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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Friday, March 20, 2020

Even the Coronavirus Can’t Avoid the Partisan Divide

Pres. Trump appearing at a meeting at the CDC donning his campaign cap

Our politics are so divisive that even the coronavirus pandemic, which has no political allegiance, can’t be viewed through a non-partisan lens. From the outset, President Trump has shifted his interpretation of the effects of covid-19 from near denial of a problem to a “wartime” footing.
During this unsettling process, in which the financial markets have reacted viciously against the uncertainty of the economic impact mixed with the often contradictory messaging from the White House and medical experts tasked with mitigating the pandemic, people who are Republicans and those who are Democrats differ markedly in their perception.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken between March 11 and 13 (noting attitudes may have shifted since), the following findings appear:

Worried that someone in your immediate family with catch the coronavirus?
All voters: 53 percent
Urban Dems: 70 percent
Suburban Dems: 68 percent
Rural Dems: 65 percent
Urban GOPers: 44 percent
Suburban GOPers: 37 percent
Rural GOPers: 41 percent

Stop attending large public gatherings?
All voters: 47 percent
Urban Dems: 59 percent
Suburban Dems: 63 percent
Rural Dems: 59 percent

Amazingly, there are plenty of deniers still out there fueled by commentary on FOX News at the beginning and by the president himself who at his rally in South Carolina on February 28 called the situation “the Democrats’ new hoax.”

According to the Washington Post on Instagram:
Even as President Trump has asked Americans to stay at home and has called on the nation to come together to fight the “invisible enemy” known as covid-19, virus doubters persist. They call reports of more than 200,000 sickened and 9,000 dead worldwide a sham. Republican legislators have continued to brag about their dinners out, some beaches remain packed with spring breakers and Hollywood starlet Vanessa Hudgens was forced to apologize for complaining on Instagram that “people are going to die, which is terrible, but like, inevitable?” 

Virus deniers vow to continue on with their daily activities with little adjustment, convinced that the unprecedented reaction to the virus is nothing more than a plot by the media or liberals out to get Trump. The Pew Research Center released a poll Wednesday that found that 62 percent of adults say the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll referenced above seems to suggest that these deniers are more likely to be Republicans.  #Hocopolitics

Anecdotally, Trump supporters see this as another attempt by Democrats and the media to make

Trump look bad after the Mueller Report and the impeachment trial failed to lower the president’s approval numbers. I have heard this from Trump supporters that the coronavirus is exaggerated to drop Trump’s numbers.
As the markets tank to a level that existed before Trump took office and that the economy will undoubtedly slide into a recession, Trump’s main re-election campaign arguments have gone down the drain.  But Trump is doing this to himself.  The stock market dives with every lie, contradiction and factual error he spews from the White House briefing room adding to the already built-in medical uncertainty of this new virus.

Though Republicans and the president himself have called for unity and non-partisanship (meaning no criticism of the president), it must be pointed out that Trump attended a CDC meeting two weeks ago sporting his familiar red campaign cap.  That alone undermines his plea for nonpartisanship; there is no justification to wear that cap at such an event.

Plus he made comments, such as the stock market will rebound in time (for the election, he implied); and cruise ship passengers should not be allowed to return to the U.S. because he didn't want the number of cases to rise; or consciously calling it the "China virus."

People have the right to criticize the handling of the crisis; perhaps and hopefully, it would be taken more seriously. It was reported, for instance, that one of the FOX News commentators urged Trump to take it more seriously lest there will be political hell to pay.

Here is the problem: If we cannot get 100 percent on board to see this as a major health crisis and stop worrying how this will affect the November elections, the results could be catastrophic. This is not the time for bravado and machismo as we often see when the tough guys speed on snowy roads or do other stupid stuff.

To amplify this point, there is the viral clip of the doophus on spring break with the backward cap saying, "If I get Corona I get corona. At the end of the day, I won't let this keep me from partying." How selfish is that?

Even as our local officials take strong actions and we comply by taking the necessary precautions, the deniers are putting all of us in danger with their cavalier, selfish and careless behavior.  This is not political pandemic but it sure feels like one.


UPDATE:  On March 27 President Trump signed into law a $2 trillion stimulus package that was passed in a bipartisan manner. to provide relief to those businesses and individuals affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  Despite the bipartisan passage of the bill in Congress, the White House purposely excluded Democrats from the signing ceremony.  And Republicans accuse the Democrats of politicizing the coronavirus crisis!

Friday, March 13, 2020

For Biden this is a Big Fu****g Deal

Joe Biden addressing the nation on the coronavirus
Under the cloud of uncertainty stemming from COVID-19, the primary races are continuing albeit without the grandeur of big crowd rallies and other forms of interpersonal campaigning. Even the debate on Sunday between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden will take place at CNN’s Washington studio with no live audience to distract from the candidates’ ability to enunciate their points. #hocopolitics

Biden is clearly the front runner following a jaw-dropping comeback that has every pundit on earth scratching his or her head.  While Sanders is mathematically in contention, the landscape looks bleak for the Democratic Socialist with the upcoming debate the last realistic opportunity to change the trajectory of the race.

