Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pride Arrives in January

No, it’s not yet June with its clammy hot weather and the Pride parade and festival just around the corner.  Instead, it’s January—in the dead of winter but it feels like Pride has arrived already.
As the clock ticked past midnight on New Year’s Eve into 2013, we celebrated scores of gay and lesbian weddings that were made legal by Maryland’s voters selecting love over bigotry.  There was a sweeping amount of pride by those in the LGBT community who although they may not have yet participated in this momentous life-changing development, saw it as a victory for Maryland’s gay and lesbian families after years of hard work and near-misses.

While these nuptials and engagements were taking place during and after January 1, our community became ecstatic over the playoff run by our hometown darlings of the gridiron, the Baltimore Ravens.  First, the methodical dispatching of the Indianapolis Colts 24-9 at M&T Bank Stadium sent the Ravens to the next round.  They were inspired by the announced retirement of Ray Lewis.
A week later, following a stunning overtime thriller over the much-favored Denver Broncos on the frigid turf of Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Baltimore began getting its purple on in earnest.  Enthusiasm that had been dormant earlier in the season, sprung loose as soon as mighty Joe Flacco’s miracle pass to Jacoby Jones in the game’s last 30 seconds tied the score that was eventually won by a Justin Tucker field goal moments into the second overtime period.

Next on tap was a rematch with the dreaded New England Patriots and Tom Brady on January 20.  As Ravens fans well remember, a year ago at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, the Ravens were a TD catch in the final seconds from winning the AFC Conference championship, but the ball was stripped away from then Ravens receiver Lee Evans.  Seconds later a botched field goal try by Billy Cundiff sealed the fate as Baltimore, who outplayed the Pats, left in defeat.  It was a bitter setback.
But this year, Purple Pride showed up in January and as a result of the Broncos upset, the underdog Ravens had their chance at redemption at Foxboro.  The same battle for the title and a trip to the Super Bowl awaited a more confident Ravens squad, and it showed.

They were on a mission, and after a rather sleepy first half trailing 13-7, the purple giant awoke.  Reeling off 21 unanswered points led by a stingy defense and another sterling performance by Flacco and his offense, the Ravens prevailed 28-13, and off to the Super Bowl we go!
With just a night’s sleep to savor this unlikely season and a momentous January so far, we saw history made at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama merely 15 hours later.  There was an abundance of pride as the first African-American president who proved it was no fluke with his reelection, took the oath of office for his second term on Martin Luther King Day no less. 

Then his inaugural address brought more pride in January.  For the first time in history, a U.S. president included references to LGBT equality and gay rights in an inaugural speech.  He mentioned Stonewall, Seneca Falls and Selma in the same sentence, equating gay rights with women’s rights and civil rights for African-Americans.  That is a huge step forward and a source of deep pride in reflecting upon the decades of struggles that led to this point.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth,” he said.
The president added, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” 

These words were beautiful to listen to and a validation of our cause.  As he had demonstrated time and time again in his first term, President Obama has been a consistent ally for LGBT rights and a source of pride.  From the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ to his endorsement of marriage equality to appointing more openly LGBT officials than any other president, Mr. Obama has given our movement a dynamic push, while our country is coming along faster than anyone expected.
These were incredible events that have galvanized our community and allies.  Sure, football is just a game played by rich men for even richer owners.  So what?  Civic pride is an effective and welcome antidote to the day-to-day problems that beset us.  It is also inspiring.  The Ravens are underdogs who show us that with hard work anyone could overcome adversity and succeed. 

Barack Obama was also an underdog with an unconventional family and childhood.  Look what he had to overcome.  And look what he is accomplishing for “our gay brothers and sisters.” 
Equality pride, purple pride and presidential pride.  They’re not related but connected nonetheless.  A prideful January to be sure.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reaching 'The Mountaintop' at Centerstage

Myxolydia Tyler as Camae and Shawn Hamilton as Dr. King

The timing of the Centerstage’s presentation of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop could not have been better.  The two-person fictionalized play about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, ably directed by Centerstage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, brackets the national celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday, the second inauguration of the first African-American president in U.S. history—a summit that could not have been climbed had Dr. King not taken on the struggle—and runs well into Black History Month.
Playwright Hall noted “This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King.  This is King, the man; not the myth.  I want people to see that this extraordinary man—who is actually quite ordinary—achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we are, as a people, interact with each other.”

