold down the fort after his appointment last October.  An amiable and soft-spoken fellow, Tinsley-Hall became the first African-American to hold that post at the GLCCB.

Around a hundred people with over half being people of color and/or women showed up to welcome back the Center—something that the relentless critics would not have predicted.

“Back in October when I was entrusted by the Board with being the executive director of the GLCCB I sensed not only among those closely connected with the Center but also in the community as a whole, a feeling that it would not be long before we became insolvent and would close the door on our long history,” he told me.

Undaunted, Tinsley-Hall reached out to other organizations and individuals in an effort to partner with them on a variety of programs that form the core of the Center’s mission.  He met with a diverse group of folks with the goal of alleviating concerns, repairing damage and restoring confidence in the GLCCB.  
A new era of transparency with support from the Board emerged, which began when Kelly Neel was interim executive director prior to the hiring of Tinsley-Hall.  The Center’s bylaws, board applications and financial statements are posted on  Also, monthly board meetings have been open to the public.  (It’s curious that similar demands for transparency are not made to other LGBT organizations that accept donations from the community.)

Soon after Tinsley-Hall arrived on the scene, a significant turning point occurred.  Paul Liller, a familiar face in the community and a former Pride coordinator, returned to the Center to once again perform that function.  This is a crucial development as revenues from Pride constitute the largest source of income for the Center. 
A highly motivated dynamo, Liller almost instantly garnered sponsorships for Pride, brought the celebrations back to its previous locales to the delight of community members and businesses, and has set up highly visible events and fundraisers to promote the big weekend of July 25-26.  He has since been hired to be the Center’s development coordinator in addition to his Pride-related duties.

Receiving two grants—from Brother Help Thyself and Gilead (a drug company that produces Truvada for the PrEP regimen designed to combat HIV) didn’t hurt either.  “The grant has allowed me to hire another staff person, and produce more programming for the Center,” explains Tinsley-Hall.

Ribbon cutting at the grand reopening on April 14, 2015
The GLCCB finally persuaded the city to allow at least some painting to take place on the walls of the new space.  That and a volunteer-powered clean-up allowed the Center to hold what was termed a “Grand Reopening” that took place on April 14.  
Around a hundred people with over half being people of color and/or women showed up to welcome back the Center—something that the relentless critics would not have predicted.  The guests were feted to food, wine, a DJ, drag performances and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  Those attending the free event also included a “who’s who” of local LGBT leaders, signifying the potential for cooperative efforts with the GLCCB.

“With these 100 people in attendance at our recent Grand Reopening I stated that the Center is going through a ‘renaissance’.  I would challenge anyone to recall the last time that many people were seen at the Center,” Tinsley-Hall said.  “The diversity seen in the crowd was also notable.  Various races, genders, socioeconomic statuses were represented, and I was very proud to stand before the community with my husband and daughter.  Our community is so diverse and that must be highlighted and appreciated.”
He credits this new spirit at the GLCCB to having a permanent, full-time executive director, an active Board of Directors with many new faces, new staff members and extraordinary volunteers.  “All of these people are bringing renewed passion, excitement and dedication to the Center and to the needs of our community.”

Gay Life, the monthly magazine published by the GLCCB under the deft guiding hand of editor Daniel McEvily, is more “cheerful, bright and gay,” as Gilbert O’Sullivan would sing.
Yet, Tinsley-Hall cautions that they are far from being out of the woods. “We still have many financial needs and many opportunities to expand services as needed to our community,” he says, “but we are definitely better off today than six months ago.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Dark but Tuneful ‘Carousel’ at Olney

Similar to other Rogers and Hammerstein musical classics, Carousel, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center’s Main Stage, offers memorable music combined with a serious theme that hovers over the production like a gray cloud.  The Sound of Music, The King and I and South Pacific are prominent examples of their work that interweaves sobering social, political and economic issues of the day including paths to redemption with their fine scores.   #hocoarts

Tally Sessions as Billy Bigelow and Carey Rebecca Brown as Julie Jordan. 
Photo: Stan Barouh
With Carousel, the 1945 musical and the second effort for Rogers and Hammerstein since their immensely successful Oklahoma, the plot line involves a slew of bad choices, domestic violence, unspoken love, crime and suicide.  But the blatant sexism laced throughout, which may have been acceptable 70 years ago, would also have been a major point of controversy had the show been launched in the modern era.
Olney’s artistic director Jason Loewith helmed the production, which he said was personal since the first time he heard “Soliloquy”—an emotional aria about impending fatherhood sung by the central figure in the show, Billy Bigelow—he had always wanted to direct Carousel.
Carousel is not one of my favorite musicals in the way the plot’s darkness and sporadic humor is structured.  Nonetheless, Mr. Loewith assembled a talented cast that duly does the show justice especially in the performance of Carousel’s top tier songs: “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Soliloquy,” and one of the best songs of all time, the spiritual “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Ably supporting the superb vocalists is Christopher Youstra who leads the 12-piece orchestra, the largest in Olney’s history.  They sit high above on a platform atop of a symbolic carousel (sans animals) on stage left, which forms the focus of the set designed by Milagros Ponce De León.
Adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, Richard Rogers who composed the music and Oscar Hammerstein II who wrote the book and lyrics, Carousel is set on the New England coast in 1900.  The main character is the anti-hero carousel barker Billy Bigelow (played energetically by Telly Sessions) whose romance with millworker Julie Jordan (Carey Rebecca Brown) comes at the price of both their jobs.

