Sunday, February 17, 2013

Toby's Delivers 'Fiddler' in Fine Tradition

Photo by Kirstine Christiansen
If there ever was a character in theatre who one feels compelled to root for, it has to be Tevye, the nearly impoverished milkman who resides in Anatevka, a small village in Czarist Russia in 1905.  His strong-willed wife has a sharp-tongue, and he is struggling to house, feed and clothe his five daughters.   The three oldest of them eschew deeply ingrained Jewish traditions to which Tevye so desperately tries to cling in favor of pursuing lives of their own fueled by changing social mores.  And on top of that, Tevye and his family as well as the other Jews in Anatevka face constant anti-Semitism and intimidation from Russia’s Czar.
That is the fundamental storyline in the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, which is now playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  This production has enough gusto and energy to light that village of Anatevka and perhaps some of Columbia’s villages as well.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.
 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Black History Month: Moving Forward

As we near the end of Black History Month and having viewed the excellent documentary Brother Outsider, which presented the life of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, it is easy to smile and reflect upon the progress in the relations between the African-American and LGBT communities. 
A promising visionary and activist in the civil rights movement, Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena, Calif. on a “morals” charge, which outed him as a homosexual.  As a key associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin organized the spectacular March on Washington, D.C. in 1963.  

But his being gay held Rustin back from rising up the ranks in the civil rights movement’s hierarchy as did perhaps his affiliation with a campus Communist group.

This is one example of the tensions between the LGBT and African-American communities.  A major reason for discord has been many African-Americans’ perception of racism by gays, or if not overt racism, then a lack of inclusiveness.  Clearly, there is truth to that.  There is also some resentment among blacks that gays and lesbians have couched the quest for marriage equality as one of civil rights.
Coretta Scott King would be pleased today

On the other hand, a significant portion of black culture sees homosexuality as a taboo, which particularly hurts Same Gender Loving African-Americans. This has been reinforced by church-going blacks who have viewed homosexuality as a sin—a mantra that for decades has been constantly repeated by pastors and became more prevalent during the ongoing efforts to achieve marriage equality. 

Despite these strains, civil rights leaders have understood the philosophy of Dr. King and applied it towards LGBT folks.  The late Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, had been a champion in using her husband’s words to combat homophobia. 
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

She also recognized that gays and lesbians walked arm-in-arm with blacks during those iconic marches of the 1960’s.  They joined forces, even risked their lives, to help blacks achieve the right to vote without undue barriers. 

 “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement,” Ms. King said at the 25th Anniversary Luncheon for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund a day later. “Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”

Since then other prominent African-American leaders joined in the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT people. Most notable of these were Rep. John Lewis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Julian Bond and more recently Benjamin Jealous who is the CEO of the NAACP.
Nonetheless, uneasiness between the two groups remained a point of concern.  Following the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in 2008, fingers were pointed by gay activists towards the African-American community for voting to uphold Prop 8, thereby denying marriage equality to same-sex couples in California.  While a majority of black voters supported Prop 8,  a review of post-election data concluded that various other factors contributed to Prop 8’s support at the polls, such as the generation gap. 

Numbers  guru Nate Silver pointed out on his fivethirtyeight.com website that “At the end of the day, Prop 8's passage was more a generational matter than a racial one. If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.”
As Maryland braced for a marriage referendum battle last year, the concerns about the African-American community and how they would vote highlighted the pre-referendum handicapping.  The theory, according to pundits, was that if the pro-equality forces could make sufficient inroads with black voters, then that would put us over the top.

The effort to win over African-American voters in Question 6 was bolstered by President Obama’s disclosure last May that same-sex couples deserve the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.  The national NAACP joined in with their support. 
Later, the campaign featured prominent religious African-American Reverends Donte Hickman and Delman Coates as part of the TV advertising.  In addition, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo—a mixed race advocate for marriage equality—engaged in a verbal tussle with homophobic Delegate Emmett Burns that received national exposure.

All along, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was a strong vocal supporter of marriage equality.  When the votes were ultimately counted, Baltimore City had a sizable plurality for Question 6, and Prince George’s deficit was much smaller than anticipated. Consequently, the hateful comment by a pastor stating gays and supporters “are deserving of death” most likely did not sit well with fair-minded voters regardless of race.
All the momentum was on the side of equality.  It is safe to say that the favorable outcome did not occur in spite of African-Americans but because of them.  The myth that marriage equality could not be achieved because of black opposition should finally be put to rest.