Indeed, the portrait of Dr. King in this play is that of an ordinary individual—a smoker, his feet smell, he lies to yet he is very much in love with his wife—challenged by the burden of leading his followers to “the promised land.”
Neil Patel’s set is designed to replicate that of Room 306 at the rather seedy Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night before Dr. King was assassinated.  Complete with coral-colored drapes and matching bed spreads, cheesy motel pictures on the wall and a door that opens up to that fateful balcony, the set becomes the venue for the entire play and a showcase for two outstanding actors. 

Shawn Hamilton and Myxolydia Tyler make their Centerstage debuts with this production.  Both have considerable acting experience and that was clearly demonstrated throughout the play. 

On a stormy April 3, 1968 where the rain is seen cascading outside the balcony door and flashes of  lightning and claps of thunder appear throughout, Dr. King (Hamilton) has returned to his room he shares with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.  He had just delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in connection with the Memphis sanitation workers strike. 

Tired, somewhat ill, and disappointed by the low turnout at his speech, Dr. King orders up some coffee.  He mutters, “Why America is going to hell” over and over, probably working on a future speech, as he paces and peeks outside waiting for his close associate Rev. Abernathy to bring him Pall Malls.

A motel maid named Camae (Tyler) appears with the coffee and the two, a bit wary of each other at first, begin to connect.  Each time Camae leaves after what appears to be the logical conclusion of a conversation, lightning flashes and thunder rings outside that not only prevents her from exiting but elicits a reflexive ducking from Dr. King.  You see, he has been getting more and more death threats as his movement progresses and it’s getting to him.
Camae is a feisty, spunky and sometimes foul-mouthed young woman who after a bit of intimidation from speaking to this national figure, she becomes more confident.  Dr. King is flirtatious while Camae struggles to resist temptation, resulting in some comical exchanges.  The conversations ascend to headier topics, such as race relations, violence versus peaceful approaches, and hauntingly, Dr. King’s examination of his own mortality.

These interactions are hilarious with the comedic balance tilting towards Camae.  She has tons of sass; Dr. King, solid and steady but clearly apprehensive on several levels, play off her effectively.  At one juncture you would think The Mountaintop is a comedy.  It’s not.  But the humorous barbs that propel the play and enhance the character development sets up the second half, where a shocking twist in the plot occurs that will not be disclosed here. 
Hamilton and Tyler bring a tremendous amount of chemistry to their performances.  Tyler’s role as Camae is more complex than Hamilton’s King and seemingly has more lines overall.  Her southern voice inflections help work these lines well, and her facial expressions and mannerisms add even more.   Tyler’s soliloquy where she offers her version of a King-like speech is a highlight.

Hamilton’s Martin Luther King is presented almost exactly how one recalls the civil rights icon or remembers from footage.  He is dignified but very human in his weaknesses, consumed with the responsibility of fostering social and economic change, and appropriately worried about his fate.  His part calls for humor but nowhere as much as Camae.  In this play both Hamilton and Tyler put on an acting clinic.
The Mountaintop premiered in London in 2009 to critical acclaim and won the Olivier Best New Play Award.  It opened on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on September 22, 2011 to mixed reviews.  Several productions have since been staged in various regional venues around the U.S.

At the conclusion of the heart-thumping climax to The Mountaintop at Centerstage, the actors (and creative team that included the excellent work of lighting director Scott Zielinski) received a resounding standing ovation envisaging a promising Baltimore run.

Running Time. One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission.
The Mountaintop plays through February 24 at Centerstage’s Head Theatre, 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore.  For information and tickets call the Box Office at 410-332-0033 or visit online.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Ghostly Comings and Goings in 'Rose's Dilemma'

Gavin Clancy (Steven Shriner) discusses with Rose (Joan Crooks) how he would finish the book as Walsh (Denis L. Latkowski) and Arlene (Brenda R. Crooks) look on.

Although the Audrey Herman’s Spotlighters Theatre has for a half century taken on with considerable success some huge challenges like Broadway musicals, its cozy in-the-round venue works much better for dramatic plays.  In making its Baltimore debut, the romantic comedy Rose’s Dilemma showcased four talented actors and an exquisitely designed set do justice to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon’s final work.
Though not regarded as Simon’s best play by any means, and not to be confused with such Simon-penned mega-hits as The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity and Brighton Beach Memoirs, Rose’s Dilemma opened in Los Angeles in 2003 as Rose and Walsh.  The play moved to off-Broadway later that year under the actual and current title.  