Where Billy is boorish, hot-tempered, and violent, Julie is gentle, sweet and sentimental. She is keenly aware of Billy’s previous dalliances, which are an outgrowth of his seducing women to buy a ride on the carousel.  Neither can directly manage to express their love for each other but deep down they do. And despite Billy’s hitting her—an incident that haunted him but never apologized for even AFTER he died—she chose to stay with him.  
To help support their unborn child, Billy is coerced by another unlikeable chap, Jigger Craigin (Chris Genebach), to attempt a robbery.  It fails.  Jigger abandons Billy during the ensuing chaos, and rather than facing prison, Billy chose to commit suicide—the last of a series of bad choices—leaving Julie and their eventual daughter Louise (Maya Brettell) to carry on. 

As the plot moves “up there” following Billy’s death, he is given a chance by the Starkeeper at redemption to help his sullen, lonely now 15 year-old daughter who is tormented by her peers because of her father’s past.  Even then, invisible, he messes things up by slapping her hand though she mysteriously felt it was like a kiss. 

But Billy persuades the Starkeeper to give him one last chance. Unseen, Billy watches Louise and her high school graduation. Spiritually, he reaches out to his daughter urging her to believe in herself, and he is filled with pride as he watches Louise gain confidence. Turning to Julie, Billy says simply, “I loved you, Julie. Know that I loved you.”

A secondary plot line deals with millworker and friend of Julie, Carrie Pipperidge (Dorea Schmidt), and her romance with ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Eugenio Vargas) who has big plans for a large family and a huge sardine plant that provided most of the humor in this otherwise somber tale.
Though the plot is rather weird, the potent score and the performances rendered by the cast make attending the show worthwhile.  Mr. Sessions is convincing in making Billy difficult to root for though somehow you try.  Bursts of temper with threats of impending physical violence punctuate his role.  This is not your Ralph Kramden’s “You’re gonna go to the moon, Alice” bravado.  Billy’s threats seem real and scary.

An athletic-looking figure with a commanding voice, Mr. Sessions possesses the physical attributes to convincingly portray Billy’s intimidating persona.  He demonstrates strong range in his vocals hitting the toughest of notes but tamps down his muscular voice enough in the duet with Ms. Brown in the classic romantic number “If I Loved You” whereby the couple’s voices meld splendidly.  Mr. Sessions is strong in the emotional seven-minute long “Soliloquy” near the end of Act I and “The Highest Judge of All” in Act II.
Ms. Brown as Julie acquits herself very well in the duet with Mr. Sessions as well as in the introspective song “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” in which she rationalizes her staying with Billy despite his abusive behavior.

Excellent vocals are provided by Ms. Schmidt as Julie’s friend Carrie especially in “Mister Snow.”  Her chemistry with Eugenio Vargas as Enoch Snow during Carousel’s lighter moments shines.
Another iconic number, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” sung by Delores King Williams as Julie’s cousin Nettie, Ms. Schmidt and the chorus is performed exceptionally and is one of the Carousel’s few high-tempo songs in the ballad-heavy score.

However, the highlight of the show is Ms. Williams’ rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  Her pitch-perfect operatic voice will send chills down your spine upon hearing it.  Bravo for that performance!
Eileen Ward as Mrs. Mullin, the widowed owner of the amusement park and a woman who had designs on Billy even while he was married performs well as does Chris Genebach in the dual role of the Policeman and the iniquitous Jigger who exploits Billy’s weaknesses.
The remainder of the company performs excellently under Mr. Loewith’s direction.  Tommy Rapley’s choreography is smooth and stylish, and the rather lengthy emotional ballet duet with Ms. Brettell and J. Morgan White, playing the role of Carnival Boy, was in sync and beautifully executed.

Costume Designer Seth Gilbert does a wonderful job in fitting the cast in period garb, especially the Victorian-style dresses worn by the women. 
Besides the carousel on the stage, Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce De León added a large circular clock at the rear, a rounded arch surrounding the stage and a projection screen to denote in hazy, misty images, the New England seaside setting. 

The one major flaw in the production was the sound.  Some performers noticeably lost their mics’ audio, and there appeared to be some dead spots on the stage causing the sound to be uneven.  Hopefully, these problems will be remedied for future performances.
Carousel is not an uplifting musical compared to other Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works.  But it is well performed and between that and the music, it’s worth a ride.

Running time: Approximately Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: Carousel contains adult themes and is not suitable for children under 12.

Carousel runs through May 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 301-924-2654 or visiting online.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are We Finally Achieving 'Gay Power'?