To repeat the sentence Biden uttered into a hot mic to a cringing President Obama following the signing of the Affordable Care Act, this is a big fu****g deal.  Where we stand now in the primaries and caucuses, that sentence is apropos for Biden and, of course, Sanders.

How aggressive the now underdog Sanders will go after Biden in this one-on-one matchup, the first of the primary season, is unclear. Some Sanders’ supporters along with Trump supporters led by Donald Trump, Jr. have been pushing the narrative that at a minimum, Biden is no longer on his game and at the extreme end, he suffers from dementia. They site Biden’s malapropisms, gaffes, and confusion at times as evidence. It’s sad that people would use such a personal attack, but in the age of Trump, there are no longer any rules.

Unquestionably, this debate will provide the opportunity for Biden to prove the critics wrong. The less frenetic, more casual setting should be better terrain for Biden. However, he is still prone to mistakes and in the age of social media, the slightest slip-up will be magnified and will be cycled through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and what-not. And they will be compiled into a montage for ads as the election cycle proceeds.

It is akin to attending the Indy 500 looking for a crash as opposed to the caring who the ultimate winner is after dozens of laps.  People will be scrutinizing Biden’s style and fluidity of thought more than his actual policy positions.  Bernie’s style is already baked in so he won’t be under that sort of microscope. And he is no longer the frontrunner.

There is considerable irony that Trump supporters are pushing the dementia button on Biden. This is especially so following Trump’s pathetic dumpster fire of a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office this past Wednesday in a Hail Mary attempt to quell the nervous financial markets. 

Slurring many of his words, seemingly out of it, speaking like it was a hostage video, Trump piled up lie after lie, mistake after mistake while not seriously addressing the public health measures that the coronavirus requires.

The markets responded with the futures dropping during each utterance like leaves falling from trees in November. And on Thursday, the markets rewarded Trump, who sees the coronavirus and its ensuing economic impact as a significant threat to his re-election chances, with the worst day on Wall Street since the huge crash of October 1987.

Joe Biden receiving the critical endorsement from Rep. Clyburn
By stark contrast Joe Biden, as did Bernie Sanders, showed what presidential leadership is all about. Both described the situation in calm, measured tones while articulating the correct course of action to be taken. For Biden, this was a huge moment and he delivered.

Facing this debate where Biden is only one of the two last standing is, in itself, a miracle of sorts. Left for dead along with other Democratic hopefuls after the first three contests, Biden received arguably the most consequential endorsement in modern election cycles.

Normally, endorsements have minimal effect; not this one. James Clyburn, the highly respected Congressman from South Carolina and Democratic Majority Whip gave an emotional endorsement  to Biden that propelled the 77 year-old candidate to a crushing win in South Carolina. That victory, powered by African-American voters, launched this comeback, also powered by that demographic, to major victories on Super Tuesday and the primaries the following week. Other Dem hopefuls joined the post-South Carolina parade by endorsing Biden and seeing him as the best chance to defeat Trump.
For Joe Biden, who ran unsuccessfully twice before and didn’t win his first primary ever until the South Carolina game-changer, is at the precipice of finally reaching that goal. Clearly, Trump doesn’t want to face him in the general election as he was impeached for his efforts to sully Biden’s reputation.

Joe Biden needs to seal the deal this Sunday. He doesn’t have to “win” the debate as that assessment will come from the electorate who will view the debate through the lens of their candidate. But he must be able to hold his own. If he does, the finish line will be near as upcoming primaries loom favorable to Biden.

This is indeed a big f*****g deal.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Paranoia Overtaking Trumpworld

Photo: The Guardian
At a time when there is an external crisis, such as the Coronavirus, that can potentially affect an untold number of Americans and the world’s population (and already has), we need strong, competent, scientific-based leadership. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and his acolytes have not only bungled the rollout of a “plan” to combat the spread of the virus by minimizing its seriousness but are viewing the outbreak through the lens of politics.

Observing how the Stock Market dipped a whopping 12 percent in just a week making the fall the largest since the 2008 financial crisis, Trumpworld who has yet to experience a crisis not of his own making and testing the competency and leadership of an administration which has demonstrated neither, sees the threat of contagion, not to mention an economic slowdown as a result, as serious threats to the president’s re-election.

Measures, such as Trump assigning the lead to help combat the spread of the Coronavirus to Vice President Pence rather than to medical experts, did not help gain the confidence of the American people.  And making Pence the gatekeeper for messaging or spin did not help. Nor did Trump aid his cause by lying about the number of actual cases in the U.S. and portraying a cringe-worthy blasé attitude laced with false optimism.

In an effort to preempt criticism, Trump’s allies have taken to the airwaves accusing the Democrats and the media for exaggerating the scope of the crisis (the fact is, it could very well turn into a pandemic) and trying to “take down the president.”  Toadies from newly decorated  Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh to Rep. Steve Scalise have attempted to make the conversation about politics.