Still there are problems between the two groups.  Racism continues to exist but should be diminished considerably by future generations.  Anti-gay rhetoric is still spewed from the pulpits in black churches. 
But the trend looks very positive now, and I believe Coretta Scott King is looking down and smiling over the progress that has been made.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Teens Learn the Hard Way in 'Spring Awakening'


Consider the following thorny issues that society grapples with today: abortion, homelessness, child abuse, rape, unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality, and teen suicide.  Now imagine how these same topics were candidly portrayed in an 1891 German book Spring Awakening written by Frank Wedekind.  It didn’t go over so well then as it was banned in that country for some time.
Photo: Stan Barough
Undaunted, the rock musical called Spring Awakening based on that controversial work was crafted by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sate.  The production opened on Broadway in 2006 and captured eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor, and four Drama Desk awards plus a Grammy. The female lead was played by Glee’s Lea Michelle prior to her move to TV.

After a successful run on Broadway and London and touring productions in the U.S. and Canada, Spring Awakening arrived at the Olney Theatre Center, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  Director Steve Cosson, aided by an attractive talented cast and an imaginative creative team, blended the often dark and heavy storyline that was set in late 19th century Germany with modern rock music, lighting and staging to present a sparkling and moving production.
It is a great challenge to mesh 19th century European mores with contemporary optics and sound.  That dichotomy is left to the audience to work out.  In its totality, despite that challenge, the production succeeds.

Using a strong score under the direction of Christopher Youstra with great work from the orchestra, the storyline delicately and ably weaves a series of subplots into a dramatic tapestry involving adolescents discovering their feelings about sexuality and intimacy.  Parents of these kids were loathe to have frank “birds and bees” conversations, so the youngsters had to learn about such matters on their own in various ways while dealing with the effects of puberty.
Wendla, played tenderly by Alyse Alan Louis, never received sexual guidance from her mother and paid the ultimate price.  She caught up with a friend from her early childhood years, Melchior, a handsome, intelligent, and rebellious fellow (performed splendidly by Matthew Kacergis) who, through book learning, was aware of the mechanics of sex and enjoyed his intimacy with a na├»ve Wendla.  Sadly, this encounter ultimately had tragic consequences as two lives were lost.
Matthew Kacergis and Alyse Alan Louis  Photo: Stan Barough

Then there is Moritz, played solidly by Parker Drown.  He, too, had his issues involving his sexual feelings but was even more victimized by evil, unscrupulous schoolteachers (played deliciously by Ethan Watermeier and Liz Mamana, who also perform other adult roles) and his unsympathetic father.

Ernst (David Landstrom) and Hanschen (Austin Vandyke Colby) find love with each other.  Happily, this gay couple is among the few who did not experience sadness, frustration or tragedy and provided some of the lighter moments in the production.
Other characters include Ilse (Maggie Donnelly) who runs away from home to escape abuse; Martha (Marylee Adams) who was abused by her father; Georg (Chris Rudy) who fantasizes about his voluptuous piano teacher; and Otto (Christopher Mueller) who dreams about his mother.  You get the picture.

There were some comedic moments, such as a masturbation, uh, autoeroticism scene, with the good-looking Colby as Hanschen constantly being interrupted by his father.  And the exchange later on between him and Ernst (Landstrom) is quite enjoyable.
The music is electric and was performed wonderfully by the entire cast.  Alyse Alan Louis’ rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” is gorgeous as she exudes her frustration of her mother’s reticence about discussing sex.  She also shines with Matthew Kacergis as Melchior in “The Word of Your Body” (a song that is reprised two more times with other characters) and “Whispering”.  Her acting is spot on as her character draws significant empathy from the audience

Kacergis, who recently played in Olney’s well-received Cinderella, has charismatic leading man looks and a stellar singing voice.  His acting skills are right for the role, demonstrating a take-charge and defiant persona inherent to Melchior.  Kacergis’ numbers are all performed well but his touching performance of “Left Behind” is truly magnificent as it showcases his full tenor range.
Parker Drown effectively plays the complex and emotional character Moritz.  It would be tempting to overact in such a role but thankfully he does not cross that line.  Drown, a Helen Hayes Award winner, morphs effectively from the 19th century Moritz character to a modern rock performer in “And Then There Was None”.  He also excels in “Don’t Do Sadness”.

Although mostly appearing in the ensemble, Christopher Mueller’s singing talent stands out.  A great resonating voice, Mueller delivers as Otto in the reprise of “The Word of Your Body”.  The company performs the outstanding numbers “The Bitch of Living” and “Touch Me” extremely well.
Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is particularly exceptional in “Totally F*cked” with the ensemble moving around the stage with high energy and cohesion and using chairs as props. 

Also needing to take a bow is the lighting designer Robert Wierzel.  Employing three rows of LED lights forming a boxy arch around the sides and top of the stage and coordinating lights in the rear to illuminate a forest, Wierzel effectively mixes colorful combinations to coincide with the mood of a particular song or the dramatic dialogue. 
And credit costume designer Sarah Beers for nicely outfitting the girls in period plaid skirts and simple white blouses and the boys in their gray jackets, black vests, white shirts, striped ties, knee-length shorts and high socks. 