During the previews Mary Tyler Moore, cast in the title role, was reportedly sent a letter by Simon prior to opening night admonishing her for not remembering her lines.  She abruptly quit leaving the part to Patricia Hodges, Moore’s understudy.  The play closed just over two months later.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Courage and Commitment

As dozens of gay and lesbian couples and invited guests around the state jubilantly anticipated their nuptials on January 1, a much more somber gathering was taking place on a wind-swept, chilly corner near Baltimore’s Washington Monument the evening before.

Couples queued up at City Hall for their marriage ceremonies.
First, the pleasant news.  On January 1, marriage for same-sex couples became legal with many deciding to tie the knot just after the stroke of midnight.  Baltimore City Hall was the venue for seven such couples with a radiant and proud Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake officiating the first of the ceremonies.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake demonstrated courage in advocating marriage equality before many other elected officials had done so.  She had to weather pressure from her constituents and pastors of mega-churches in the city who opposed same-sex marriage, and she promoted marriage equality as one of fairness.  “Newly married couples will stand before their friends and family to profess their love and commitment to each other. This is what we worked for, and I am looking forward to take part in this historic and jubilant day,” the Mayor said in a statement prior to the event.
The couples in all corners of the state who committed themselves to marriage also exhibited courage.   Many of them have been in long-term relationships that have spanned ten, twenty, thirty years or more.  They had to endure society’s disapproval that was manifested at times by their government, in their families, neighborhoods, and in their workplaces while expressing a degree of commitment to each other that was no less equal or less valuable than that of legally married heterosexual couples.

Thus, when midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, members of couples—adorned in sharp suits or stunning gowns with colorful corsages and flashing smiles that could light up a small town—were ready to declare their love and commitment to their spouses-to-be as cheers and applause rang out.  Even the normally “neutral” media who covered the City Hall nuptials could not fully hide or contain their glee and appreciation for this historic event.
Those were among the first same-sex couples in Maryland to wed.  A whole lot more will do the same in the coming weeks, months and years.  

A different exhibition of courage and commitment occurred on December 30.  Not the joyous celebrations that would be seen and felt the next evening and beyond, but a dose of reality in that much work remains.  Around 40 folks huddled together in the cold, bundled up in winter coats, gloves, scarves and hoods, to participate in a candle light vigil with the hopes (and demands) of ending the violence against LGBT persons in Baltimore. 
The group awaited the arrival of Kenni Shaw, 30, who was brutally attacked from behind by five gutless young men in East Baltimore on Christmas night.   Following opening remarks and prayers that also expressed gratitude that he is still alive, Kenni and his mother joined in the vigil and addressed those assembled with a commitment to stand up to violence. 

Donning an oversized woolen hat, Kenni’s face revealed the swollen red eyes and bruising from the assault five days earlier.  He spoke in a soft voice that was filled with determination and emotion.
Vigil participants praying to stop the violence.
You see, Kenni doesn’t want this horror to ever happen to his LGBT brothers and sisters.  That is why he has spoken out against the violence in a variety of publications and appeared on local TV since the attack.  In this town, where there is a no-snitching culture, Kenni stood up and demonstrated the courage we all dream we could possess. 
He probably inherited this courage from his mother, Sheila Shaw.  Also eager to speak out, Ms. Shaw demanded the cessation of this senseless violence towards someone simply because of being LGBT.

This event and the subsequent march a week later into the heart of the inner city where the attack took place brought black and white folks together.   Many of these same people were also active in the struggle for marriage equality, which was celebrated the next night.  There was a sense of strong commitment that something must be done to stem the violence regardless of the victim.  In Kenni, we all see the potential that this could happen to any of us. 
It is not a black or white thing.  This is not about the racial divide or economics.  This is about homophobia. It is disappointing that the attackers were in their twenties since many of us have come to believe that the younger generation regardless of race has become more accepting of LGBT folks.  This underscores how there is much work left to do; there is still much hatred in the hearts of those who can’t embrace humanity as the precious gift it is.

Cheers to all the couples who overcame a lifetime of hostility or indifference and began a new life together with the power of their love and commitment.

And cheers to Kenni and Sheila Shaw who taught us a valuable lesson about courage.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Ringing in the New Year with 'Hot Nostalgia'

As we begin 2013, what better way to welcome the New Year than with a nostalgic look at the past through song and dance?  Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia brought together ten talented performers and a terrific orchestra to take the audience on a stroll, albeit a fast-paced one, down memory lane.

