Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stars on the Rise in Howard

The audience at the 15th Annual Celebration of the Arts gala at Howard Community College selected two stars in the talented galaxy to become this year’s winners of the Rising Star competition. Samantha McEwen finished first in the balloting and came away with a $5,000 prize. Luke Grooms was a second place winner and received $2,000.

Established in 2003, the event, which was also a fundraiser for the 31 year-old Howard County Arts Council, took place at the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College in Columbia, MD on March 24. The contestants had to be either residents of Howard County or had to have performed there.

Ms. McEwen dazzled the audience with her rendition of “Your Daddy's Son” from the musical Ragtime—a show she will be performing in May at the Laurel Hill Playhouse.

Opera-trained at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and later studied at the Ward Acting Studio in New York, McEwen has performed in numerous operas, plays and musicals throughout the country. She was also the 2011 nominee for the Broadway World Baltimore Awards.

“Winning has been overwhelming for me,” McEwen told Baltimore OUTloud. “There was a time when I was too shy to really sing in front of people and standing on that stage with that star, in front of my friends, family, and supporters, really showed me how far I've come.”

For his part Luke Grooms, who was profiled in Baltimore OUTloud in December 2010, offered a powerful, stunning performance of “Si, Ritrovarla Io Giuro” from La Cenerentola (Cinderella) by Rossini. The tenor has sung at the Met, the New York City Opera, the Baltimore Opera Company as well as other venues playing over 30 roles. He has also established himself in musical theatre including singing in the New York premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera. In addition, he appeared in Phantom of the Opera at the Hippodrome two years ago.

“It is so great to be recognized in this competition because it is the audience that votes and chooses who receives the prizes,” Grooms said. “It is great to know that what we do as artists is appreciated and loved.”

There were nine finalists in the competition who performed a variety of musical genres including vocal performances, Irish dance, bassoon, percussion, and violin. One of the competitors, Mark Allen, who beautifully sang “Lost in the Wilderness” from Children of Eden, was featured in the February 24th issue of Baltimore OUTloud.

In addition to the competition, other awards were handed out to several individuals who have worked hard to advance the arts in Howard County.

As the votes were being tabulated, a large singing ensemble called The Young Columbians offered a medley of pop chart-toppers. The group, consisting of local students from grade school to high school, was formed in 1975 by Toby Orenstein, the owner of Toby’s dinner theaters. She continues to direct the current Young Columbians today, who received a standing ovation following their performance.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Not to Lean on a Poll

It’s been a few weeks since Governor O’Malley signed the historic Civil Marriage Protection Act, which if allowed to stand, would legalize marriages for same-sex couples effective January 2013. But it may not stand because of a provision in the Maryland Constitution that enables opponents who can muster the required number of signatures (55,736 in this case) within specified timeframes to put the law before the voters in a referendum this November in an effort to overturn it.

This has been expected. When it comes to social justice and equal rights, nothing is easy. We are placing the battle to win the hearts and minds of Maryland voters in the hands of a coalition called Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

This organization, which was born last July following the near-collapse of Equality Maryland, commissioned a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling of 600 voters March 5-7 to see where we stand. The question asked by the pollsters: “The state legislature recently approved a law allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry in Maryland, and there is likely to be a statewide referendum in the November election on whether to keep the law. If the election were held today, do you think you would vote for or vote against the recently-approved law allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry?”

A week after the jubilant signing ceremony, Marylanders for Marriage Equality announced the results of the poll that revealed 52 percent of the sample of registered voters in Maryland would “definitely” or “probably” vote in favor of the state’s same-sex marriage bill while 44 percent would “definitely” or “probably” oppose it. The poll’s margin of error is +/- 4 percent.

On the surface that is good news, and marriage equality proponents should rejoice that the trend for acceptance of marriage equality has been moving steadily albeit slowly into favorable terrain. But one must be cautioned not to celebrate the poll’s results just yet; a reality check is needed.

For one thing, the poll’s margin of error means that the vote could be a 56-40 advantage, a 48-48 split, or something in between, so no conclusions can be definitively drawn just by the raw numbers. My gut says it is more likely to be the latter scenario where the results are extremely tight. And with 4 percent “unsure,” no one knows how that will break.

Furthermore, there is a theory that on social policy, some respondents to such questions tend to offer a more progressive answer and then vote differently in the privacy of a voting booth. This phenomenon is called “social desirability bias”—a tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others. They do so because they may feel under pressure to provide an answer that is deemed to be more publicly acceptable or “politically correct.” If this actually occurred during the survey, the numbers in favor of marriage equality would be reduced.

Adding to my concern is the fact this poll is just a snapshot of how the voters felt during the March 5-7 period. One cannot predict if and how the attitudes could shift come November. The opposition, mainly the National Organization for Marriage, faith-based organizations and other groups, are raising significant sums of money to saturate the airwaves and print media as well as producing hand-outs to scare voters.

They will use the same tactics employed in their previous victories where such measures have been brought to the voters: the threat that same-sex marriage will be taught in the schools and influence children. Of course, there is no reality to base these accusations but that doesn’t matter. It works.