Though it’s a sad story for the most part, Spring Awakening is riveting and entertains with especially good musical numbers and fine acting by the cast, well deserving of the standing ovation it received the night this performance was reviewed.
_______

Running Time: Two hours with an intermission.
Spring Awakening plays through March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or visiting it online.  

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

This City is for the Birds


LGBT Ally Brendon Ayanbadejo celebrates after win
Wow! What an amazing run to the Super Bowl trophy!  I still see purple all over my clothes, my food, and my towels.  With the heart-pounding finish to the record-breaking game in which the Ravens outlasted the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, the impromptu celebrations and the fabulous parade, Baltimore fans from all walks of life came together as one.  It seems like only wars and sport championships can unite otherwise disparate people.  And this was no exception.
This town goes crazy for the Ravens—as it should.  Sure, there are plenty of Ravens-hating Steelers fans here, and Sunday’s game was their worst nightmare.  And for certain, it seemed like most of the country were hoping the Ravens would fail.  Much of this was caused by the never-ending saga and drama of Ray Lewis’ retirement and how the future Hall of Famer is perceived beyond the Beltway.   

But rallying behind a sports team and willing it to the ultimate prize temporarily puts significant everyday problems on the back burner.  It’s great for the psyche as well as the spirit.  As one, most of us greeted each other with “Go Ravens!”
This victory should have surprised no one given that when states pass marriage equality, their football team immediately wins a Super Bowl: Massachusetts and the Patriots, New York and the Giants, and now Maryland and the Ravens.

The run for the Ravens’ title that included spectacular victories over the Colts, Broncos and Patriots also had an LGBT undercurrent, which is most unusual for major sports championships.  One of our allies in the fight for marriage equality in Maryland was Ravens’ linebacker and special teams guy Brendon Ayanbadejo.  He told the New York Times, Athlete Ally and others that he intended to use the weeklong run-up to the game as a platform to advance marriage equality and to decry bullying.
He may have though I didn’t see any of that covered locally.  After all, how can Baltimore’s news outlets squeeze in important social issues when they are obsessed with Ray Lewis and the Harbaugh brothers?   

But Ayanbadejo did react to 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver’s homophobic comments that were in response to a hypothetical question regarding the acceptance of a gay player in the team’s locker room.  On media day, Culliver told a radio station, “We don’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out of here if they do.” 
He later apologized through the team. “I was really not thinking,” Culliver told reporters at the 49ers’ media session. “Or, something I thought, but not something that I feel in my heart. I’m not trying to bring any distraction to the team.”  Something he thought but not something in his heart?  Hmm.

For his part, 49er coach Jim Harbaugh said the team did not agree with Culliver’s earlier comments.  “We reject what he said. That’s not something that reflects the way the organization feels, the way most of the players feel. . . . I think it’s going to impact him going forward. I think it’s something that he will learn about himself.”


Interestingly, his brother John who is the Ravens’ head coach never, to my knowledge, publicly embraced the idea of a gay player possibly being on the Ravens.  But San Francisco is a different market with stronger LGBT activism making the 49er coach’s response pragmatic.


Ayanbadejo commented, “I’d say 50% of the people think like Culliver.  I’d say 25% of the people think like me. And then 25% of the people are religious. They don’t necessarily agree with all the things I agree with, but they’re accepting. So it’s a fight. It’s an uphill battle.”

He added, “No matter who you are or what you do, if you’re doing something that you love, you should be able to do that. You should be able to express who you are. Then you do things that you love to do (and) you’ll be better at them instead of always worrying about hiding who you are.”  San Francisco wide receiver Randy Moss backed Ayanbadejo’s points.
Kudos to Ayanbadejo for taking on this fight.  A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an active professional male athlete to advocate for LGBT equality.

As the confetti and hoopla dissipate in the afterglow of the Ravens’ improbable achievement, Baltimore’s love affair with birds will gravitate towards our adored Orioles.  Last year’s Cinderella team is poised to make another run for the American League East title and beyond.  We don’t have an equivalent to Ayanbadejo on the O’s yet, but several players made a video for the “It Gets Better Campaign” a couple of years ago, and that’s a promising sign.

While professional basketball, football and hockey had made strides to alleviate concerns over a gay player in their midst, baseball has lagged behind.  However, many teams have “Nights Out” events as part of their schedules whereby LGBT groups can sit together at the game, be publicly recognized and perhaps take part in the pre-game ceremonies.
Washington D.C. is among several major league cities to hold these events.   Given how Maryland passed marriage equality at the ballot box, and that owner Peter Angelos contributed significantly to the cause, it is high time that Baltimore began holding a Night Out at Camden Yards.  We need to persuade the O’s management to plan that for our community, who love those Birds as much as we do the Ravens.