Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Are Gay Bars the Next Dinasours?

When the Hippo announced its impending closing, there was a lot of collective hand-wringing.   Many in Baltimore’s LGBT communities saw this as a disaster and perhaps the final nail in the coffin for LGBT identity.  They feel the gay bar will go the way of the phone booth, record stores, and liberal Republicans.
The soon-to-close Hippo
To be sure, we have witnessed the closing of local gay bars with The Eagle in 2012 and the Quest in 2014.  The Hippo’s last dance is expected later in 2015, Grand Central may be up for sale in 2016, while another bar south of the city is teetering on closing in the very near future.  Jay’s on Read, while not technically a gay bar but popular among LGBT folks, faces an uncertain future.
Bars shut down for a variety of reasons, but for the most part it’s because of financial considerations resulting from a falloff in patronage.  The most popular reason discussed is that younger gay people are frequenting straight bars with their straight friends.  Baltimore icon John Waters believes that tendency is why gay bars are eventually going to vanish. 

“The coolest gay kids today don’t want to go to a gay bar.  They want to go to a hip bar where straights and gays are mixing,” Waters said during a recent WYPR interview . 

Grand Central owner Don Davis agrees. In that same interview Davis observed that gay people are feeling more comfortable with going with straight friends to a straight bar.  He feels the change in “demographics” will sustain this trend.
There are other factors in play.  Men don’t cruise at the bars as they once did, using phone apps and the Internet to replace hooking up through personal contact at bars.  It’s cheaper since less alcohol is consumed (or needed) and rejection is less painful.  Still others are bored by the bar scene and prefer alternative sources of amusement.

However, The Baltimore Eagle didn’t close because leather men and leather women took flight to straight establishments.  The previous owner passed away and the estate sold the bar.  If the new ownership of The Baltimore Eagle fails to have a controversial Liquor Board ruling overturned, the bar will remain closed.
The mixing of straights and gays at bars became more evident during the period when there was a Guerilla Gay Bar movement between 2009 and 2011.  To provide an alternative to the gay bar scene, monthly outings consisting of an “invasion” of gays at selected straight bars and clubs around Baltimore were scheduled with prior notice given to the bar’s management and staff.  

The Baltimore Eagle is already closed but for how long?
With one exception, because of a failure to communicate effectively, these events were hugely successful with no incidents or any other ostensible problems.  The bars’ staffs were eager to take in our money and the other patrons enjoyed or at least put up with our presence, which often numbered in the hundreds.
The following year marriage equality passed by referendum in Maryland confirming the increased acceptance by the straight folks.  Nationally, polls indicate that same-sex marriage is favored by a 3 to 2 margin.  Yet, even if those results are accurate, there are still 2 out of 5 who oppose marriage equality.  That’s a significant number, if not the majority.
Therefore, by no means is our acceptance universal or complete.  A gay couple in Chelsea in NYC can attest to the fact that there are haters out there who would do us harm as they were brutally attacked.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, if favorable as it appears likely, will cause a backlash among many groups.  And the Republican candidates in the presidential clown car are falling all over each other in an effort to appeal to their bigoted base by raising the temperature on strident anti-gay marriage rhetoric. 

I don’t believe that the gay bar will become a dinosaur any time too soon.  Sure, younger gays and lesbians may be frequenting straight establishments.  But do male couples actually dance at these places, holds hands, or are affectionate? I certainly would not feel comfortable or safe dancing or being affectionate with my husband at a straight club.  Or, will these guys dance with their female friends as closeted gay men once did in the past while out in public? 
A gay bar does provide a secure space where one can be him or herself.  You’re with folks with more common interests, and that’s a boost towards the social benefits.  If you’re holding the hand of your gay or lesbian partner or spouse in a gay bar, you don’t have to look around to be sure the person behind you won’t break a bottle over your head.  Of course, it can happen but much less likely in a gay bar.