In the late ‘60’s, around Stonewall, there was a mantra during what was called the homophile or gay rights movement that was inspired by the black militants during the civil rights movement calling for “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful.”  Homosexuals (the term used then) adopted it and began naming their efforts “Gay Power” or “Gay is Good.”

“Gay Power” was a common chant during and after Stonewall and became a rallying cry for the fledgling movement.  In reality, gays weren’t seeking power per se but an end to injustices while desiring tolerance and in many instances, survival.  Rather than attempting to exert power over straight folks, gays and lesbians were more concerned with the post-war purging of gay soldiers from the military, the threats of exposure that put people’s jobs and homes at risk, police intimidation, violence and many other maladies.
As the decades passed by with victories and defeats marking the timeline in a one step forward, one step back cadence, there was no true gay power.  This is despite right wing blogs who speak of the “gay mafia” as if there is a band of gays in rainbow-colored trench coats and submachine guns going around intimidating straights—those pitiable oppressed heterosexuals. 

They say the radical homosexual agenda is out to destroy Christianity—the largest religion in the world—ignoring the fact that an overwhelming proportion of LGBT folks are Christian.  As a recent example, Erick Ericson, the editor-in-chief of, a right wing blog, characterizes the gay rights movement as “totalitarian” when it comes to religion.
With momentum building for a nationwide ruling by the Supreme Court in June that will likely strike down state bans to same-sex marriage and the myriad Federal court cases that have ruled against those bans already, as well as burgeoning public support for marriage equality across every demographic,  one can see a turn in the so-called culture war.

Anticipating this “gaymageddon” on the horizon, social conservatives (bigots) have been putting in place laws to protect the religious liberties of individuals who don’t like the idea of same-sex couples getting married because in their belief systems it goes against God.
However, “gay power” began to creep back into the lexicon for the first time in over four decades. The recent enactment of religious protection laws from Indiana and Arkansas thinly disguised as assurances for businesses that they don’t have to deal with LGBT individuals based on “religious beliefs” indeed brought on “gaymageddon” and not just with LGBT folks—mafia or not.

The uproar over these laws was so deafening that both Republican-led states had to mend the law so as not to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Where the “power” entered the fray was not just us LGBT folks who were savvy of the original intent.  It came from an unprecedented number of businesses, organizations, corporations and celebrities.  As a result, the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal, according to Time, laid the groundwork months ago in Indiana to forge a redoubtable coalition to fight the law by the time it passed the legislature.
Clearly we can understand that Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of tech giant Apple, would protest the measure.  But other groups, such as Indiana-based Angie’s List, and the NCAA where the marquee college basketball tournament was about to take place, joined the chorus.  Even the four coaches of the Final Four men’s teams added support and two of those teams were from the South!

Others included Nike,, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, American Airlines, Levi Strauss and Company, Gap, PayPal, Twitter and more.  In all, over 100 tech companies called for nationwide non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 
The governors of New York and Connecticut threatened to ban travel by state employees to Indiana.  However, Republican newbie Governor Hogan of Maryland dismissed an effort by state Senator Rich Madaleno to follow suit as a “political stunt.”

But get this: middle America behemoth Wal-Mart protested the law and NASCAR did as well.  If one can get NASCAR—not exactly a liberal institution (certainly not their fans)—to jump in for gay rights, well what would you call it if not “gay power”?
Greg Ballard, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis as well as former Indy mayors, slammed the law.  The Indianapolis Star featured a rare front-page editorial. “FIX THIS NOW,” the headline screamed in World War III font.  “Indiana is in a state of crisis,” the editors warned the governor. “It is worse than you seem to understand.”

While these businesses and corporations understand that discrimination will hurt the bottom line, the American public is also on board.  According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on April 9, there was “solid opposition to allowing businesses to refuse services or refuse to hire people or groups based on religious beliefs. Fifty-four percent said it was wrong for businesses to refuse services, while 28 percent said they should have that right. And 55 percent said businesses should not have the right to refuse to hire certain people or groups based on the employer’s religious beliefs, while 27 percent said businesses should have the right.”
With expected backlash from the Supreme Court ruling this summer and other last-ditch efforts to stem LGBT equality momentum, there is much more work to do.  Most of the states do not have non-discrimination laws and a Federal law continues to languish in Congress.  You can marry one afternoon and be fired the next morning.

We should use this new gay power surge to fix this and use it at the ballot box.  We may not have achieved “gay power” in the literal sense, but you know you’re on the right track when Newt Gingrich calls us a “lynch mob.”

Friday, April 10, 2015

Heartwarming 4000 Miles at Center Stage

Four thousand miles may seem like nothing in our connected world.  It’s huge, however, when you’re on a bicycle trip for that distance, and it could be a chasm that wide when people from different generations are brought together.  4000 Miles, which is part of the Amy Herzog Festival along with After the Revolution playing at Center Stage’s Head Theater, attempts to close that chasm. #hocoarts
Inspired by her own grandmother who lived to 96, Herzog’s 4000 Miles portrays in realistic terms what happens when an elderly woman Vera, a leftist, who was a character a decade earlier in After the Revolution, receives an unexpected visit from her scruffy, smelly 21 year-old grandson Leo, an ecological-minded neo-hippie, who drops in at 3 a.m. at her Greenwich Village apartment.