None other than Donald Trump, Jr. added to the “non-politicization” of the discourse with this gem on CNN:

“But for them to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here, and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning, is a new level of sickness. You know, I don't know if this is Coronavirus or Trump derangement syndrome, but these people are infected badly.”

Former Under Secretary of State and Managing Editor of TIME magazine Richard Stengel responded to Pence’s reaction to the Trump Jr. diatribe in this tweet:

In Trumpworld, everyone is always trying to take down the president: the Russia Hoax, the Mueller Hoax, the Impeachment Hoax, the Climate Change Hoax, the Evolution Hoax, and now the Coronavirus Hoax—all manifestations of the underlying paranoia gripping Trump and his followers. The evil Democrats led by “vicious” Nancy Pelosi and “corrupt” Adam Schiff, the media (except for FOX News, Breitbart, Drudge, Limbaugh, etc.), the “Deep State,” the leakers, the dis-loyalists, the book authors exposing the Trump White House—are  part of an effort to defeat Trump’s desperate desire to cling to power.

This paranoia surfaced back in August when there were early signs of an economic downturn, Trumpworld accused the Democrats and media for “rooting for a recession”  as a way to stop Trump in November 2020.

We are facing a serious public health crisis whose damage and effects are frighteningly unknown at this point. We should not panic but instead turn our hopes for guidance to a government effort to curtail the impact of the Coronavirus to the best of its ability. 

This is no time for politics from either side, and clearly not the time for Trumpworld to demonstrate weakness and uncertainty through their never ending paranoia. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

'Wicked' at the Hippodrome Will Leave You Spellbound

Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey

Hello, you munchkins out there. Do I have news for you! One of the most endearing and enduring Broadway musicals of all time, the touring production of Wicked, is making its fourth stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. And just like the previous iterations, this production is as enchanting as ever. #hocoarts

Scored by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked is based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, itself a retelling of the classic 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Who hasn’t seen at least once The Wizard of Oz?

Wicked, which opened on Broadway in 2003, captured three Tony Awards and a host of other accolades.  The prevailing color throughout is green. You see it in the lighting, the costumes, the skin color of a main character, the color of a potion that created the skin color, the Emerald City, even envy.

And speaking of green, Wicked is the second highest grossing Broadway musical of all time trailing only The Lion King. Why? Because both musicals offer high quality entertainment and appeal to children as well as adults thus broadening the audience.

Talia Suskauer in "Defying Gravity"
Multiple Tony Award winner Joe Mantello helms a sterling spectacle at the Hippodrome presenting optimal stage magic and effects that when combined with a talented cast and great music, it results in a captivating, one could say a jaw-dropping, theatrical experience.

Under the musical direction of Conductor Evan Roider, the orchestration is wonderful and well-balanced. The wizardry on the stage is highlighted by the signature production number “Defying Gravity” that brings down the curtain (and the house) at the end of the first act. It is worth the price of admission just to see that performed.

The story of Wicked takes place prior to Baum’s novel and before the fictional Dorothy was even alive. In an unusually plot-heavy musical, there are so many twists and turns one might get whiplash. Nonetheless, the story is easy to follow despite the rapid pace of the action particularly in the second act.

It tells of two young girls from the Land of Oz in which one was born with green skin named Elphaba who is played exceptionally by Talia Suskauer. The other, Galinda, who changes her name later to Glinda, played by Allison Bailey, simply radiates beauty. They cross paths in school but to say their relationship was complicated is an understatement.

Possessing disparate appearances, outlooks and personalities, the two begin as rivals then end up as close friends. Their evolution includes a rivalry over their common love-interest, Fiyero, played effectively by Curt Hansen as well as their reactions to the corruption of the Wizard’s government.

Allison Bailey and Talia Suskauer 
The contrasts between Elphaba and Glinda couldn’t be starker. Elphaba was smart, intense, an advocate for animals and possessed the skills of magic though limited in that capacity.  Glinda was bubbly, pretentious, gorgeous, self-centered and manipulative. Where Elphaba’s green skin that was caused by a potion given to her mother by the mother’s lover caused her to be basically rejected by her non-biological father and ostracized at school, Glinda was extremely popular, and she had no trouble reminding people of that.    

Friendship and trust are the underlying themes as well as prejudice and tolerance. Government corruption also plays a role in the story. And what may appear wicked or good to some may actually be the reverse. As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. The story makes you think as well as being entertained. If you haven’t seen Wicked before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, the magic will continue.

Talia Suskauer as Elphaba is simply outstanding. Who among us haven’t felt they were the underdog at some point? We can certainly relate to Elphaba to a degree, and Ms. Suskauer’s  acting skills draw empathy from the audience.

But her Mezzo-Soprano vocals are undoubtedly Broadway caliber.  She shines in every song she participates in, notably “The Wizard and I,” a duet with Sharon Sachs playing the role of Madame Morrible; “I’m Not That Girl;” “As Long As You’re Mine,” a sensational duet with Curt Hansen; and a bona fide showstopper, “No Good Deed,” a brilliant solo that evoked a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience the evening this performance was reviewed.