Regardless, existing gay bars need to step it up. Though there will be fewer gay bars around, those remaining should do well at least in the near term.  It would behoove bar owners to be more innovative and creative to keep the customers entertained and interested in patronizing their establishments.   They ought to listen to their customers to see what they would like.
As Don Davis noted on WYPR, Grand Central offers special events to keep things interesting and exciting in order for him to compete.  He unapologetically encourages a straight crowd to join in the festivities and stresses that Grand Central is an “alternative bar” and not a gay bar per se.

It is apparent that further acceptance by society fueled by the younger generation may ultimately obviate the need for gay bars or even LGBT organizations.  That would be a tangible sign of progress though we still have a ways to go.  Until then the gay bar will continue to be an integral part of LGBT social life and will not vanish altogether, at least not yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Magical Ride Through Orioles History

If you are or have been a Baltimore Orioles fan for over a half century or became one just recently, 60 Years of Orioles Magic is a must read chronicle from the birth of the Birds through the exhilarating 2014 season.  The coffee table-sized book with tons of extraordinary vintage and color photos of virtually everybody whoever put on an O’s uniform presents a superb accounting of all the ups and downs the franchise has experienced since its 1954 move to Baltimore from St. Louis.
Jim Henneman, a former sports journalist for the Baltimore News American and Baltimore Sun for over 50 years and who attended the first Orioles game in Baltimore in 1954, shared his wealth of knowledge of Orioles lore throughout the 276-page book. The best all-time Orioles pitcher, Jim Palmer, penned the introduction drawing on his astounding photographic baseball memory that he often displays on TV citing specifics of a game from decades past (who pitched against him, which batter he retired with men on base, the score, etc.).

The book contains 14 chapters that chronologically depict key “eras” over the 60 years.  Enhanced by countless vivid photos—many full page in size and of the action variety—and detailed captions, the story of the Orioles history unfolds in what must be considered catnip for Orioles fans in particular and baseball fans in general.  There are also replica ephemera, including old-time tickets, scorecards, posters and more among the pages.

From a description of the poor-performing Orioles teams early on in the 1950s to the emergence of a contender and then champion team in the 1960’s, Henneman effectively rekindles the memories of how the team evolved from oblivion to become one of the elite squads in baseball.
He continues this journey in the subsequent decades with the team’s peaks and valleys, which were numerous, and  covering the multitude of players who wore the orange and black, the ownership, the front office, trades—good and bad, the various managers, the new ballpark at Camden Yards and much, much more.  In particular, Henneman describes so well the exciting “Why Not?” season of 1989 that captivated the baseball world and Orioles fans. 

Several Orioles are highlighted in full page tributes, such as Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Doug Decinces, Eddie Murray and the phenomenon known as Cal Ripken, Jr. especially his “iron man” streak.
60 Years of Orioles Magic includes a feature that is absolutely wonderful and a delight to baseball addicts.  Following each era, Henneman recounts a bunch of “Memorable Games” that were usually significant, odd or ironic.  For instance, this section shows Hoyt Wilhlem becoming the first Orioles pitcher to throw a no-hitter, which occurred on September 20, 1958. 

Or when on June 21, 1966, Frank Robinson hit a 451-foot blast off Luis Tiant of Cleveland that became the only home run hit out of Memorial Stadium.  On July 27, 1973, the Orioles defeated the White Sox 17-0 for the largest shutout victory in club history.  Then there was Tippy Martinez picking off three Toronto runners in the 9th inning of a tie game on August 24, 1983.  And more recently, there was Robert Andino’s astounding game-winning hit on September 28, 2011 off Boston’s impervious closer Jonathan Papelbon to effectively knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs, setting the stage for the O’s revitalization beginning in 2012.    
What I liked to have seen included in this otherwise exemplary trip down Orioles memory lane is more depth in describing some situations.  For example, illumination on the exploits of Earl Weaver and his numerous on-field skirmishes with umpires and some insight into Weaver’s storied “love-hate” relationship with star pitcher Jim Palmer would have been welcome with a photo or anecdote or two. 