Conceived by Toby herself, Toby Orenstein, along with Ross Scott Rawlings and Douglas Lawler, this musical revue expressly crafted for this venue, was directed and choreographed by who else but the gifted (and busy) Lawrence B. Munsey who is also currently playing Captain Von Trapp in the Toby’s-Baltimore production of The Sound of Music.   
Hot Nostalgia lifted the audience’s spirits with impeccably performed popular music from the 1930’s through the 1970’s with a whopping 165 songs.  To be clear, most of these numbers are sung partially as one would expect from medleys.  While not all were necessarily chart-toppers, all the selections were popular during the respective era and to many of us now, quite familiar.

The ten-person cast of five guys and five gals sing in various combinations, and it seems like each one has a turn at doing a solo.  But most of the numbers were of the production type with all ten showcasing their strong vocal talents.  As a full group their pitch-perfect voices blend beautifully, and as solos or as part of smaller groups they excel as well.
What makes this show so special is that every song performed regardless of how deep it goes is accompanied by period dancing (jitterbug, lindy, disco) with a few comedic moments spread throughout that enhanced the fun.  Hot Nostalgia is not your run-of-the mill concert; this is a splashy, well-directed and choreographed stage production performed by a talented cast that is creatively costumed by Mary Quinn.

There is no shortage of toe-tapping, hand-clapping joy as the ensemble takes the audience on this magical nostalgic tour through music that began in the golden age of swing and jazz.  Memorable songs like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “My Funny Valentine” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” highlighted the 30’s set.
David James and Janine Sunday in iconic pose
With World War II waging on through the first half of the 40’s a large portion of this segment contained a military theme complete with the old-style uniforms.  Popular numbers such as “This Is The Army, Mr. Jones” and the classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” are well performed.  The set concluded with the iconic Times Square kiss (pictured) when the Japanese surrendered.

The 50’s segment featured the Elvis era with songs like “Heartbreak Hotel.”  But other popular numbers such as “Lollipop” are offered too, while some selections in this set spilled into 1960 with the famous hit, “Where the Boys Are.”  Close enough. 
One of the cast members, award-winning performer David James, brought the house down with a hilarious performance as a 50’s-style nerdy character in a few of the numbers.

The 1960’s ushered in wonderful performances including some of the Beach Boys, Beatles and Motown’s huge hits.  Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops (five perform in this show), The Temptations, The Drifters, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder and an utterly funny take on Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe.”   Also enjoyable were the novelty songs “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and the 1958 “Purple People Eater.”  Cast member Shawn Kettering’s impersonation of Mick Jagger (“Satisfaction”) is fabulous.

Transitioning into the 1970’s the set opens with “Hello Muthah, Hello Fathah” and then brings in “Joy to the World” and other hot selections.  The creative morphing of “I Am Woman” to “Macho Man” to “You’re So Vain” by different groups in the ensemble was the set’s high point.
Old TV commercials and footage of an Ed Sullivan show displayed on various screens on the walls are among the devices cleverly used to transition between decades and allow the stage to be set up in the dark.   The costumes (Quinn), set design (David A. Hopkins), lighting (Coleen M. Foley) and sound (Drew Dedrick) help make this production lively and fun.

And there were no breaks for the stellar orchestra led by Ross Scott Rawlings.  Remember, there are 165 songs. That’s quite a workload, and this group did not miss a beat.
All of the performers deserve recognition: Heather Marie Beck, Debra Buonaccorsi, Tina DeSimone, Prince Havely, Shawn Kettering, David Little, Ashley Parker, Jeffrey Shankle and Janine Sunday. Though all are excellent, Shankle and Parker are leaders of the pack.

The ensemble display powerful voices and accomplished dance moves.  It is not an easy undertaking to perform non-stop vocals with high-energy dancing and rapid costume changes and be on their game, but this group pulled it off.
The trip down memory lane is longer for some.  But no matter your age (or memory), you will have at least heard of a vast majority of these fun songs and enjoy a thoroughly professional cast and crew give your New Year a real jump-start.  Some may quibble over the songs selected and those overlooked, but regardless, Hot Nostalgia is glorious and should not be missed.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
Hot Nostalgia plays through January 27 at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets call the Box Office at 410-730-8311 or online.