Stunningly beautiful Allison Bailey effectively conveys the complex personality of Galinda/Glinda. Ditzy when she wants to be, smart when she needs to be, Ms. Bailey portrays the character with relish.  Her beautiful Soprano voice is on display in “Popular,” the reprise of “I’m Not That Girl” and in the emotionally charged duet with Ms. Suskauer “For Good.”

My only quibble has to do with the sound design. It wasn’t clear if Ms. Bailey’s mic wasn’t turned up sufficiently or if she needed to project more especially during dialogues in the first act.  Whatever the cause, hopefully some sound adjustment will take place in subsequent performances.

Curt Hansen as Fiyero
Having appeared in the Broadway production of Wicked, Curt Hansen is quite familiar with the part of Fiyero, another complex character. He plays the role of the handsome common love-interest of Elphaba and Glinda with verve and enthusiasm. Mr. Hansen showcases his potent tenor voice in the duet with Ms. Suskauer “As Long As You’re Mine.”

Other fine performances are turned in by Cleavant Derricks as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Amanda Fallon Smith as Nessarose; Elphaba’s younger sister born paralyzed from the waist down and who was her father’s clear favorite; the aforementioned Sharon Sachs as Madame Morrible, Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond, the fatherly professor-goat who could speak but was silenced by the powers that be; and DJ Plunkett as the munchkin Boq who as of this writing, is still looking for love.

The leads are supported by an energetic ensemble that performs proficiently to the choreography of James Lynn Abbott.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is beyond superb in its creativity and execution. Susan Hilferty’s costume design is so imaginative and eclectic it is indescribable.

The set designed by Eugene Lee while aesthetically appealing, could be confusing. The prevailing background theme is a Time Dragon Clock from the book. If you didn’t read the novel (I didn’t), you would not understand its significance. However, other scenery has more clarity and the one depicting the crashed house form the tornado with the cornfield in the background (pictured) is gorgeous.

Wicked is an entertainment bonanza with interesting characters, eye-pleasing staging, a lush score and sterling performers. Parents should be eager to bring their children if for nothing else, there is good messaging within the plot with lessons to be learned. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Wicked runs through March 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit here or here , call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Friday, February 07, 2020

New LGBTQ-Friendly Establishment Opens in Mount Vernon

The Manor now occupies the former Brass Elephant building

When owners Joshua Persing and Robert Gay announced  in October 2017 the closing of the G•A•Y Lounge that had been in operation for six months in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood until a dispute with the building’s owner forced it to close, they vowed to open up a new establishment in the near future.

“While today we announce that we are closing our doors, we also make a promise for the future – This is not the end,” the owners said in a statement then. “We want you to know that we have every intention of coming back, and coming back better than before. When the time is right and the cards fall back into place, we plan to recreate this dream of ours and rekindle the spark that ignited so quickly here in a small corner bar in Mount Vernon.”

They have made good on that promise.

The Manor Restaurant and Ultralounge, located at 924 North Charles Street, opened its doors on February 6 to a large crowd of patrons eager for a new option in the neighborhood. The multi-level building, which had been previously renovated by the owners of The Elephant—a restaurant that succeeded the long-standing prestigious Brass Elephant—had added a few delightful extra touches by Persing and Gay.

Low level lighting, a marble upstairs bar (bars on both levels), crystal chandeliers and freshly cut flowers amplify the chic décor throughout the 10,000-square-foot historic building. A variety of small lounges with sofas are featured as well, which contribute to a romantic atmosphere. 

The Manor is seeking to carve out its own niche. According to its Facebook page, “The Manor is bringing Mount Vernon an eclectic venue on the cutting edge of style - featuring a vast selection of worldly cuisine, EDM and house music, weekend entertainment & Baltimore’s best drag brunch.”

The owners’ goal with the G•A•Y Lounge was to market to a gay clientele given the closing of the Club Hippo. However, the outreach of The Manor will be broader.

“We are not going to be gay-centric, but we are going to be gay friendly,” Persing told the Baltimore Fishbowl. “We’re trying to give a home to those people who enjoyed our last bar and restaurant in Mount Vernon as well as provide a home to everyone in the community.”

Persing had told the Baltimore Fishbowl  that The Manor will be different from his last venture and will take advantage of the building’s history and grandeur. He said the business is named The Manor because 924 N. Charles St., started out as a “manor house” in the 1800s.

The reviews thus far have been very positive. 

“The attention to detail is second to none. The food and drink were spectacular. I can’t wait to go back,” posted one individual to The Manor’s Facebook page.

“A must go to for a chic fun night out! Exactly what Baltimore was missing,” posted another.

And this one: “Most likely the most beautiful restaurant in all of Baltimore. The staff, the food, the ambiance, the decor is simply fascinating!! The cocktails are made to perfection. Parking is available. This is first class at its best. Hands down, a must go to whether a local or tourist, you must go!!!!”

