Monday, September 11, 2017

The Tragedy of Politicizing Disasters

Some pastors were quick to blame gays for this
As we commemorate the events of September 11, 2001 and remember the loss of innocent lives of ordinary people and first responders, it is a vivid reminder how some who have a forum to disseminate information, abused that privilege to politicize the horrors of that day. 

In a mean-spirited attempt to manipulate grief-stricken Americans to fall in line with his orthodoxy, Rev. Jerry Falwell told fellow Christian conservative Pat Robertson, “[T]he pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America,” Falwell continued, “I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.’” Robertson agreed.

A few days later, Falwell, after receiving a severe dose of backlash, released a statement saying his comments were taken out of context. “I hold no one other than the terrorists and the people and nations who have enabled and harbored them responsible for Tuesday's attacks on this nation,” he said.

For his part, Robertson denied blaming gays or atheists for the attacks.  Nonetheless, they made their points.

More recently during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump insisted that “thousands and thousands and thousands” of people in the Arab neighborhoods of Jersey City, N.J. openly celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  This was a naked attempt to throw red meat to his xenophobic, anti-Muslim base to gain their support.  Of course, it was a blatant lie as much of what Trump says usually is; however, we are still awaiting his “correction.”

Who should we blame?
Of course, over the years, disasters—man-made or natural—have been blamed by clergy on groups as a manifestation of “God’s wrath.”  

As written by Kimberly Winston in the Salt Lake City Tribune, when Superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey region in 2012, pastors were quick to explain the phenomenon.  

“God is systematically destroying America,” the Rev. John McTernan, a conservative Christian pastor, said in a post-Sandy blog entry that has since been removed. The reason God was so peeved, he asserted, was “the homosexual agenda.”

Writes Winston, “Usually, their logic revolves around LGBT themes — Buster Wilson of the American Family Association insisted God sent Hurricane Isaac to stop an annual LGBT festival; the Rev. Franklin Graham blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ 'orgies'; and Catholic priest Gerhard Wagner called Katrina 'divine retribution' for New Orleans’ tolerance of homosexuality.  Other times, the scapegoat is gay marriage, abortion rights or foreign policies seen as harmful to Israel.”

Many have argued that these events cannot be attributed to a vengeful God because God does not want to see people suffering.  Yet, the pastors will further their untaxed but political advocacy by using God as a weapon to punish people, activities or events anathema to them.

Two can play that game.  I can say with equal authority that the states affected by the deadly hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s wrath against them because they voted for Trump. 

See how silly that sounds?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Soaring to the 'Heights' at Olney

Robin de Jesús leads the talente company of 'In the Heights'
Photo: Stan Barouh
Qué gran espectáculo! 

Any successful musical offers at least one great moment for audiences to remember.  Kicking off the 2017-18 Season, the Olney Theatre Center partnering with the Round House Theatre in presenting “In the Heights,” there may have been 96,000 such moments.  A sensational cast and crew under the meticulous direction of Marcos Santana have delivered a winning musical lottery ticket to local theatergoers.

Tony Award-nominated Robin de Jesús, who portrayed Sonny in the original Broadway production of “In the Heights,” stars as Usnavi on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center.  Lin-Manuel Miranda who played Usnavi in the Broadway production and received a Tony nomination for that role composed the music and lyrics and won the Tony in that capacity. Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book. In all, the show captured four such statues including Best Musical.  Miranda’s success with “In the Heights” propelled him to mega-stardom in “Hamilton.”

The story unfolds in the gritty, largely Hispanic working class Washington Heights barrio or neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge during a typically sultry three-day period surrounding July 4.  Each character has his or her story, but they are all connected in some fashion. 

A youthful vibrant ensemble clad in hip street clothing designed by Frank Labovitz adds spice to this rich mixture of contemporary urban hip-hop, salsa and other Latin rhythms that tell the story of family drama, financial struggles, community spirit, love, devotion, expectations, dreams realized and those not fulfilled. And one of the characters just won a $96,000 lottery prize adding another element to the story.

All the action takes place on a magnificent set designed by Milagros Ponce de León.  The barrio depicted in the set consists of businesses, such as De La Vega Bodega (convenience store), Daniela’s Beauty Salon and Rosario’s Car Service as well as apartment buildings, entrances to the buildings and fire escapes.  The creative and functional multi-tiered set even includes the 181st Street “A” train station with the subway grate on the sidewalk, with, yes, steam bellowing out of it before the show as the sound of a train is heard barreling down the tracks underneath.

That set provides the backdrop to most of the story.  But when the scene shifts to a dance club, no problemo.  Fast and seamlessly, the transformation occurs.

So detailed is Mr. Santana’s direction that the actors not performing as principals in a particular scene are engaged in background activity or conversation in any of these businesses or meandering about in the apartments.  Cheerfully, none of this background staging becomes a distraction; instead, the subtle movements add realism and dimension to the visuals.

Enhancing the eye-pleasing set is the extraordinary lighting design by Cory Pattak.  A highlight is the fireworks display where the lighting effectively simulated this activity.
Robin de Jesús as Usnavi Photo: Stan Barouh
   

“In the Heights” contains many high points in the way of individual musical performances, either as solos or duets.  The main performers along with the rest of the ensemble also burnish their talents in the stirring high-energy production numbers like the title song and opening number “In the Heights,” “96,000,” “Blackout,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” 

Mr. Santana also choreographed the show, which presents solid, realistic urban Latino dancing to the thumping beats supplied by the superb nine-member orchestra led by Christopher Youstra.