Unless this propaganda is offset by an opposing message by marriage equality proponents, the support indicated in March will likely erode by November. And that 4 percent “unsure” category could be decisive in what appears to be a tight vote. That’s who the opponents are targeting.

And then there is the matter of who will actually vote in November. The PPP poll questioned registered voters, not likely voters. Several factors will be in play that are unfavorable in defeating the referendum. Fueled by the rhetoric from their pastors, church-going Protestant African-Americans generally oppose marriage for same-sex couples. They will vote in higher numbers than normal because of this particular issue and the fact President Obama will be on the ballot. African-Americans in Maryland constitute the second highest percentage of a state population in the country.

Moreover, older citizens who tend not to support marriage equality vote in a higher proportion than the general population. And younger voters who are for the most part supportive, participate less when it comes to voting. Yes, Obama brought out more young voters in 2008. Is that same excitement for the youth present in 2012? Then there are the anti-immigration folks who will come out to vote against the Dream Act. They’re not on our side either.

One other problem with the poll results is the risk that people will think that because of the reported 8-point spread, a positive outcome is in the bag. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last thing that marriage equality proponents need is complacency.

This battle is going to be a long, hard, expensive slog. The entire community and allies including supportive elected officials will have to dig in and help in every way possible. And we will need a major effort to engage religious African-Americans, Catholics and seniors unlike the experience in California during the Prop 8 referendum.

If we can raise large sums of money, if we do the hard work of reaching out and persuading voters, if we want to win this as much as the opponents, we can eke this out.

But right now, despite the current poll numbers, we are definitely the underdogs in this referendum.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Anything Can Happen in the Woods

As kids we all remember those fairy tales where the characters lived happily ever after. With CENTERSTAGE’s production of Into the Woods, we get to enjoy four such fairy tales—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” Their plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife in this magical, entertaining, and sometimes dark musical that confronts real issues found in adulthood, not necessarily childhood.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is a multiple Tony Award winner. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 765 performances. A bunch of revivals and national tours were spawned. Sondheim, now 82, had won 8 Tony awards in his prolific career–more than any other composer.

As Act One unfolds at CENTERSTAGE’s Pearlstone Theater, the Narrator introduces the characters. The Baker and his Wife are having a tough time producing a child and join in the stories of the other fairy tale characters as the couple pursues their quest for a child. Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel also had wishes as they meander through the woods in search of those dreams.

The neighboring Witch had put a spell of infertility on the Baker and Wife after catching the Baker’s father in her garden stealing "magic" beans. But the Witch’s mother also cast a spell—on her—that made her old and ugly. To reverse it she would need ingredients for a special potion, and if the Baker and Wife could provide by three midnights hence, that curse—their inability to conceive a child—would be removed.

Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold (obtained from Cinderella), A Cow As White As Milk (from Jack), A Cape As Red As Blood (from Little Red Riding Hood), and Hair As Yellow As Corn (from Rapunzel). Following the harrowing adventures in the woods to gather these ingredients, the potion is created and it works, stripping the Witch of her power, but also restoring her beauty.

Act One conforms to what we expect from the Brothers Grimm who authored these four tales: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after,” or did they?

In Act Two we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge. Serious problems must be addressed, such as dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In tackling this and other challenges, the surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

Mark Lemos (A Little Night Music at CENERSTAGE in 2008) ably directed this production, which is co-produced with the Westport (CT) Country Playhouse. “Into the Woods is a musical unlike any other,” he says. “With a book by James Lapine that veers cunningly between tragedy and comedy, and one of Stephen Sondheim's most sophisticated and playful scores, it re-imagines well-known fairy tales and imbues them with new possibilities. It's a challenging show—Sondheim's lyrics alone are dazzling in their own right—and one that really excites me to be directing, especially with this amazing cast of artists.”

Although most of the melodies in my opinion are not particularly memorable other than the title song, which is performed several times with variations, Sondheim’s lyrics are superb. Each number cleverly and at times comically augments the dialogue and adds a significant dimension to the plot. These lyrics and the songs’ performances by the cast are the show’s strengths.

“Hello, Little Girl” performed by Nik Walker as the Wolf and Dana Steingold as Little Red was a delight. “Agony,” a duet by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (again Nik Walker and Robert Lenzi, respectively) also scored high marks. “Stay With Me” performed by Britney Coleman (Rapunzel) and Lauren Kennedy (Witch) was sensitive and touching. “Your Fault,” a favorite song of mine, was skillfully performed by Justin Scott Brown (Jack), Erik Liberman (the Baker), Jenny Latimer (Cinderella), Dana Steingold and Lauren Kennedy.

Wayne Barker and his seven-piece orchestra seamlessly backed up the skilled vocalists.

Danielle Ferland as the Baker’s Wife, Cheryl Stern as Jack’s Mother, and Dana Steingold as Little Red were standout performers. Their voices were powerful and their acting enhanced by expressive body language was flawless. But the other cast members also made significant contributions to this finely tuned production under Lamos’ guiding hand.

Allen Moyer’s scenery, which, for the most part, consisted of various woods locales, had the right look of a fairy tale brought to the stage. Candice Donnelly’s costume design was excellent for all the characters, depicting the Grimm brothers’ era of two centuries ago.