For more information, visit The Manor’s website  or call 443-835-1526.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Debasement of a Medal

Melania Trump places medal around the neck of Rush Limbaugh
Photo: LGBTQ Nation

It is obvious Donald Trump is profoundly ignorant of the significance of sacred medals. Back in 2016 while running for president, after a soldier received the Purple Heart, he commented that he always wanted one as if it were a souvenir.  This comes from a five-time draft dodger feigning bone spurs that kept him out of combat where such a medal could have been issued to him upon injury. Dumb as that comment was, how any veteran or service member would have voted for him is beyond me. Alas, he became the Commander-in-Chief.

At Tuesday night’s heavily divisive State of the Union address, Trump pulled one of his reality TV stunts and announced the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award to be bestowed to a civilian—to none other than  right-wing talk-show flamethrower Rush Limbaugh in the middle of the speech. Trump praised Limbaugh for “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”

He asked the First Lady place the medal around “shocked” Limbaugh’s neck in the gallery of the House of Representatives to the howls and cheers of Republican lawmakers in the chamber and millions more at home. Limbaugh had announced the previous day that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom as described in the executive order that created it is for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

Recipients over the years have included the likes of Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, Walt Disney, Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley, Jonas Salk, Loretta Lynn and Walter Cronkite, to name a few. A wider list is shown here.

Overwhelmingly, the previous recipients’ records of accomplishments did not include dividing Americans against one another.  For Limbaugh to receive such a weighty award given that he has made a potent living condemning minorities and marginalized populations is an utter disgrace and a debasement of the honor the medal represents.

Says Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Limbaugh spent a “lifetime of racism, homophobia and misogyny.”

Over the course of decades, Limbaugh has had a field day deriding the LGBTQ community and those with HIV/AIDS. In 1989, he said that the best way to stop HIV was “do not ask another man to bend over and make love at the exit point. That’s what you don’t do.”

During the 1990’s he advocated against funding to fight the AIDS epidemic. Writes Alex Bollinger on LGBTQNation.com, “Limbaugh referred to the disease as ‘the only federally-protected virus.’ He denounced spending money on ‘education, and condoms, and cucumbers and all that’ because there was no ‘evidence that [HIV] was spreading to the heterosexual community, not sexually anyway.’”

In the 2000’s Limbaugh turned his ire on marriage equality.
Bollinger quotes Limbaugh:

“They seek to impose their perverted views, their depraved views on family and marriage,” he said, talking about marriage equality activists in 2010. “Marriage is a union of a man and a woman… This is about destroying an institution.”

He later said “we lost” the issue when the word marriage was “bastardized and redefined by simply adding words to it” like “gay marriage” or “straight marriage.”

“We allowed the argument to be made that the definition needed to change, on the basis that we’re dealing with something discriminatory, bigoted, and all of these mystical things that it’s not and never has been,” he said in 2013.

Limbaugh didn’t just oppose LGBTQ equality – he actually believed that gay people were out to get straight people.

Says Bollinger, Limbaugh “claimed in 2014, before marriage equality was even a reality in all of the U.S., that straight people were the real marginalized group: “They’re under assault. You say, ‘Heterosexuality may be 95, 98 percent of the population.’ They’re under assault by the two to five percent that are homosexual.”

He also said that there was a “movement on to normalize pedophilia” that was related to the movement for marriage equality. “The same things that were said about gay marriage,” he said in 2013, implying that there was a comparison between child molestation and two consenting adults of the same sex getting married.

Adds Bollinger, “Limbaugh is also well known for his demeaning comments about Black people – from calling former President Barack Obama ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ to saying that the NBA was filled with “thugs” like “the Crips and the Bloods” to literally calling Michelle Obama “uppity” – and women – like when he called then 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton a ‘dog’ and when he repeatedly attacked Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ because she used birth control – as well as other groups – like when he made fun of Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease, for shaking.

This is who President Trump deems to be a person worthy of this honor for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

Placing a hateful, divisive person as Rush Limbaugh alongside the extraordinary Americans who were trailblazers, heroes and devoted a lifetime of work for the better good who had previously received this honor, it debases the medal pure and simple.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Stylish ‘Kinky Boots’ is a Good Fit at Toby’s

Matt Hirsh as Charlie and DeCarlo Raspberry as Lola excel.

If you are looking to attend a musical with an abundance of heart, a triumph of the soul and elite-level performances, then come to Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia and enjoy the exhilarating experience of Kinky Boots.  Under the impeccable direction of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick who also co-choreographed the splashy musical with David Singleton, this production is a sure-fire escape from the day’s weighty matters.

Kinky Boots with music and lyrics by pop music icon Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein topped the 2013 field by receiving 6 Tony Awards including Best Musical among 13 nominations.  Ms. Lauper, in her composing debut for the stage, was the first woman alone to receive the honor for Best Score.