The ensemble sing and dance with dazzling energy to the music that in some instances contains a mix of Spanish and English lyrics.  However, the songs were composed in a way that one didn’t have to know Spanish to understand their messages. 

While some of the songs are not necessarily melodious, they are all solid because of the powerful and affecting lyrics as well as the amazing vocals by the cast members. 

Numbers, such as “In The Heights,” “Breathe,” “Inútil,” “No Me Diga,” “Paciencia Y Fe,”  “When You’re Home,” “Piragua,” “Sunrise,” and “Everything I Know” stand out.  Most of the high tempo songs (and the better ones) are performed in the first act while more ballads can be heard in the second—a distinct change in mood.

Robin de Jesús is remarkable in the role of Usnavi, a Dominican-born owner of the bodega who is a central character throughout.  His passion and hopes, which include returning to his native Dominican Republic, are conveyed with great skill.  Most of his dialogue and songs are performed in rap, and he is wonderful at it.

Rayanne Gonzales is moving as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who practically raised Usnavi after his parents died.  She is the barrio’s loveable matriarch, the moral anchor.  Her stellar voice is evident in the tender “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Stunning Linedy Genao plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, who is looking to escape the barrio and move downtown but can’t afford it.   She possesses a glorious mezzo-soprano voice, and her performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now” shines.

Also spectacular with her vocals is Mili Diaz as Nina.  Ms. Diaz’s Broadway-caliber soprano voice is as good as it gets with memorable selections as “Breathe,” “Everything I Know” and “When the Sun Goes Down.”   

Nina was the one member of the barrio who went off to college (Stanford University) on a scholarship only to fail in her first year, deeply disappointing her parents, Kevin and Camila.  She develops a relationship with Benny much to the chagrin of her father.

Danny Bolero plays Nina’s overprotective father Kevin and the owner of Rosario’s Car Service which he feels compelled to sell to help Nina with her tuition. Mr. Bolero is sturdy in both acting and singing with his commanding baritone voice on display.  His emotional solos in “Inútil (Useless)” and “Atención” are stellar.  Vilma Gil is enjoyable as Nina’s steadfast mother Camila. Skillful in her acting, she does well in her powerful rendition of “Enough.”

Another standout is Marquise White as Benny, who is in love with Nina and an employee of Kevin’s taxi service and is the only non-Hispanic character.  Also demonstrating strong acting and musical ability, Mr. White is particularly effective in the duets “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down” with Ms. Diaz.
Photo: Stan Barouh
Natascia Diaz as Daniela, the chatty, gossipy owner of the beauty salon, is effective in that role and also demonstrates her vocal prowess in “No Me Diga.”  Her employee, Carla, is played well by Melissa Victor.

Tobias A. Young, yet another strong vocalist, plays the role of Piragua Guy who pushes a shaved ice dessert cart in the barrio and competes with the Mister Softee truck.  He truly has one of the most beautiful voices in local theatre and is a joy to listen to. Mr. Young participates in the group numbers and sings the aptly named “Piragua” as a solo—and does it twice!

Then there is Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who works with him at the bodega.  Played fabulously by Michael J. Mainwaring, the character provides most of the comedic moments in the show.  Mr. Mainwaring’s comedic timing and stage movements excel. Juan Drigo Ricafort rounds out the stellar cast as Sonny’s good chum Graffiti Pete whose artistry leads to an inspirational ending, tying a bow on this gift of a show. #hocoarts

There is an abundance of talent, technical expertise, a solid score, and humanity in the story that makes “In the Heights” a must-see experience.  Thank you to the Olney Theatre Center and the Round House Theatre for putting together such an extraordinary cast and crew helmed by a terrific director.

Qué gran espectáculo!
What a great show!

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.


Advisory: “In the Heights” contains adult language and sexual situations and is not recommended for children under age 13.

“In the Heights” runs through October 22 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online .

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Living the ‘Dream’ at Toby’s

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
From the moment the proverbial curtain was raised at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the start of Dreamgirls, there was a burst of energy that was unabated throughout the nearly three hour production. 
#hocoarts
This force is evident in the lightning fast and efficiently executed scene and costume changes, soulful rhythm & blues and pop music, and the enthusiastic singing and dancing by the large and talented cast who perform like their lives depended on it.

Dreamgirls tells the fictional story during the 1960s and 1970s of three friends from Chicago who wanted to make it big in the music industry. Their rise to stardom and the inevitable professional and personal conflicts closely resemble that of the Shirelles and the Supremes.

Effie White is the lead singer of the Dreamettes who has a plus-size figure and a plus-size talent. C.C. White is her brother who writes music for the group. Deena Jones is the beauty who eventually takes the lead vocals for the later-named Dreams. Lorrell Robinson is the group’s peacemaker.  She is in love with James “Thunder” Early, an R &B star for whom the Dreamettes sing backup. Curtis Taylor Jr., the manager of the group, is the hub of the story’s drama and tension.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls first opened on Broadway in 1981. The production was a smashing success winning six Tony Awards.  A successful movie that was adapted from the show opened in 2006.