And while the volume was more than adequate under the guidance of Zachary Williamson’s sound design, the words from the booming off-stage voice of the Giantess came across garbled.

That may have been the only blemish, and a minor one at that, in this thoroughly enjoyable, wonderfully written, scored and performed muscical.

Into the Woods runs through April 15. Tickets are $10-$60, and can be ordered online at, or by calling 410-332-0033.

Photo © Richard Anderson

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Cries for Help Unanswered

Brutal murder of a gay teen illustrates why Baltimore needs a PFLAG chapter.

On March 1, Dante Parrish, 37 was convicted for the killing of 15 year-old, Jason Mattison, Jr. in East Baltimore in November 2009. Jason was openly gay and attended West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy where he was a popular student and had hoped to be a pediatrician.
However, Jason was not welcome in either the homes of his mother or grandmother because of his sexual orientation and needed to couch-surf to survive. He ended up in a house of a great aunt, but it was occupied by heroin addicts and drunks, including the great aunt.
Parrish had previously served nearly 10 years for murder before being freed thanks to the help of the Innocence Project, whose attorneys fight post-conviction appeals. Not knowing Parrish’s criminal record, Jason’s great aunt allowed him to move in.
When Parish allegedly attempted to rape Jason while the boy had been asleep on the second floor, Jason screamed for help. But because of the drugged state of those in the house at the time, no one could rescue him, and was ultimately suffocated by Parrish forcing a pillow case down Jason’s throat and then repeatedly stabbing him in the neck, face and head with a box cutter until his death. His body was found stuffed in a closet.
This tragedy illustrates the need to fill a void in Baltimore City. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has been doing yeoman’s work since its inception in 1973. With over 350 chapters nationally, PFLAG members have counseled parents of LGBTQ children as well as the kids themselves. They have intervened when they can be of help or they referred clients to social service agencies to receive professional guidance.
While PFLAG is not just for parents anymore—many LGBTQ individuals participate in chapter activities or even take on leadership responsibilities—those parents who are involved usually traveled a journey that took them from denial upon learning the sexual orientation of their child, to anger, to acceptance, to full-throated advocacy.
Could a PFLAG chapter in Baltimore City have prevented such a horrific crime committed against Jason? Probably not. But if more parents were involved in PFLAG, the chances of such devastating outcomes could be reduced. Rejecting parents and grandparents as in Jason’s case may have sought the comfort of others who share the experience of having an LGBTQ family member.
Make no mistake; the challenges in Baltimore City are enormous. Churchgoing parents consistently hear anti-gay epithets from pulpits that drive the point home that homosexuality is a sin and therefore, unacceptable. These preachers and ministers contribute to a culture that justifies throwing a 15 year-old out of his home to fend for himself, which subjects him to a wide range of perils including disease, malnutrition, drugs, crime and violence.
Several attempts to establish a Baltimore chapter failed as a result of lack of interest by the community to sustain it. The most recent try occurred in 2006. “I often use Baltimore City as an example of an area that is ripe for a PFLAG chapter,” said Jamie Curtis, a field manager for PFLAG National. “But it just needs to find the right people to lead it up.”
The location could also be a barrier. “The group met in an area of the city with little diversity and a lack of public transportation,” Curtis pointed out.
But Gary Wolnitzek, program director for The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB), indicated that if a chapter was formed in the city, the Center, with easy access to public transportation, would provide space to meet.
A two-pronged effort is clearly needed for both parents of LGBTQ children and the youth themselves. “The real goal here is not how we grow a PFLAG chapter in Baltimore,” said Mark Patro, the president of the Baltimore County chapter. “The real question here is how we deal with the needs of the other Jasons in Baltimore City.”
To that end, the GLCCB’s Wolnitzek stated the Center maintains or partners with several groups that have programs involving LGBT youth. And with more funding from grants and other sources, the Center could operate an expanded drop-in center complete with counselors and learning tools. This is a goal that merits full community support.
Worthy organizations, such as the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative and AIRS are working hard with scarce resources to alleviate the homeless problem among LGBTQ youth. Restoration Gardens in Northwest Baltimore, a $6 million, 43-unit shelter for homeless youth including LGBTQ that opened last year, is an excellent result of those efforts.
“At the end of the day we need strong dedicated parents on the ground,” explains Jamie Curtis. Parents, families and friends are the backbone of PFLAG, and without them in any community the chapter struggles. The biggest struggle in Baltimore has been finding this group of people.”
June Horner, a PFLAG mom who sits on the steering committees for both the Westminster-Carroll County and Columbia-Howard County chapters, suggested that pro-LGBT equality clergy from the city could be asked to promote a chapter.
Support and resources are not seen as obstacles in this regard. PFLAG National as well as the suburban chapters pledged to provide the needed resources to make a Baltimore chapter viable and effective. It just requires leaders to step up.
We will never know if Jason’s promising life could have been saved had there been a PFLAG chapter that could have helped keep Jason at home with his mother. Matt Thorn, president of the Columbia-Howard County chapter mused, “PFLAG could have been a strong resource for that family.”
If only.