In my view, Kinky Boots is one of the top ten LGBTQ-related Broadway musicals or plays of all time.

Based on the 2005 film Kinky Boots, which was inspired by a true story, the musical tells of a near-bankrupt British shoe factory’s owner, Charlie (Matt Hirsh) who had inherited the business from his father.  He forms an unlikely partnership with a drag queen named Lola (DeCarlo Raspberry) to save the business. Charlie develops a plan to address the “underserved niche market” by producing custom footwear for drag queens to support a man’s weight, rather than the men’s dress shoes that his firm is known for. In the process, he and Lola bond and discover that they have a lot more in common than originally thought.  #hocoarts

Mr. Fierstein, in penning the book, brings to the fore an impressive body of work where he has written about or performed as a drag queen (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray).  And like these others, Kinky Boots excels in its touching, uplifting message with a strong infusion of humanity. Its overarching themes, such as “Just Be,” center on parental expectations, battling prejudice and stereotypes, and the need for open-mindedness.

With the setting in an economically struggling British factory town, Kinky Boots is similar to other Broadway musicals like Billy Elliot the Musical and The Full Monty.

Guided by Mr. Minnick, Kinky Boots is a vibrant, pastel-laden spectacle that will entertain you and simultaneously warm your heart.   Profoundly superb staging, costuming, sound, lighting, and musical direction are blended with near perfection to augment the talented cast.

Mr. Minnick and Mr. Singleton are adroit in choreographing big splashy production numbers with large groups performing flawlessly within the confines of Toby’s in-the-round stage. These performances add tons of energy to the already electric show. Credit Nathan Scavilla’s six-piece orchestra (he alternates with Ross Scott Rawlings and Greg Knauf) for providing good balance in support of the numbers.

Ms. Lauper’s “Sex is in the Heel” in the first act is a show stopper in its own right; “Everybody Say Yeah,” a stirring song that brings down the act’s curtain, matches it.  The second act’s “In This Corner,” a well-staged boxing scene and a pivotal part of the storyline, also shines.

Sturdy Matt Hirsh, an increasingly proficient artist in recent Toby’s productions, turns in another scintillating performance as Charlie who clumsily attempts to save the factory, manages his skeptical workers, balancing his desire to save the factory with his romantic life and overcoming his initial resistance to Lola’s world to eventually see the light.

This is a demanding role, and Mr. Hirsh, a Helen Hayes Award winner, rises to the occasion by displaying exceptional acting skills and vocal prowess.  The latter is on display in the snappy song “Step One”—whereby Charlie invites Lola to the factory to design a boot for that underserved niche market—and in particular, the moving “Soul of a Man” as he copes with the legacy of his father. He hits those challenging big notes out of the park.  

In a tour de force, DeCarlo Raspberry sparkles as the drag queen headliner Lola and should be a serious contender for a Helen Hayes Award.  Summoning up his cache of potent acting skills, Mr. Raspberry convincingly displays a wide range of emotions from high camp to melancholy.   

His powerful voice does justice to the beautiful score in “The Land of Lola” where he performs with his excellent backup troupe of drag dancers, the Angels, and the tender ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart,” which he sings to his wheelchair-bound father, Simon, Sr. (Ryan Holmes), who did not approve of his son’s world.

But the most moving of all, “Not My Father’s Son,” in which Mr. Raspberry ultimately forms a duet with Mr. Hirsh, is my favorite.  Though they tried to be like their fathers, Lola (given name was Simon) and Charlie felt the sting from their falling short of their fathers’ expectations. That formed the bonding of the two disparate men.  The stunningly emotional lyrics resonate with all those who felt they let their parents down in some way but were determined to live their lives for themselves:

So I jumped in my dreams and found an escape
maybe I went to extremes of leather and lace,
but the world seems brighter six inches off the ground
and the air seemed lighter
I was profound and I felt so proud
just to live out loud.

The entire ensemble is excellent in support of the leads.  Most notable among them include Russell Sunday as Don, a boorish, testosterone-oozing antagonist to Lola and Jana Bernard as Lauren, also a factory worker and potential love interest for Charlie.   If anyone may have forgotten that Cyndi Lauper had composed the songs, Ms. Bernard’s well executed performance in “The History of Wrong Guys” would be a good reminder.

MaryKate Brouillet as Nicola, Charlie’s girlfriend who dumped him, played the role well. David James, Adrienne Athanas, Dustin Perrot, Jane Boyle, Jeffrey Shankle and Coby Kay Callahan also shine.

The talented members of the Ensemble who were not previously mentioned and play the factory workers consist of Heather Beck, Noah Beye, David Bosley-Reynolds, Samantha Deininger, Ryan Holmes, Shane Lowry, and Dustin Perrot.

The part of Young Charlie was played by Jonah Hale who alternates with Patrick Ford, and Young Lola was played by Gavin Lampasone who alternates with Joseph Wanji.