The lively and at times intense production at Toby’s was ably directed by Kevin McAllister while Shalyce Hembey choreographed the vigorous dancing.  Under musical direction and orchestration of Ross Scott Rawlings, the seven-piece orchestra sounded lush as usual.

Inventive props are on display, and the creative scenery making full use of Toby’s in-the-round stage, designed by David A. Hopkins, offers a place for the projection of images—some actual, some abstract— on the walls surrounding the stage to augment the production.

The period costumes besides a wide array of sports clothes and casual wear feature stunningly colorful show gowns with feathers and loads of wigs for the female singers and splendid matching formal suits for the male singers,  all designed by the incomparable Lawrence B. Munsey. There must have been a thousand such costumes pieces worn by the company, but I stopped counting at five hundred.

Lynn Joslin designed the lighting which is a step above the norm seen locally and may have been the most creative use of lighting at Toby’s in my memory. With so many rapid-fire scene and venue changes, the stage has to be lit in various corners with accompanying fade-outs. The work of the technical crew in general is outstanding, and it includes the excellent sound system designed by Mark Smedley.

With the fine work of the technical crew as support, the majesty of this high-octane production revolves around the performers and the music.

Crystal Freeman as Effie is outstanding in both her strong soprano voice and in her acting.  She lends her heart, soul, lungs and entire being into the show-stopping conclusion to the first act with the immensely dramatic torch song  “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” where she laments the loss of her love and how the group is moving on without her.  She also soars with “I Am Changing.”

As Deena, Sequina Dubose looks and sounds like a Dream especially in the title song “Dreamgirls” and my personal favorite “One Night Only.” Ashley Johnson aptly portrays Lorrell as the glue that keeps the Dreams together. She shines in a duet “Ain’t No Party.”

DeCarlo Rasberry as Curtis, the driven and sometimes unscrupulous manager who makes dreams come true, excels with a strong rich voice particularly in “You Are My Dream.”  Da’Von Moody as C.C. White, the conflicted songwriter, robustly sings “I Miss You Old Friend.”  

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Bryan Jeffrey nails it as James “Thunder” Early and instantly becomes an audience favorite.  He plays Jimmy, the soul singer, with the intensity of James Brown that Curtis was trying to mold into the next Perry Como. His performance spotlighting boundless energy, comedic moments and style is a highlight of the show.

Anwar Thomas as Marty, Jimmy’s manager, is also on target with solid acting and performs well in several songs.

There are several sensational production numbers throughout in which Ms. Hembey’s precise rhythmic choreography is on display.  This is especially evident in such numbers as “Goin’ Downtown,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and the reprise of “Dreamgirls” all executed flawlessly by the spirited ensemble.

Dreamgirls depicts the many highs and lows of the music business in the mid 1960’s.   The personal sacrifices of the stars, the payola, the cutthroat nature of the managers, the sexist and racist carryover from the Jim Crow era, come into focus.

Toby’s sizable talented cast will entertain you with a fusion of rhythm and blues, soul and a new pop sound from an era a half century ago, and the superb technical crew creates a dazzling spectacle worth experiencing. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and fifty-five minutes with an intermission.

Dreamgirls at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 12, 2017.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com or ticketmaster.com.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Throwing the Flag on a False Equivalence

Courtesy of NEWSiNi
We’ve heard the term “false equivalence” lately.  This phrase has been used by many who condemned President Trump’s characterization of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va. as the fault of “all sides.”

We also pushed back at him when he compared the removal of statues that honor traitors and secessionists who fought against the U.S. Army in an effort to maintain slavery as a way of life in America to the hypothetical removal (in his mind) of statues paying tribute to heroes who fought for our country’s independence.  

False equivalence all around.

Now a new version of false equivalence has emerged in the context of the Charlottesville controversies, and it has to do with conflating the Confederate flag with the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag.

On the August 22 show “Fox & Friends” conservative columnist Star Parker told host Steve Doocy that these two flags are essentially the same.   

“You know what’s really interesting and really incredible irony here is the same people that are demanding that the Confederate flag comes down are the same people that are insisting that the rainbow flag goes up. These two flags represent the exact same thing. That certain people, groups are not welcome here,” she said.

Except that the opposite is true.  While the Confederate flag for many symbolizes separation, white supremacy, hate and slavery, the rainbow flag is a symbol of inclusion and equality.

This conflation goes on.    

In Auburn, Ala. a group of anonymous students and parents recently signed a petition to demand the rainbow flag be removed from a high school classroom claiming the flag is insensitive to students who do not support LGBTQ rights and compares it to the Confederate flag.

“We strongly feel that it creates a hostile and provocative learning environment for students not comfortable to openly supporting the LGBTQ+ community in a public school where students come from diverse political and religious backgrounds,” the change.org petition states.

Here again is the false equivalence as the petitioners go on to say.
Courtesy of LGBT Nation

“The signers of this petition would like for you to consider the uproar and chaos that would ensue were a teacher to hang for example a Confederate, Christian, or Heterosexual Flag in their classroom. There would likely be protests, emails from teachers, and threatening of lawsuits from parents with differing viewpoints.”

Oh yes, the reprehensible heterosexual flag!

Though no action has yet to be taken on the petition, a counter petition  has been signed in support of the Pride flag and posted online.

“The pride flag and the [Auburn High School] Educate club has served to provide a healthy environment for our LGBT+ peers to feel comfortable being who they truly are,” the counter-petition states.