The book would have been even more nostalgic if some of the quirks the fans loved were mentioned, such as John Denver’s iconic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” played during the 7th inning stretch for many years, or the fans’ screaming “O” during the National Anthem, or a special tribute to the beloved announcer Chuck Thompson.  They were part of the Orioles tradition as well.  
Moreover, since baseball and statistics are inexorably entwined, an appendix presenting the year-to-year performance of the team, their cumulative records versus opposing teams, or a list of team leaders by category would have been the icing on the cake. Though statistics are laced throughout, a separate section is warranted.

Nonetheless, 60 Years of Orioles Magic through its extraordinary images and writing about those who wore the Orioles uniform brings to life a history, identity and a tradition that is clearly enduring.
Baltimore Orioles: 60 Years of Orioles Magic (Insight Editions/ $50.00/May2015, Hardcover, 276 pages, ISBN: 978--1608873180)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Marley Be Jammin' At Center Stage

Center Stage’s 2014/2015 season comes to a close with the world premier production of the new musical Marley, which weaves together the life and songs of reggae music legend Bob Marley. The lobby of the theater has been transformed with a dirt floor, a Jamaican shanty town, domino players, performances and dancing by ensemble members beginning 30 minutes before the show. Posters for the two opposing Jamaican political candidates Michael Manley and Edward Seaga line the walls and show the divisions in the country.  #hocoarts

From the raising of the proverbial curtain to the jammin’ hand-clapping celebratory concert at the conclusion, the audience is treated to a simply thrilling theatrical experience thanks to superb direction, outstanding lead performers, a talented energetic ensemble and a technical crew that is exceptional.
Rather than covering Marley from his birth in 1945 to his untimely death from cancer in 1981 at age 36 the show focuses on a period when his career exploded. It is bracketed by the 1976 “Smile Jamaica” concert before which he was almost assassinated and the 1978 “One Love Peace” concert, which followed a two-year self-exile to London where much introspection occurred.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The LGBT Press is Needed More Than Ever

Two years ago, on the occasion of Baltimore OUTloud’s 10th anniversary, I marveled how so much has changed over that time in terms of progress for LGBT individuals locally and elsewhere while at the same time acknowledging there was plenty of work remaining.  I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity to be an eyewitness to those historical developments.

Displaying copies of Baltimore OUTloud  Photo: Bob Ford
Now as we celebrate the paper’s 12th anniversary, more progress has been noted and much work still needs to be done.  What should be considered somewhat remarkable is the fact we are still here as a publication and not only hanging in there against strong headwinds, but expanding.
That’s right, expanding.  Baltimore OUTloud with its new Out in the Valley section has turned into a regional publication that will now cover LGBT news and events from Frederick west to the West Virginia panhandle and southern Pennsylvania.  This has traditionally been an underserved area as far as LGBT newspapers are concerned, and the hope is that Baltimore OUTloud can fill that void.

Despite the mainstreaming of LGBT news (a welcome development in that past coverage from the straight press had been focused on the more controversial elements of our communities) and the onset of mobile devices to find and receive news in an instant, LGBT publications remain useful and valued.
Lest we forget, consider how the gay press stepped up when mainstream media chose not to report on such huge points in our history.  Examples include: Stonewall (mainstream press coverage at the time marginalized those who participated in the uprising), the AIDS epidemic, key court rulings, anti-discrimination efforts, the repeal of don’t ask- don’t tell, the battle for marriage equality (though mainstream coverage has improved considerably in the last few years), trans* equality, hate crimes, international oppression, the fight for sexual freedom, and so on.