Coming off a cross-country bike trip that was ruined by a tragic accident, Leo and Vera get together as the story unfolds.  Leo visited her ostensibly because of her elderly status and because he hadn’t seen her since her deceased husband’s funeral.  If he couldn’t stay with her, Leo was prepared to pitch his tent somewhere in Manhattan.  But you know that wasn’t going to happen.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Empire' Strikes Back at Homophobia

It’s been a few weeks now since the finale of Empire’s inaugural season, but I can’t get it out of mind.  The blockbuster Fox series, which shattered records for increased ratings as the show progressed, awaits a boatload of well-deserved Emmys.  Arguably, Empire is the best non-cable show over the past several years, and its surging popularity transcends race, gender and sexual orientations—as there is something for everyone in this explosively intense drama whose 60 minutes zip by in a flash.
Empire co-creators Lee Daniels (L.) and Danny Strong
So popular is Empire that American Idol, the TV ratings leader board king year in and year out, has strategically hitched onto Empire’s streaking horses.  Empire, unless the script lapses into “crazy land”—the bane of many formerly successful TV shows—should be around for a long stretch.
That apparently was not the mindset of the producers and the network when they signed on for merely 12 episodes.  Believing that Empire would be one and done, the powers that be had the principal character, Lucious Lyon (played wonderfully by Terrence Howard) dying of ALS.  When the over-the-top ratings numbers shocked the network bigwigs (the premiere in January drew 9.9 million viewers, the finale just under 13 million), Empire had miraculously found a cure for ALS to keep the character going.  Not really; it had been a misdiagnosis all along.

What’s not to like about the show? It has a solid, original sound track even if hip-hop is not your favorite musical genre.  Most musical performances are as riveting as they are rhythmic.  The show boasts the best actress on television, in my opinion, with Taraji P. Henson as the none-too-shy and complicated Cookie Lyon, the estranged ex-con wife of the powerhouse hip-hop record label (Empire Entertainment) mogul Lucious Lyon, the family’s patriarch. 
It has an openly gay co-creator in Lee Daniels who had directed such films as Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy, and a gifted award-winning co-creator Danny Strong who won honors for political TV movies Recount and Game Change.

There is a talented, almost exclusively African-American cast including a core ensemble of exceptional actors, a recurring cast, and guest stars who appear along the way. 
It also showcases a gay character (Jamal Lyon played by now openly gay Jussie Smollett) who is not merely an accessory in the series that some shows do to check off a box; instead, he is among the central characters whose tense, dramatic storyline helps attract those millions of viewers.

The show unapologetically portrays the gritty hard truths of the sometimes messy world of hip-hop: money, greed, sex, infidelity, drugs, revenge, murder, and turf battles in an urban setting.   And it deals with homosexuality from both ends in a bold and provocative way.
What I like most about Empire besides Cookie (who doesn’t?) is how the script deals with the gay Jamal character.  As the middle son in the Lyon clan, and a favorite of Cookie’s, Jamal possesses an abundance of musical talent in both writing and vocally that he inherited from his father Lucious. 

But when Jamal as a small tyke donned his mother’s scarf and high heels and sashayed with her handbag inside their home, the intensely homophobic Lucious picked up the boy and threw him into a metal trash can outside—a horrific scene repeated a few times as a flashback during the season.  This violent act was abhorred by Cookie, who always knew he was different but vowed to have his back, no matter.
...[Empire] deals with homosexuality from both ends in a bold and provocative way.

To be fair, when it comes to homophobia, African-Americans as a group do not corner the market.  But it is common among many church-going black folks and that characterization rightly or wrongly was brought to the surface during the battles for marriage equality. 

Homophobia as in the case of misogyny is a powerful element in the hip-hop culture.  To that end, the fictional Empire world weaves that aspect of reality into the show’s plot with skill and sensitivity.
“Attacking homophobia was in my original pitch to Lee,” says co-creator Danny Strong in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Where I said the hip-hop mogul is going to have a gay son who is incredibly talented who should be the one who takes over the empire, but he hates him because he’s gay. And unflinchingly attack homophobia in this mainstream piece of material.”

Smollett who plays the gay character found out that his own personal life was being examined and he had to answer the inevitable questions.  He finally came out as Empire was in high gear, which added more texture to the show’s success.
“One thing I was hoping was that young people who think they’re gay or know they’re gay at that age will watch Jamal and watch Empire and they’ll see Lucious and they’ll see that Lucious is wrong and Jamal is right, and it will make them comfortable with themselves and who they are,” says Strong.  “Maybe they’ll not have to go through the struggle that some people did who didn’t have role models like that.”