“The flag represents this safe space, and frankly, the sentiment for removing the pride flag is an affront to the work that has been done nationally to fight for recognition of the community.”

It seems that the comparison of the two flags is not resonating.  As of August 23, the original petition had 759 supporters, while the counter-petition had 6,461.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Polished 'Pippin' at Beth Tfiloh

The company of 'Pippin'  Photo: Evan Margolis
The Beth Tfiloh Community Theater (BTCT), in its 9th season, has shown a recent liking for musicals that have plays within the musical.  Last year’s lively production of “Man of La Mancha” contains that feature, and the 2017 installment, Pippin, is another. #hocoarts

This is the 5th consecutive year that I’ve reviewed BTCT productions, and I have enjoyed them all.  However, the production of Pippin is the most polished, best directed and most extravagant of them all.
 
The leading performers and ensemble are outstanding.  The members of the technical crew are on top of their game.  And Diane M. Smith, BTCT’s venerable and meticulous director, treated the material with a light touch with sufficient campiness to provide laughter throughout.

The enchanting musical captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Samuel Boelens), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as the Players.  Among them are clowns, dancers and illusionists who perform some little trick moves, hand dancing routines and pole descending.

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a play within the musical whereby the troupe’s leader named appropriately Leading Player is performed energetically by Nicole Smith.   She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, while maintaining an interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony Award.

Noah Broth, Samuel Boelens * Brian Singer Photo: Evan Margolis
Ms. Smith’s high-octane energy comes across through her dancing and movements on the stage and also contributes with her vocal skills, comedic timing and commanding presence.  Her performance in the production number “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Boelens in “Right Track” showcases the talents of both.

If that isn’t enough, Ms. Smith designed the exceptional, color-laden, period costumes adding even more quality to the production.  The Players, in particular, are attired in dazzling eclectic garb.

Samuel Boelens showcases multiple talents in the title role.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Boelens is poised throughout. His acting is proficient, but it’s his strong tenor voice with a wide range to include an ability to smoothly transition into falsetto that leads me to believe he has an excellent future in musical theatre should he choose that path.

Such vocal prowess is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

Brian Singer plays the role of Pippin’s father, Charles, in a somewhat subdued manner.  Charles is the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, the Leading Player resurrects him, which offers more evidence to the plot’s zaniness. 

One of the scene stealers in the show is veteran stage performer (over 100 shows!) Nancy Tarr Hart as Pippin’s hilarious free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Feisty and campy, Ms. Hart delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her one scene and scores with her number “No Time at All” in which she advises Pippin to stop worrying so much and live life. In that song, she orders the audience to participate with a large piece of sheet music with handwritten lyrics on a, well, sheet hanging from above the stage.

Noah Broth, already in his 5th consecutive season at BTCT, plays the role of Lewis, Pippin’ half-brother.  Charles describes his step-son Lewis as a good soldier because “he’s strong and stupid.”

Nancy Tarr Hart singing "No Time at All"  Photo: Evan Margoilis
Mr. Broth puts on a veritable abs show in his vest rendering this reviewer jealous.  Proving I’m not really resentful, Mr. Broth does a fine job in his role especially in the vain character of Lewis.  

It’s a good carryover role for him as he had played self-centered Gaston in BTCT’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.” He also performs well as one of the Players in their many numbers.

Another cast member who turns in a solid performance is Kerry Jungwirth as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home.   Her excellent vocals soar in “Kind of Woman” and “”I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.”  This is no surprise as I recall her outstanding performance in last year’s BTCT’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”  

Another notable performances are turned in by Hannah Elliott as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Sammy Jungwirth as Catherine’s sassy son Theo; and, of course, the skilled Players. 

The functional, colorful and eye-pleasing set designed is by BTCT’s artistic director Evan Margolis.  It consists of a whimsical circus tent with five multi-level curtained entrances from which the actors come and go.

Chris Rose and his orchestra ably support the excellent vocals.  James Hunnicutt’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb given the large company and the tightness of the stage.  

Laura Poehlman-Lavon’s vivid lighting to include abstract projections on the auditorium’s walls and Everett Simkins’ crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.

This production of “Pippin excels in every area and represents community theatre at its finest.   

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

“Pippin” plays August 22 and 23 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, MD 21208. Tickets can be purchased at the door or visit here

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trump’s Slide into the Base

The President’s obsession with his core supporters reveals who he really is and is debasing our country like no other.

It’s tough to do, but I am characterizing August 15, 2017 as the second “Day of Infamy” in U.S. history.  For it was on that day that President Donald Trump lost whatever declining moral standing he had when he defended elements of the white supremacist/neo-Nazi crowd in Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12 as “ very fine people” while criticizing those who are standing up to racism and bigotry as “extremely violent.”
 “What about the alt-left? They came charging at the alt-right. Do they have any semblance of guilt?... I think there’s blame on both sides,” he said during a combative, unfiltered press conference in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower.

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of to them a very, very important statue and then renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

Trump, who claimed he closely watched the events of that fateful weekend in which Heather Heyer was murdered when a vehicle driven by one of the Nazis slammed into a crowd of counter-protesters and two police officers who were killed in a helicopter crash monitoring the protests, was unable to unambiguously go on a verbal rampage against the neo-Nazis and racists.  Instead, he gave false moral equivalence to the two sides in the clash.