And then there are the Angels. Their singing talents and energetic dancing add much flair to the production working their boots off. Applause goes to Randyn Fullard, Michael Mattocks, Quadry Brown (substituting for Ariel Messeca the evening this performance was reviewed), Solomon Parker, David Singleton and Mark Sullivan.

There are numerous set pieces and props that are efficiently moved on and off the stage as the scenes change adding to the solid staging of this production. Scenic and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins ringed the theater with colorful stained glass panels adding color to the aesthetics and splashed the stage with a palette of rich hues and spotlights throughout.

Costume Designer Janine Sunday fitted Mr. Raspberry in colorful satiny gowns and the Angels in a variety of bright colorful costumes highlighted by those gorgeous boots!  She also ably designed the costumes for the blue collar factory workers, adding more reality to the staging.

You will get a kick out of Kinky Boots.  The music, the storyline, and the uplifting message provide persuasive reasons alone to buy tickets to the show. Add that to the exceptional cast, orchestration and crew at Toby’s and you have a winner deserving of a raucous standing ovation. Plus there is the delicious buffet to boot.

Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission. 

Kinky Boots runs through March 22 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or visiting online .

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Sunday, January 19, 2020

How Dems Could Win From Impeachment Trial

House  managers walking articles of impeachment to the Senate
Photo: Axios

Spoiler Alert: President Donald Trump will not be removed from office as a result the upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. Nonetheless, if they play their cards with skill and determination, the Democrats could come out winners politically.

As we experience the third time in history that a U.S. President has been impeached, Trump has now assembled his made-for-TV lawyers to defend him in the Senate trial. Too bad Matlock and Perry Mason are unavailable because for Trump it’s all about the show. On one hand Trump wanted a quick dismissal. On the other hand he sought a theatrical display whereby he is completely exonerated and will blame the radical angry Democrats for wasting everyone’s time. At this point we still don’t know what he wants.  

For their part, the Democrats, need to be key players in the show as well. With the outcome a near certainty, the charge for the Democrats is to get their messaging on point to win the political battle—no easy task with the messaging skills of Trump, Trump TV, and his sycophantic supporters in Congress and beyond.

Trump and his cheerleaders have repeatedly labeled the impeachment a hoax. Democrats should continue to shoot back saying that his own phone call to Ukrainian’s President Zelensky plus the credible testimony by foreign service and other professionals point directly to a shakedown of the Ukrainian government by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid in exchange for announcing an investigation into Hunter Biden and by extension his father Joe Biden—a leading contender to oust President Trump in November.

While each senator swore an oath of impartiality, public comments by McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham declared just the opposite. This is a strong talking point for Dems to use to declare the trial was never going to be fair from the outset.

Armed with a mountain of evidence that is credible and clear, Trump has been charged by the House of Representatives in two articles of impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.  The question looming prior to the trial is will Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican minions allow witnesses and documentation as part of a trial.

If there is a deal whereby key witnesses, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s henchman Lev Parnas are allowed to testify, their testimony could be explosive. Never mind that Vice President Pence, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also key witnesses who could potentially be damaging to the president as they would testify under oath.  It should be noted that Trump had exerted executive privilege in blocking these characters from testifying at congressional committee hearings.

If the Republicans manage to win a vote that prevents fact witnesses and documentation, Democrats should (and probably will) declare the trial a sham and rightfully accuse the Republicans of being willing players in a massive cover-up. The Dems should exploit this to the hilt and wreak havoc on vulnerable senators up for re-election should they be a party to this act.

Trump’s defense team denounced the impeachment case stating, “The articles of impeachment submitted by House Democrats are a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president. This is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election, now just months away.”

The U.S. Senate: the scene of the impeachment trial
This is a paper thin argument and does not bode well for Trump if this is the best his dream team can come up with. For one thing, the impeachment is not taking the right away from the American people to freely choose their president. Of course, Russia’s indisputable (except by Trump and his allies) interference in the 2016 election must have been forgotten.  

Secondly, the action by the House is far from “unlawful.”  Impeachment is enshrined in the Constitution (Article I, Sections 2-4,)—a document that Trump never read and now I have my doubts about his legal team as well.

Moreover, if Trump was actually removed, the election would not have been overturned. Vice President Mike Pence would succeed him in office, not Hillary Clinton.

We are hearing rumors that the defense team may stipulate to the facts in the articles and instead try to convince the 100-person jury (the Senate) and the American people that what Trump did does not meet the threshold of impeachment and removal.  Trump, however, will not have any of it.  Under no circumstances will he allow his defense to admit that the famous call to Zelensky was anything but “perfect.”  Look for a shake-up of the team should that stipulation materializes.

Barring a development of nuclear proportions, Trump will remain in office after this proceeding.  This is all about the 2020 election now. For Democrats, the mission is to zealously prosecute the case and remind voters that the president put our national security on the back burner in order to gain a political advantage in the upcoming election.

They need to pound the message home that Republicans again put devotion to their party and their fealty to Trump above the national interests. The Dems need to emphasize, regardless of the outcome, that nobody is above the law and our democracy is at stake.