While these were covered by the LGBT press, the mainstream media portrayed homosexuals in a negative light, focusing on stereotypes.  Gays were seen as unhappy, lonely, flamboyant, promiscuous and incapable of having relationships.  Society’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians were negative; the media simply reinforced them. 
“There was a ‘setting straight of the record’ energy in the early days of the gay press,” says Tracy Baim, Editor of Gay Press, Gay Power and Publisher/Editor of Windy City Media Group.  “It was all about representation and making sure that we were heard and seen. The straight media forced the formation of the gay press just like they forced the need of an African-American press because they stereotyped or ignored blacks and gays.”

The LGBT press was needed then and it’s needed now more than ever. When a mainstream media outlet does a story on us, it doesn’t always seem to be complete.  LGBT newspapers tend to provide more depth to a story and offers added context.

“The role of gay media continues … because there are ... many cases where the mainstream media are simply parachuting into a story and therefore providing an incomplete and thus inaccurate picture for their readers,” said Baim.
Michael Lavers, a reporter for the Washington Blade, agrees.  “The LGBT media brings a unique perspective and insight to an LGBT-specific story that mainstream media simply cannot,” he explains.  “For example, the first issue of the [Washington] Blade was published in October 1969 – four months after the Stonewall riots. We have continuously reported on LGBT-specific stories that directly impact the community here in D.C. and beyond since then. The LGBT media shed light on these issues long before the mainstream media ever did.”

Some of these topics would include holding our LGBT leaders accountable and providing useful LGBT-specific health information and news about HIV/AIDS and the latest treatment regimens.  Rarely is that found in the mainstream press.
We explore intra-community homophobia, transphobia and racism with greater candor than you would find elsewhere.  On the positive side, we shine a spotlight on the good works of LGBT individuals and allies as well as the organizations that serve our communities.

"The LGBT media brings a unique perspective and insight to an LGBT-specific story that mainstream media simply cannot."

Moreover, with our diverse communities, the LGBT press provides a platform for community members to air their views so their voices could be heard.  
“There will never be a dearth of stories for us to do. There is always going to be more news for a particular community than can be had in a generalized newspaper,” Baim points out. “I feel very strongly that there will continue to be a need for the gay press. The challenge is for us to do a better job of it.”

We understand in this modern age that more folks, especially the younger generation, receive their news from online sources or are sent links to articles via social media.  With the changing technology, newspapers need to be nimble to keep up with these changes and trends.  News travels fast, and no one can afford to be left behind.  To that end, Baltimore OUTloud has, besides its website, a Twitter account and a Facebook page to satisfy the thirst for instant news.

Nonetheless, when someone opens a link to a particular story, he or she tends to stop there.  The remainder of the publication, which contains useful and informative stories, commentary and ideas to improve the reader’s quality of life, is not necessarily read.  By not opening and perusing a newspaper, people will miss those.
There is no substitute for experiencing all the information contained within a newspaper.  Knowledge is important especially information that is provided to LGBT readers and allies that you won’t see elsewhere.   

That is why there is tremendous value in publishing newspapers, such as Baltimore OUTloud, for 12 years and counting.  As the old adage goes, “We here,. We’re queer. Get used to it.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

An End of an Era: The Hippo is Set to Close

After 43 years, the Club Hippo, one of Baltimore’s oldest and most iconic LGBT institutions, is poised to close its doors.

As confirmed at a meeting with employees on May 9, Hippo owner Chuck Bowers has negotiated to convert the building at the southwest corner of Charles and Eager streets into a CVS store.  
The negotiations between CVS and Bowers began early in 2014.  Under the arrangement Bowers will retain ownership of the building and lease it to CVS.  There is no date certain for the anticipated last dance, but it will likely take place sometime after the summer at the earliest.

Upon completion of the deal with CVS, it would mean an end of an era for an establishment seen by many as the epicenter of Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.”  Recently, that area has also been jolted by the expected closing of Jays on Read, a piano bar that had a loyal LGBT following and Comprehensive Car Care, a long-time staple on Eager Street.
The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972, possesses one of the largest dance floors of any club in the state.  During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with huge crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious rectangular floor bathed in glimmering, colorful lights.  As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music.  The Hippo kept up.