Trump apparently had the sound off on his TV; otherwise, he would have heard the anti-Semitic, Nazi chants “blood and soil,”  “Jews will not replace us” and the homophobic "Fuck You,Faggots" among others carried out by torch-carrying white supremacists and KKK members.

Fine people indeed.

Trump was roundly criticized when on Saturday he gave a brief and tepid condemnation of racism in general but not the individuals who carried the torches. He said “many sides” were responsible for the mayhem. 

Then on Monday, he gave the “hostage speech” off of a teleprompter saying some right things but it was clear to any observer, he was simply not into it and appeared he was forced by staff and aides to rectify the wrongs from the earlier attempt.

Then came the horrific performance on Tuesday, the 15th when an unplugged Donald Trump crashed and burned to the dismay, anger and sadness of much of the world.  That is, except for former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and others of his ilk who applauded the president.

What’s behind this? 

One can surely make the point there is racism in Trump’s royal blood given his father having been arrested in 1927 following a KKK rally though there is no evidence that the elder Trump was part of the organization. 

There are examples of his record on race relations.  Trump reinforced this reputation by surrounding himself in the White House with the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka.  And let’s not forget the birtherism movement he led, his comments on Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, a federal judge of Mexican descent, the Gold Star Muslim Khan family and others.

Regardless of what prejudices he holds inside his soul, there is one glaring fact that must be considered: he thrives on his base. 

As approval ratings decline, he is comforted by the fact there is a small but enthusiastic sector of the population that adores Trump.  This is his lifeline.  This is his fix.

He sees himself as a victim, treated unfairly by the “fake news media,” the establishment Republicans and Democrats, and he and his followers must battle the odds.  This base of support provides him the blood to exist.  Trump must be adored.  Trump must be adulated.  Trump must be idolized. And Trump must be unquestioned.

In his nearly eight months in office, Trump has made absolutely no attempt to reach out beyond his base to try in some manner to unify the country.  He never made the effort, and it looks like he never will.

Bizarrely, Trump holds campaign-style rallies even months after the campaign is over to re-invigorate his ego.  There he blasts the media and re-litigates the election by bragging about how big the victory was, demonizing his vanquished opponent, and spews a lot of nonsense that these people swallow whole and without question.

He cannot afford to risk losing this support.  His ego and depraved narcissism demand it.  Many in his base are either the same racists who took part in Charlottesville or like-minded folks.  Trump’s demeanor on the campaign trail, his post-election period and ever since the inauguration has made it comfortable for racists to surface from under their rocks and show themselves.  Thus, the pathetic, disgraceful, and disgusting performance the last few days.

As the rest of the country (and the world) continues to observe this president with horror, one can imagine them thinking, “Mueller time can’t come soon enough.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Former Owner of The Drinkery Dies

Frederick “Fred” Allen, the former owner of The Drinkery, a longstanding corner gay bar in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, died from natural causes on August 7 at the age of 86, according to his granddaughter Amy Miller. 

Allen, who had owned The Drinkery since 1972 and maintained an apartment above the bar for over 40 years, transferred the Class “BD7” Beer, Wine & Liquor License to Miller this past January 19. 

The Drinkery, situated on the corner of Park Avenue and Read Streets, made news when the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners voted 2-1 on May 19, 2016 not to extend the bar’s liquor license based on a petition from neighboring businesses and residents alleging rowdiness, excessive noise, drug activity and violence in and around the establishment.

Allen, frail and wheelchair-bound, was among those who testified on behalf of the bar at the liquor board hearing. 

Two weeks later on June 2 a motion for reconsideration hearing was held, and the liquor board reversed the earlier decision based on an appeal by Allen.  One of the individuals who signed the petition and testified against the license extension is listed on the liquor license of another Mount Vernon establishment and therefore, as a competing licensee, he was not permitted to participate under the board’s rules.  This led to one of the commissioners to reverse her previous vote thereby overturning the previous ruling by the board.

The Drinkery re-opened the next day to much relief and jubilance by its patrons.

“Mr. Allen formed a mainstay institution in the Mount Vernon neighborhood and the Baltimore LGBT community,” said Brian Dolbow, a long time patron of The Drinkery and resident of the neighborhood. “He cared deeply about his employees, his customers, and his community. Thanks to Mr. Allen, I have met so many wonderful people and have made lifelong friends. May he Rest in Peace.”

Carlton Smith, Executive Director and CEO of The Center for Black Equity Baltimore, agrees.

“I have been a ten-year patron of The Drinkery in which I visited so often in the gayborhood. I’m sure Mr. Allen’s death is a kind of shock to many of his patrons who especially had a long time relationship with the bar and family members. This bar has been a staple for many young men and women in the gayborhood. It was our ‘Cheers’ where everyone got to know your name,” he said.

Allen’s body was donated to the Maryland Anatomy Board.


R.I.P. Fred.

(This story appears in the Washington Blade.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Trump's War for Survival

Courtesy: NowTheEndBegins.com
Despite Donald Trump’s bellicose “fire and fury like the world has never seen” threat to North Korea, there probably won’t be a war.  I said, “probably” not “definitely.” 

Nothing would be gained from it, and both nations have been issuing threats to each other for over 15 years without direct military action. North Korean leaders over this time are just seeking relevance and respect on the world stage—that they are a force that no longer can be ignored.  They are not looking to be annihilated.