Indeed, Smollett’s character Jamal stands up to Lucious, challenges a homophobic rap artist on stage with an intense dueling duet, and emerges as the successor to run Empire Entertainment at season’s end.  The good guy has won—at least for now. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Arts Collective at HCC Presents 'Eat the Runt'

Imagine having a voice in selecting the cast of a play.  As an audience member of Eat the Runt, which will run for three consecutive weekends at the Arts Collective (AC) at Howard Community College (HCC), you will have the opportunity to do just that.  #hocoarts

The casts of 'Eat the Runt': Photo by JilliAnne McCarty
Members of the audience who show up early are invited to vote on the cast for a particular performance.  Each actor, under the direction of veteran director and Arts Collective producing artistic director Susan G. Kramer, will play multiple roles with no regards to race, ethnicity or gender. 
The rules of the voting as well as the incentives to participate are shown on the Arts Collective website.

According to Kramer, the play by Avery Croszier includes a stellar cast of eight actors poised to take on the challenge each performance (in various roles) featuring HCC students, alumni and guest artists, as well as the work of the best professional designers in the area. 

Eat the Runt is billed as “an outrageous, delicious comic satire that can go in countless, mind-blowing directions.  A seemingly innocent job interview slowly spirals into chaos as jealousy, desire, and deception collide. When the truth is revealed, only the strongest will survive.”
Kramer noted, “The central relationships among the cast of characters could include lesbian, gay, or heterosexual entanglements depending on the cast chosen... some combinations will make sense, while others may plunge the play into the absurd. To quote the playwright, Avery Crozier, ‘but sometimes the greatest discoveries are accidents. This one's waiting to happen. Every night..”

“Casting nightmares drove me to write Eat the Runt, a play that’s recast every night,” explains Crozier. “Quite often, playwrights write fascinating and specific physical descriptions of characters that make the play impossible to cast - especially if it is going to first be presented in a small theater.
“So I’ve stopped writing plays like that. In Eat the Runt, I decided to create roles that any talented actor could play, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. This is not a play in which appearance doesn't matter. It is, in fact, almost entirely about appearance and identity, but is designed to give the director flexibility to cast the best actors available without regard to physical type. Or to choose physical types that heighten the excitement of the situations on stage.”

Crozier adds, “The play is set in an art museum, a wonderful arena for exploring ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues of representation. It’s based on a series of interviews I had for a job at a large encyclopedic museum, a job I was pretty certain I did not want.

“On the airplane I fantasized about sabotaging myself with each interviewer so that they'd reject me before I was put in the embarrassing position of rejecting the job. Ultimately, I opted to behave myself, but on stage I could be much bolder than in real life. In the play, the character Merritt lives out my fantasy, and manifests increasingly strange and contradictory behavior with each interview. My challenge was to figure out why Merritt would go to such extremes, which pushed the play into the realm of impersonation and lying. So it became meta-theatre, a play about acting.”

Eat the Runt runs three weekends: April 17 - May 3 in HCC’s Studio Theatre, with performances on Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.  The theater is located at HCC, Horowitz Center Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. 

Seating is limited so that purchasing tickets early is encouraged.  Individual tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors (60+) and military, and $10 for all students with identification.  The play is not recommended for children under age 14.  Tickets may be purchased through the Box Office at 443-518-1500 or online. 

Come early so you can play the part of an actual casting director.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Extraordinary 'Laramie Project' at CCBC

The tragedy of gay 21 year-old college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder at the hands of two young men in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 still pains most decent people.  Hatred by those whose lot in life is to hate was symbolized by the repulsive protests at Matthew’s funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church led by hater-in-chief Fred Phelps.
Cast of CCBC's The Laramie Project  Photo: Leo Heppner
However, through the tireless efforts of Matthew’s family, particularly his mother Judy, and numerous activists, some good came of the heartbreak in that it helped spark the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed by President Obama 11 years after Matthew’s murder.  #hocoarts
A group of people from the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project led by its artistic director and playwright Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie over the course of the next year to conduct a couple of hundred interviews of the town’s denizens in an exhausting effort to chronicle the impact the murder had on Laramie as well as themselves.  As a result, numerous performances of a play based on these interviews have been presented around the country. 

The Laramie Project, as the play is titled, is derived from those direct interviews, news footage, court transcripts and other found text. It reminds audiences about the effect hatred can have on everyday people’s lives whether you’re a direct victim or not.  It isn’t about being gay or straight; it’s about hate and hate crimes.
Gritty and powerful, the play is not preachy though there is that temptation to be so.  Yet, through its message that speaks to the consequences of hate, The Laramie Project performs an invaluable service. 

The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) to its credit made The Laramie Project a part of their Community Book Collection whereby students and faculty on three of the campuses—Essex, Dundalk and Catonsville—throughout the academic year highlight and analyze the story behind the play through classroom discussions, assignments and artwork culminating with the brilliant staging of The Laramie Project. 

Moreover, CCBC brought in Judy Shepard to speak last October, held World AIDS Week events including the displaying of the AIDS Quilt in December, the screening of the film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine that will take place in April, and The Laramie Project’s Moisés Kaufman who is scheduled to speak on April 28-29.
The performance on March 21 at the College Community Center Theater on the Essex campus was extraordinary and impassioned.  Thanks to a moving rendition of “What Matters” by the New Wave Singers in the theater’s lobby prior to the show, the mood was set perfectly for what was to follow.