The club also features a popular video bar where karaoke and weekly show tunes video presentations occur and a saloon area that had been renovated several years ago.  Those renovations dispensed with the two pool tables near the bar’s large glass windows and added more seating at tables within the saloon.     
Through the years, the Hippo, whose motto is “Where everyone is welcome,” hosted such extravaganzas as the Miss Gay Maryland pageants and Mr. Maryland Leather contests as well as Twelve Days of Christmas, an annual affair that benefits local non-profit organizations. The Hippo had also served as the venue for Gay Bingo—a weekly event whereby non-profit organizations shared in the proceeds.  To broaden its appeal, the Hippo has held well-attended weekly Hip-Hop nights the past 11 years.

There have been numerous specialty events held at the Hippo with well-known DJs and drag performers entertaining the masses.  Many of these individuals began their drag careers at the Hippo.  
The club’s Halloween celebrations are legendary showcasing the community’s vast cache of creativity, and the Hippo’s annual New Year’s Eve gala has always been a popular stop to herald in the New Year that frequently attracted local celebrities—LGBT and straight—to the club.
Though the Hippo does not have a large political footprint, it had been the host venue for fundraising events throughout the referendum battle in 2012 in an effort to secure marriage equality. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had appeared at some of those events, customarily spends her birthday at the Hippo for one of their charitable Bingo nights.

For his part, Bowers, who recently turned 70, has donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, primarily to Baltimore Pride and its sponsor, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB). The Hippo has been one of the focal points for the annual Pride block parties along Eager Street.  
In addition, he has allowed other organizations to hold fundraising events at the club.  Early in the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first to help raise money to fight the disease.

"Gutting it for a CVS just doesn't seem fitting.”

Other than special events, there has been a decline in gay bar patronage over the past few years for a variety of reasons, and the Hippo was impacted by that trend as well.  Nonetheless, many folks in and out of Baltimore’s LGBT communities view the Hippo as more than just a bar with so many stating that the Hippo was the first gay bar they patronized.  It had also been a strong visitors’ destination whereby out-of-towners discovered Baltimore as a gay-friendly city.

Chuck Bowers on the evening of the Hippo's 40th Anniversary
To others, it meant much more. “The Hippo is an anchor of LGBT openness in Baltimore,” Tree Turtle, a Baltimore resident, told me  “It routinely brings together a broad cross-section of Baltimore of all colors and creeds. Regardless of the progress of LGBT human rights, regardless of the mainstreaming of queer people, and no matter how tough the economic climate is, we still need community havens! We still need people to love us for our difference. Yes: we are both same and different!”
She adds, “Where would we be but for the openness and distinctiveness of the leather daddies, the drag queens, and the drag kings? That's why we need to be accepted for our work as well as our play. That's why we need the Hippo, the Baltimore Eagle, the GLCCB, and all LGBT refuges in Baltimore!”

A person identified as 1/619K commented on Baltimore Brew, an online daily news journal, “With The Hippo’s presence on Baltimore’s major artery, straight Baltimore has had a slice of gay life mainstreamed into their everyday experience for 40 years. Early on, that really mattered. Chuck Bowers’ vision and tenacity created something groundbreaking and important. Gutting it for a CVS just doesn't seem fitting.”
As for Chuck Bowers, there is much nostalgia.  “When I come into the bar on a daily basis it’s quiet, no one is here yet. I walk through the building and look around. I hear the music, I see the lights, I hear the glasses clinking…..and then I stop,” he said in a statement. 

“And then I see the people whom I have met over the years.  This is to me, the most valuable asset this club provided me.  Their laughter, their smiles and more importantly their friendship over these years.   I want each and every one of you to know how much you have meant to me and for your ongoing support and friendship that has encouraged me to keep the club open for you.”

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 the Musical 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 glccb.org.  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 RedState.com, 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, Salesforce.com, 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.