Of course, there is no guarantee that there will be no hostilities given the half-crazed leaders of the two nations.  Kim Jong-un already won the first round of the latest exchanges by baiting Trump to react.  His threats are likely to intensify knowing he has Trump in the palm of his small hands and will toy with him like a cat does with a mouse.     

Kim is aware that military actions may be on the table during high level security meetings in Trumpdom but reality has a way of interfering with such matters.  Kim is holding millions in South Korea, Japan, Guam and U.S. troops stationed in those areas hostages, not to mention portions of the U.S. homeland that could be targets of an attack.  With that grim prospect, I believe we will not be launching a strike on North Korea unless there is a direct attack initiated by Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, Trump needs a war to survive.  With approval ratings sinking and no ostensible hope they will improve in the near future, his oversized ego is taking a big hit. Sure, he will discredit the polls as “fake news” and that polling was off prior to the 2016 election (he’s right about that one), but deep-down Trump knows better.

His refusal to reach out beyond his base is a disgusting display of cynicism and clearly does not have the good of the country on the front burner.  Trump has a bunker mentality whereby he surrounds himself with similar-minded novices, charlatans, unqualified family members, generals he admires, and holds rallies re-litigating the 2016 campaign for those who stubbornly cling to him regardless of his performance.  Never mind that he has failed to deliver on most of his signature promises.

That’s a formula for 33 percent not being the floor but the ceiling.  He’s losing independents at a torrid pace and conservative Republicans are beginning to seep out of his domain.  To be sure, Trump stands no chance with Democrats though he had been one for most of his gilded life.
Then there is the Russia thing.  

With Robert Mueller casting a wide net around Trump, his finances, his family’s business dealings, his campaign staff’s ill-advised and probable illegal meetings with Russian officials, Trump must be feeling squeezed.  And most recently, the FBI’s raid on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s residence should sound alarms.

Donald Trump and Robert Mueller facing off  Courtesy: Salon.com
He has been warned against firing the special counsel to prevent the investigation from proceeding further though he calls it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Only his base, which includes his propaganda arm, FOX News and Breitbart, believe that spin.

I am sure Trump and his advisers are aware that the GOP has a good chance of turning over the House of Representatives to Democrats in 2018.  If that holds true, the “I” word would surface like a dead fish in the ocean especially if Mueller’s report ever sees the light of day.
But will it?  #hocopolitics

If the matter with North Korea escalates, it could have a profound effect on the investigation.  To be clear, I am not suggesting Trump would deliberately start a war with potentially tens of millions of casualties to protect himself and his interests.  That would be over the top; however, there are many folks on social media who cynically believe he is capable of such a hideous act.

But should there be a war of some magnitude, I suspect Trump would try to find a way to end the investigation.  He would go in front of the American people—not just his base—to simply state the country is at war and the ongoing investigation is a needless and harmful distraction for the Commander-in Chief.  It’s a matter of national security.

Getting the public to support a war if there is no direct military attack on the homeland or our allies can be dicey.  Generally, public opinion shifts to the president in times of war but as we have seen in the past 50 years, war divides the country.

As tragic as war would be, "fire and fury" could save the Trump presidency in the short term.  

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why Won't the GOP Stand Up to Trump?

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Hillary Clinton was elected president.  Now imagine the reaction from Republicans if members of her campaign team had met with Russians operatives with possible collusion in Russia’s attempt to get her elected. 

Imagine if she divulged classified sensitive information to the foreign minister and ambassador from Russia in the Oval Office when only Russia’s state-owned media were permitted to attend. Imagine if she insulted our allies overseas but refused to criticize Russian President Putin—ever.

Consider their reaction if she reneged on her promise to make her tax returns public. Imagine if she had business dealings all over the world and refused to divest during her presidency.

Imagine in her first 6 months as president she made 37 golf trips at taxpayers’ expense. 

Think of how the Republicans would feel if she fired the investigator leading the investigation of her and her campaign. Picture how they would react to the shameless, disgusting politicization of a speech to the Boy Scouts of America. Or how they would like it if she encouraged those scouts to boo a former Republican president.

Imagine the GOP reaction to her appointing her daughter and son-in-law to key White House posts and assigned one of them to engineer Middle East peace though completely unqualified to do so. Or their failure to disclose meetings with foreign agents on a security clearance form under penalty of law.

Think of how they would react if she went on campaign-style rallies, re-litigating the election, bragging about the size of her victory, and constantly berating her vanquished Republican opponent.  Imagine if she lied about just about anything every single day.

I could go on and on and on, but as you know, these actions were not taken by Hillary Clinton but by President Donald Trump.  And the Republican responses to these episodes? Crickets.

Under fire by Democrats and independents for putting party before country, the Republicans, especially those in Congress, have been loath to criticize or even punish Trump for his seemingly limitless indiscretions.

So, why are these actions ignored by Republican lawmakers not to mention his base?

It can't be because he has been a rock solid Republican throughout his career.  Trump is a Johnny-come-lately Republican with little or no ideological foundation at his core. Why the loyalty from the GOP?

His approval ratings have hovered between the mid-30s to low 40’s rendering him the most unpopular president in modern history at this point of his term.  And much of his approval comes from states Republicans win anyway.  Trump has shown no propensity to expand his support beyond that base. While his support is intense, it is narrow.  Why the loyalty?