Some student productions of plays and musicals tend to have rough edges because of the performers’ inexperience in theatre.  Not this one.  Veteran director Ryan Clark, who also teaches theatre at CCBC and is an artistic associate at Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre, guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
The ensemble cast showcases their talents in such a way that their futures in theatre, should they go that route, would be quite promising.  They succeed in projecting their voices exceptionally well without the need of mics while proficiently delivering their lines.

The play requires the actors to perform multiple roles and they do it expertly.  Slipping on a sweater or taking one off, donning a cap or a hat and removing them as well as other garments to create a different character, the actors seamlessly and flawlessly execute these changes. 
Director Ryan Clark... guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
Each one effectively adjusts his or her voice inflections, mannerisms and accents to reflect a particular person being interviewed as well as being an interviewer.  And each one has a turn in delivering a powerful soliloquy, again showcasing their dramatic props and versatility.  

The characters portrayed, such as the young bicyclist who discovered Matthew’s bloodied body tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie where he said he resembled a scarecrow, the policewoman who brought him in, the sheriff, the doctor tending to Matthew who died in a hospital six days after the attack, the assorted townspeople on both sides of the gay issue, the bartender at the Fireside bar where Matthew was last seen leaving with the murderers, clergy, several lesbians, Fred Phelps, the killers themselves and Matthew’s father Dennis whose testimony in court is arguably the play’s most dramatic moment—all allow the eight-person cast to delve into the various roles, and they deliver in superb fashion.
Aside from their solid acting skills, the movements of the performers under Mr. Clark’s guidance are also outstanding.  To convey scene changes, they shift about the several chairs and tables that adorn the stage with a keen sense of timing and placement.  And in true docudrama form, when a person speaks, another cast member identifies the character by name.

No one member of the cast should be singled out for their performance as they are all tremendous.  In no particular order, the ensemble includes: Ashley Saville, William Meister, Giustino Puliti, Christian Fisher, Lavonne Jones, Thomas P. Gardner, Lashay McMillan and Yakima Lich.  Take your bows; you deserve a standing ovation.
The technical elements considerably add to the play’s texture, making good use of projections on a screen upstage that presents pertinent photographs and art as well as “Moments” as the play progresses.  Scenic and lighting design by Terrie Raulie and the simple costuming by James Fasching help depict the realities contained in this play. 

This minimalism is desirable for a play like The Laramie Project. It creates an atmosphere whereby the actors are really speaking directly to the audience explaining how this tragedy impacted Laramie’s residents.  They are just ordinary people trying to make sense of a gruesome crime that had thrust their community into the spotlight.  It makes people pause to think about our society where hate still exists.
Kudos to all those associated with this outstanding presentation.  Make plans soon to see this great play that is ably directed and performed by young student actors with a skill set that soars beyond expectations. The run is ending soon.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: The play contains some profanity and is not suitable for children.

The Laramie Project’s remaining performances are at 10 a.m. March 23 and 1 p.m. March 24 in the College Community Theatre at CCBC Essex, 7201 Rossville Boulevard. Additional performances will be given at 12:45 p.m. March 26 in the Center for the Arts Theatre at CCBC Catonsville, 800 S. Rolling Road and at 12:45 p.m. March 31 in the John E. Ravekes Theatre at CCBC Dundalk, 7200 Sollers Point Road. Tickets are $8 general admission, $5 for students, seniors, and CCBC faculty, staff and alumni. Current CCBC students (with valid ID) are free. Tickets are available from the CCBC Box Office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or online.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Silly Season is Upon Us

The time between presidential elections can be a head-shaking experience among ordinary folks.  Unfortunately, much of this interlude is filled with bizarre statements and other forms of nonsense as we endure the ridiculousness of people who simply fail to think before they speak or possess any form of filter.  This period is called the “silly season,” which challenges people’s intellect and sensibilities and where the absurd can be humorous or downright serious, if not scary. 

Comments, actions and events are so bizarre, so counter-intuitive, that your eyes roll back so far you can see the back of your brain.  Of course, not all of the silliness is related to presidential politics or politics in general, but it starts with politics and it has to begin with none other than Dr. Ben Carson.
If you hadn’t read or heard, the esteemed retired neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins University has made some controversial anti-gay comments in the past, which raised his profile and received the sympathy and support of gay-hating tea partiers—enough so that they are encouraging him to make a presidential run.  He is considering just that. 

In an appearance on FOX “News” Carson spouted this gem:  “Marriage is between a man and a woman. No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don’t get to change the definition.”
At a conference at the Illinois Family Institute, he claims marriage equality advocates are “directly attacking the relationship between God and his people.”

In his 2012 book, Carson wrote of marriage equality: “[I]f we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”
At the National Organization for Marriage’s March for Marriage gala in 2014, Carson explained how Marxists are using LGBT rights to destroy American unity and impose the “New World Order.”