If they do this right, the Democrats can win even by losing.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Resume Myth

History has shown that for recent presidential races, experience is overrated.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar  Photo: pbs.org
During the December 19 Democratic Presidential Debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar chided South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his lack of experience.  She attacked him for “mocking the 100 years of experience” on the debate stage when he contrasted his own time outside of Washington. She said Buttigieg “should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone.” The Indiana mayor, highlighting his military service, responded, “That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, Senator. It counts.”

To be sure, voters tend to want their presidential candidates to possess significant “experience” if they should find themselves in the White House as the country’s chief executive and commander-in-chief. Moreover, the candidates do not hesitate to present their gaudy resumes on campaign literature and ads, and they prominently display their bios on their respective websites. They believe that is what impresses voters. And opponents will likely pounce, as Sen, Klobuchar did, on those whom they perceive as thin in the resume department.

But it takes more than a jaw-dropping resume to be a successful candidate and ultimately a successful president.

History has taught us that the winner of the presidential election often has a lighter resume than his opponent’s.  Nixon boasted much more substantive experience including being vice president for two terms than JFK but the latter eked out a victory in 1960.  

The same could be said for Gerald Ford bowing to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter, for his part, had executive experience as the governor of Georgia but Ford’s experience, was longer as a vice president (for a partial term) and congressman. Ford’s pardoning of Nixon was arguably the key factor in the contest.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan steamrolled over Carter but the resume was a non-factor. The election, instead, was a referendum on Carter’s presidency and the economy at the time.

It seems nobody had a more impressive resume than 41, George H. W. Bush. Though he lost the Republican nomination in 1980 to the upstart Reagan, his experience did not help him much.  Bush did manage to soundly defeat Michel Dukakis in 1988 but any Republican would have beaten the weak Democratic candidate.

However, 1992 was telling, and it bolsters my argument about how the resume is overrated. Bill Clinton emerged as the Democratic standard bearer. The draft-dodging, pot-smoking, skirt chasing governor of the “small state” of Arkansas as Republicans often ascribed to him clearly did not have the broad experience of Mr. Bush.

But the entrance into the race by third party candidate Ross Perot doomed Bush’s bid for a second term. That plus violating the “read my lips, no new taxes” mantra by Bush, which turned off his own party, sealed Bush’s fate. The resume may have well been thrown out the window.

In 1996 Clinton who was under investigation by Kenneth Starr on a dubious land deal, which ultimately led to the president’s impeachment for lying under oath over an extramarital affair, managed to defeat the beloved war hero Sen. Robert Dole. Clinton avoided military service during the Vietnam War but triumphed over the Purple Heart recipient Dole. Again, the resume did not matter.

Former Texas Rangers executive and Governor of Texas George W. Bush had what seemed like a solid resume. He took on former two-term Vice President and former Senator Al Gore in 2000.  It would appear to be a draw in the resume department though Gore was in government much longer. Bush prevailed with the help of another third party candidate Ralph Nader and the U.S. Supreme Court. Their respective resumes turned out to be immaterial.

The pattern continued in 2008 when a little-known Senator from Illinois with a funny name as he put it, Barack Obama, defeated the iconic long-time Senator and war hero John McCain.

Then came 2016. Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady for 8 years, a U.S. Senator and ultimately Secretary of State took on the only presidential candidate in history that did not include public service or a military record on his resume. His only credentials he brought to his candidacy was his so-called business acumen. That reputation persuaded enough voters to win though it was revealed Donald Trump’s expertise in business consisted of 6 bankruptcies including casinos of all things and questionable sources of money when U.S. banks declined to grant further loans.

My point is that there is no experience that prepares one to be president because of the uniqueness of the job. It has been and will always be on-the-job training.

As Elaine Karmack in Fortune magazine wrote, “The federal government today is so big and so complex that presidents – even ones with extensive political experience, but especially those with limited experience – have trouble figuring it out.” 

Good judgment, intelligence, a commitment to American values, a strong economy, a vision for the future, and solid advisors and a penchant to listen to them will contribute to the success of the chief executive.

Of course, it is helpful that a candidate possesses executive experience or a legislative background to at least demonstrate that the candidate is knowledgeable of how government works. 

But it's not an end-all.

Pete Buttigieg has been criticized that being the mayor of a small city is insufficient to tout executive experience. Yet, Michael Bloomberg had been mayor of a city 80 times the population of South Bend and Cory Booker was mayor Newark, the largest city in the nation's most densely populated state but Buttigieg is polling higher than these two.  Moreover, take a look at the 2016 Republican presidential field with governors Christie, Bush and Kasich--all exiting the race as voters preferred Trump. 

There are, however, other factors will determine the outcome of an election, such as likability, the state of the economy, the direction of the country as perceived by voters, a candidate's political skills, ideology, whether or not the country is engaged in a military conflict, and the record and character of the opponent (and the candidate him/herself).

As for a glossy resume leading to an election, history tells us, not so much.