On the surface, it’s a mystery that has befuddled Democrats.   

Here’s the reason.  Republicans lawmakers, despite reports to the contrary, are scared shitless of Trump.  #hocopolitics

Trump’s compulsive use of Twitter is a missile that can’t be knocked down.  He hits and hits hard without any shame and often without any human decency. 

Republicans remember all too well, how Trump defied the odds by winning the nomination in 2016 mostly by dismantling his closest opponents: “Little Marco” Rubio, “Low Energy Jeb” Bush, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.

His infantile abuse of Twitter knows no bounds and his fellow Republicans fear being on the receiving end of sharp, sarcastic tweets or public statements.  Often, he will embarrass them and their constituents are paying attention.

Heck, he will abandon his most loyal supporters if it suits him.  See: Jeff Sessions.  That strikes fear, too.

Then there’s that base.  More energized than so-called establishment Republicans, these folks maintain a strong almost scary loyalty towards their leader.  They will vote and will do so in primaries should they occur.  Incumbent Republicans are ever so mindful of that and are extremely hesitant to take down Trump lest the base gets pissed.

That trend may end if Trump goes on to fire “beleaguered” Attorney General Jeff Sessions who retains strong support from GOP conservatives in Congress. Or worse, if Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is well on his way to finding the truth about the Trump campaign and the Russian meddling in our election in addition to potential obstruction of justice and money laundering suspicions.

There are signs, though, that the Trump hold over Republicans may be showing signs of cracking.  

Moreover, former GOP Congressman and current MSNBC "Morning Joe" anchor Joe Scarborough recently announced he is leaving the Republican Party because of its acquiescence to Trump.  Other high profile former Republican politicians and operatives have also refused to support Trump.

And Billionaire health care mogul and former GOP mega donor Mike Fernandez, who left the Republican Party because of Trump, told Politico: “All the Republicans who hide behind the flag and the church, they don’t have the F-----g balls to do what it takes.”

Those balls are now in the GOP’s court.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Winning ‘Thurgood’ at Olney

Brian Anthony Wilson as Thurgood Marshall Photo: Stan Barouh
Olney Theatre Center’s black box theatre has been configured into a 150-seat college lecture hall with a sign on the rear of the stage wall reading, “Howard University Welcomes Thurgood Marshall.” In front of that sign stands a dark wooden table with a lectern on top, four leather chairs around it, and behind the table are the American and the District of Columbia flags.  #hocoarts

In comes a hobbling graying, bespectacled gent in a three-piece suit using a cane. That man is Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, the first ever African-American Justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Now retired, he is returning to Howard University where he had received his law degree to give a speech.

Marshall actually died in 1993 at the age of 84, but his life’s stories included in that speech at Howard are conveyed in a scintillating and compelling one-man play, Thurgood,”being presented at Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.

Thurgood”opened on Broadway in 2008 and earned a Tony Award for its star Laurence Fishburne.  Veteran actor Brian Anthony Wilson with a good number of film and TV roles under his belt turns in a tour-de-force performance as Thurgood Marshall in a compact 90-minute play at Olney. 

The absorbing script by George Stevens, Jr., which denotes historical facts, anecdotes, verbatim quotes from Marshall, emotional moments, and well-placed humor derived from Marshall’s mischievous sense of humor, makes the play feel like it’s over much too quickly.  

Marshall soon sheds his cane and transforms into a more youthful persona.  Under Emmy Award winner Walter Dallas’ impeccable direction, he proceeds to effectively relate in chronological sequence his boyhood including why he changed his name from Thoroughgood to Thurgood.
Marshall strolls about the stage and other times he’s sitting depending on the topic.  He takes an occasional sip of water as any speech presenter would. He is aided by images projected on the rear wall thereby enhancing his speech.

Marshall discusses his colorful family including his alcoholic father, his education, his attempt to be admitted to the University of Maryland Law School only to find out it did not allow blacks, his work as a lawyer fighting to end segregation and Jim Crow laws, his married life, his appointment by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals, his appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson as U.S. Solicitor General and ultimately President Johnson’s appointment of Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He brings us back to an era where the struggle for civil rights got its footing. The “N” word is commonly used.  Lynchings are unflinchingly discussed.  

The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision laid the groundwork for the federal “separate but equal” concept for public facilities as they pertain to black and white citizens.  It was this culture of segregation and discrimination that led Marshall to seek a career in law not only to make money as he unabashedly admitted, but to help right those wrongs.

As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Marshall won cases and lost others.  However, it was his 1954 win in Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court that ended the policy of separate schools for white and black children where he made his mark.

Standing at the lectern and simulating his legal argument before the Supreme Court, one can easily get goose bumps.  When the decision was handed down, the audience broke out into applause.

Photo: Stan Barouh
His record of winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court caught the attention of presidents, which led to his ultimate appointment to the highest court in the land.

Mr. Wilson’s portrayal of Thurgood Marshall is spot-on and convincing.  The humorous anecdotes as well as the emotional dramatic episodes are well-delivered. All told, Mr. Wilson’s performance was deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the conclusion of this reviewed performance. 

Paige Hathaway’s set including the projected images presents the appropriate background for Mr. Wilson and his movement around the stage. 

Harold F. Burgess II designed the lighting to effectively coincide with the dramatic moments as did Roc Lee’s sound design, which provided sound effects at those very moments.