And now the latest gem.  Appearing on CNN on March 4, when asked by Chris Cuomo if being gay is a choice, the highly educated physician replied, “Absolutely.”  Then he added, “Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”
Under intense fire, he “apologized” and vowed that the liberal gotcha press will not stop his momentum and trap him into expressing his views on homosexuality.  We’ll see.  I guarantee that even if he chooses not to run for president, he will be giving a prime time speech at the Republican National Convention and his views on LGBT folks will be a centerpiece.

I will say this in response to Carson’s theory about going into prison straight and leaving gay:  Ben Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, enters the Republican clown car filled with presidential hopefuls and emerges as a moron.
Carson keeps claiming he’s not homophobic.  It’s like the SAE frat boys at the University of Oklahoma who chanted racist chants over and over and claim they are not racists, that it was a mistake whereby their behavior was fueled by alcohol.  No dudes, you’re racists.  Alcohol merely removed your inhibitions to recite those ugly words; it didn’t put them in your minds.

Dr. Carson, you’re a homophobe in every sense of the word. Don’t pretend you’re not.
Ben Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, enters the Republican clown car filled with presidential hopefuls and emerges as a moron.

Adding to the silly season were the 47 Republican Senators (known on social media as #47traitors) who usurped the authority of the executive branch to conduct foreign policy.  Under “wunderkind” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas who persuaded the other senators to sign off on an outlandish, condescending letter to the leadership of Iran aimed at scuttling the sensitive negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, achieved something that has been a long time waiting: it finally woke up Democrats. 

Ceding the social media platforms, talk radio, TV interviews and other media to Republicans during the non-stop anti-Obama thrashing, Dems finally found a cause in which they could respond.  And they are correct.
Imagine Democratic Senators writing a letter to the Soviet Union’s leadership in an effort to warn them that the Senate may not approve any nuclear proliferation treaty President Reagan was negotiating.  How would have the GOP responded?   None too pleased, I would suspect.

It would be as if Republican Senators and Representatives had written the following:
Dear Osama Bin Laden,

We writing to advise you that the Navy Seals have discovered your location in Pakistan and will come to get you.  As you know, our previous dear leader President George W. Bush had to abandon his search for you at Tora Bora so that we could invade and liberate Iraq, the actual purveyors of 9/11, and create another democratic and U.S.-friendly state in the Middle East. 
Our current President Obama is much too stubborn to let things slide as Mr. Bush did.  Obama and his henchmen for some reason doggedly want to capture or kill you even though Saddam Hussein was responsible for the over 3,000 deaths on 9/11, not you.

We will do anything to keep our President from getting the credit for your demise because he is a foreign-born Socialist Muslim who hates America and a black man who is considerably smarter than us.  
We felt it as our patriotic duty, and in the name of freedom and the right to bear arms, to warn you of this diabolical plan.

Best of luck in your travels,
The Real Americans  

Indeed, it is the silly season, and alas, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Faith and Family Clash in Iron Crow’s '…Bobby Pritchard'

In its recent works, Iron Crow Theatre, Baltimore’s queer theatre company, has delved into the subject of death from different angles.  From the Jeffrey Dahmer murders in Joseph W. Ritsch’s Apartment 213 to suicide in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, death and its impact on others have been explored with a degree of creative artistry that is open to interpretation.  With the world premiere of The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard written by Baltimore playwright Rich Espey currently playing at The Theatre Project, audiences are given another view of death, and in this case two deaths.

From left: Sean Kelly, Heather Peacock, Dave LaSalle,
Julie Herber, Sarah Lynn Taylor and Susan Porter
Photo: Zachary Z. Handler
The intense one-act play that brings to the forefront the struggle for LGBT acceptance in a Southern town called Boiling Springs with its religious dominance forms the backdrop of a splendid performance by the six-person cast under the deft guiding hand of director Steven J. Satta.    #hocoarts

Espey’s play relies heavily on flashbacks to 40 years ago that alternate with the present and the use of symbolism, which is laced throughout. Most cast members are called upon to play dual roles reflecting the different time periods, and they do so expertly.  To underscore the connections the characters have with religion, the majority perform Church hymns during several points in the play and do so melodiously demonstrating their vocal skills.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

'Grounded' Soars at Olney Theatre Center

Even if one entered Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab without knowing anything about George Brant’s taut play Grounded, the visuals already established will tip you off that you will be in for a tense, bumpy ride.  Seated on a black swivel chair, motionless, is a slender woman in an olive drab flight suit (designed by Ivania Stack) before a group of imageless TV monitors except for gray wavy lines across the screens.  The audience is eventually in place, the lights black out for a second, and then pow!     #hocoarts
Megan Anderson as The Pilot in Grounded. 
 Photo: Clinton B Photography

The Pilot, the sole identity of the woman in the flight suit, springs to her feet from her chair and tells Brant’s poignant story of how we arrived at this point.  Megan Anderson, who recently turned in a terrific performance in Rep Stage’s The Whale and is a resident actor at Everyman, delivers the punches like a brawny fighter making use of rapidly spoken, high-octane soliloquies, often employing combat stances and macho swagger, and energetically moving about the stage with a purpose in a tour de force that is as riveting as it is outstanding. 
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Hollywood’s Journey Down the Rainbow Path

When openly gay Neil Patrick Harris strutted out on the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to host the 87th Academy Awards, one would think that the battle for gay rights received its own statue.  After all, NPH became the first ever openly gay man to host the iconic TV special.  Not only that, but he has now hit the trifecta of award show hosting that also includes the Tony awards and Emmys.  Can the Grammys be next for the grand slam? 