Towards the end of the play, Marshall delivers a line from a Langston Hughes poem, “Oh, let America be America again.”  Immediately, it conjures up thoughts of the similarly worded campaign slogan used repeatedly by our current president. 

It also reminds us how the president created a commission to investigate non-existing voter fraud rather than examining the prevalent attempts at voter suppression that is intended to impact African-Americans and other minorities. 

I mused, what would Thurgood Marshall say about that?  Come see this magnificent play and performance and imagine the answer to that question.

Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Thurgood contains some profanity and adult situations and is not recommended for children under age 13.

Thurgood runs through August 20 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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Solid ‘Spring Awakening’ at the Spotlighters

Sean Dynan as Mechior and Jim Baxter as Moritz
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
If you think today’s society is challenged to deal with such thorny issues as abortion, homelessness, child abuse, rape, unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality, and teen suicide, consider how these same topics were candidly portrayed in an 1891 German book Spring Awakening written by Frank Wedekind.  It didn’t go over so well then as it was banned in that country for some time.  #hocoarts

Undaunted, the rock musical Spring Awakening is based on that controversial work and was crafted by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sater.  The production opened on Broadway in 2006 and captured eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor, and four Drama Desk awards plus a Grammy.

Those not familiar with the musical Spring Awakening may assume that the show, just by going by its title, is an uplifting, joyous spectacle. Instead, it’s an often dark portrayal of how teenagers struggle to be liberated especially when it comes to sexual fantasies and behavior while the adults in their lives cling to conservative and religious mores in an effort to thwart their kids’ attempts at freedom.  The tension between the two sides is palpable forming the underlying backdrop to the story of Spring Awakening.

The Audrey Herman Spotlighters in its 55th season has taken on the challenge of mounting this musical on its cozy in-the-round stage.  Why not?  It has done so effectively in the past with such iconic musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly, Rocky Horror Show and Mame through creative direction and efficient use of space.  Talented casts helped, too.

Dynan and Allison Comotto as Wendla
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
With Spring Awakening, the production, under the direction of Jillian Locklear Bauersfield, who has helmed some of those mentioned musicals, is solid.  

While the Spotlighters’ limited space and stage contours do not afford an opportunity to present a splashy production, the benefit of its intimacy with the audience is clear.  This is especially true when the raw emotions of the characters are conveyed through song and dialogue.  The audience gets the sense it is right in the middle of the action and can feel those vibes.  
Using the strong score under the excellent direction of Michael Tan and his four-piece orchestra, the story line ably weaves a series of subplots into a dramatic tapestry involving adolescents discovering their feelings about sexuality and intimacy.  Parents of these kids were loathe to have frank “birds and bees” conversations, so the youngsters had to learn about such matters on their own in various ways while dealing with the effects of puberty.

Wendla, played tenderly by lovely Allison Comotto, never received sexual guidance from her mother and paid the ultimate price.  She caught up with a friend from her early childhood years, Melchior, a handsome, intelligent, and rebellious fellow (performed splendidly by Sean Dynan) who, through book learning, was aware of the mechanics of sex and enjoyed his intimacy with a naïve Wendla.  Sadly, this encounter ultimately had tragic consequences as two lives were lost.

Then there is Moritz, played powerfully by Jim Baxter.  He, too, had his issues involving his sexual feelings but was even more victimized by evil, unscrupulous schoolteachers (played deliciously by Marc Korol-Evans and real life wife Tony Korol-Evans) and his unsympathetic father.  The Korol-Evanses adroitly play the other adult roles in the show demonstrating strong acting skills.

Ernst (Chris Weaver) and Hanschen (Aaron Hancock) find love with each other.  Happily, this gay couple is among the few who did not experience sadness, frustration or tragedy and provide some of the lighter moments in the production. One of those is a masturbation scene with Hanschen constantly being interrupted by his father. 

Other characters include Ilse (Ellen Manuel) who runs away from home to escape abuse; Martha (Alyssa Bell) who was abused by her father; Georg (John Endres) and Otto (Brendan Hale) who have fantasies of their own.
Aaron Hancock as Hanschen and Chris Weaver as Ernst
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
The music is electric and performed ably by the entire cast. And despite the tight stage, the choreography by Amie Morrow Bell is creative and precise especially in such numbers as “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and the big production piece and a show highlight, “Totally Fucked” with the ensemble moving around the stage with high energy and cohesion .

Some of the vocals are noteworthy as well. Mr. Dynan, playing Melchior, excels with his tenor voice with an infusion of falsetto in “All That’s Known,” “Left Behind” and duets with Ms. Comotto in “The Word of Your Body” and “Whispering.”

Ellen Manuel as Ilse shines in “Blue Wind” and Jim Baxter as Moritz singing the intense number “Don’t Do Sadness.”  Also, Brendan Hale as Otto demonstrates a sweet tenor voice in the reprise of “The Word of Your Body” with John Endres as Georg.

Amy Rawe Weimer’s costume design and Laurie Brandon’s lighting enhance the quality of the production.

Though it’s a sad story for the most part, Spring Awakening is riveting and entertains with especially good musical numbers and fine acting by the cast under the capable direction of Ms. Bauersfield. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains sexual situations and profanity and is not recommended for children.

Spring Awakening runs through July 30 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 752-1225, or visit spotlighters.org.