This is no small feat given the audience numbers that each of these major shows attract bring tons of advertising dollars to the networks.  Therefore, it behooves the shows’ producers to put on stage someone whom the TV audiences will accept and enjoy.  And they seem to have no problem with the multi-talented and popular gay man, Harris.
But do these accomplishments signal the end of homophobia in Hollywood?  Over the years there had been a homophobic mindset in some of the producers and decision-makers in the film and TV industries causing numerous LGBT performers to remain in the closet lest their careers be in peril. 

Homophobia like racism or misogyny is a state of mind, an attitude, that just doesn’t simply turn on and off like a switch.  To fully eradicate these attitudes, succeeding progressive generations will likely be less and less bigoted, so in the long run, the prognosis is good.
Unquestionably, there has been a huge amount of progress regarding attitudes towards LGBT folks in Hollywood (film and TV) with an increasing number of LGBT characters on TV shows, in particular, and more being employed.  This is following a national trend towards LGBT acceptance.  But we’re not there yet.

“People are what they are, believe what they believe, and I think most open-minded heteros have evolved over the last 40 years,” a straight, long-time Hollywood-based comedy writer, told me through an email interview, whom I will name “Frank” for this piece. 
“There have always been gays and lesbians in Hollywood,” he says.  “Face it, any business that regularly employs choreographers, dress designers, set decorators, hairdressers, and makeup people, will have gays in it.  So unlike many businesses, the movie industry has had gays, working side by side with straight folk.”

Frank points out that in the 70s, they were mostly closeted. “They were there, we knew who they were, for the most part, but they weren't talking about it.  When it came to writers and directors, I will say that gays were few and far between - again, people were in the closet, so I am assuming there were gay writers (other than Bruce Villanch) out there. But I didn't know any myself. Was this homophobia, or was it a different cultural phenomenon?”

“Ellen’s personal life met up with her character. Dramatic series had gay characters. The world was changing.”

The emergence of West Hollywood as a city in 1984 helped push acceptance. “Suddenly, everyone paid attention to a place, which was mostly known for its bar scene,” explains Frank.

“Gays in WeHo were out of the closet, not just gay businesses and bars, but gay politicians, city councilmen and mayors. There was a city where the rights of the gay community mattered. A city adjacent to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and West L.A. - places where people in the industry lived and worked. I can’t prove that this created change in the industry, but I don't see how it couldn’t. The Pride parade was on local cable TV. The gay national religious holiday - Halloween - was celebrated on Santa Monica Blvd. with mixed crowds, again on TV.  This causes greater acceptance.”
Frank also credits the producers who inserted gay characters on such TV shows in the 1990’s as MTV’s Real World as agents for change and in particular, the saga of an AIDS-stricken cast member in San Francisco.  “Pedro Zamora, a man living with AIDS, and AIDS activist, became a national symbol. An entire generation, through the proxies of the assortment of people in that show, not only saw someone gay, but someone who lived and loved in the face of the disease which people still feared.”

He also recalls talking with Norman Lear later in the decade regarding the increase in gay writers.  “The change was noticeable,” Frank said. “Ellen’s personal life met up with her character. Dramatic series had gay characters. The world was changing.”

Shows like Survivor, in its first season with gay Richard Hatch as a star, was huge.  As was Will & Grace and now Glee, which Frank characterized as the “gayest show ever” and ironic that it is on FOX.  Now shows like Modern Family and Empire make good use of gay characters.
He explains that Neil Patrick Harris came out in the middle of the run of How I Met Your Mother.  “The amazing thing about that is that his character could best be described as a ‘rampant heterosexual’ - a man whose life revolved around sex with women. Nobody commented about the fact that a gay actor was playing that role; people were able to separate the character on TV from the actor who played it. This is a massive advance in the world.”

Frank states, “If TV is the great enlightened arena of entertainment, movies are its more timid cousin. Look, it’s not because of homophobia; the only phobia movie studios have is losing money. Unfortunately, there are many countries around the world which practice institutionalized homophobia. Not little ones - Russia, China, India, the continent of Africa. We may have to wait a while before studios will risk a gay version of Sylvester Stallone starring in a major action picture.”

Progress, to be sure, but the rainbow path still has its bumps.  A recent Williams Institute survey of SAG-AFTRA members indicates there are still issues regarding homophobia and transphobia within the entertainment industry. Read the results here.