Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brooklyn Should Net This Trailblazer

 National Basketball Association journeyman Jason Collins, a free agent, came out with a superbly written and personal essay for Sports Illustrated online.  His story as to how and why he decided to come out (“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay”) is appearing in the May 6 publication.

His coming out should open doors for closeted athletes everywhere and will turn him into an instant hero for gay kids.  There is no way one can overstate the significance of this development.  It is yet another seminal event in the history of gay rights.
The 12-year veteran is well-known and from all indications, he is well-liked around the NBA. Collins bounced around, playing on a half dozen teams, the last being the Washington Wizards.  At no point in his career was his average point total over 6.4 per game.  Since the 2006-2007 season, he never played more than in half the game.   And at age 34 and a marginal producer, it is questionable if another NBA team was willing to take a chance on this free agent.
Until now.
Jason Collins has thrust himself into the glare of the media spotlight—a situation that clearly would not have taken place without his disclosure.  We hear that David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, badly wants a team to sign him, if nothing else, for the betterment of the league’s image and its place in social history.

Should that transpire, the signing team would surely have to cope with the media attention and the resulting distractions.  While most of his teammates will undoubtedly embrace him, Collins would still have to deal with fans, especially in other cities.
Would he be subject to taunting, ridicule, death threats, and other forms of horrific treatment?  Not likely, but nothing would be surprising today given that a guy would unload over a 100 bullets into 6 year-old kids.  Plus there are still a large number of gay-hating people out there. 

Would he receive the broad hostile treatment Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson had to endure when he broke the color barrier in baseball back in 1947 as brilliantly portrayed in the film 42?  Probably not.  Gay rights have advanced so far, so quickly to suspect that outcome.  Racial prejudice was deep-seated then, and it included Robinson’s own teammates and Brooklyn fans.
Which team would be willing to sign Jason Collins given that his basketball skills are not in demand any longer?  It would have to be a team that can handle the distractions, at least in the short term.  It would be best if that team played in a city with a vibrant LGBT community.  I could be wrong, but I suspect the Oklahoma City Thunder would not be the first on the list.

Perhaps the Portland Trail Blazers.  It has a great LGBT community, an open-minded progressive population; heck, it even had a gay mayor.  Moreover, the name “Trail Blazers” would be a perfect moniker for Collins.
But I would hope it would be the Brooklyn Nets.  When the franchise moved from Newark, NJ to Brooklyn in 2012, I thought this was good karma.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn; it would be great if Jason Collins breaks the rainbow barrier in the same borough.  Perfect symmetry.

Brooklyn possesses a growing LGBT community and no one can question the vibrancy of New York City’s overall LGBT community.  Unquestionably, any team playing in New York is battle-tested regarding the media and its hyper-scrutiny.  The Nets would endure.

One of the minority owners of the Nets but one who is most visible is rap icon Jay-Z.  Reacting to President Obama’s announced support for same sex marriage last year, Jay-Z said, “What people do in their own homes is their business, and you can choose to love whoever you love. That’s their business. It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It's discrimination, plain and simple.”

Here’s another point.  Jason Collins began his career with the Nets.  He should end it with them as well.  Again, perfect symmetry.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Still Plenty of Room on the Bandwagon

Hillary Clinton comes out in support of marriage equality
Momentum for marriage equality is so powerful right now it’s surreal.  Much has happened over the past year in this regard; it’s nearly impossible to chronicle in limited space.  But since March alone, major steps to knock down previously sturdy barriers have taken place.
Most of these developments occurred before, during and after the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two central cases (Prop 8 and DOMA) that potentially can cover the landscape in rainbows.  How the justices will rule will be determined in June—Pride month no less—and regardless of the outcome, the march towards equality will continue.

What is driving this momentum is a shift in attitudes among Americans regarding marriage equality.  The most recent of these surveys, the NBC/WSJpoll, shows that 53 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage, which is an uptick of two points since December. Some other polls indicate even greater support.  This is a dramatic sea change over the past ten years.

Though politicians are often slow to follow the attitudes of the electorate (e.g. gun control, immigration reform, etc.), they seem to be jumping on the marriage equality bandwagon rather rapidly.  A couple of weeks prior to the Supreme Court arguments, Senator Rob Portman, a Ohio Republican who was a possible VP candidate on the Romney ticket, became the first GOP senator to publicly support same-sex marriage.  He did so because his son, Will, is gay, which clearly put a family member’s well-being above party dogma. 
“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman was quoted as saying.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk (IL) swiftly followed suit as did a number of Dems, resulting in 54 senators supporting marriage equality and still counting.  Only three Democrats have not as yet: Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Mary Landrieu (La.)—all representing red states.

A little over a week before the Supreme Court proceedings, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also climbed aboard the bandwagon.  In a six-minute video for HRC Clinton said, “LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones, and they are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes gay marriage.”   Many political pundits saw this as an important step if she decides to run for president in 2016.
Despite the two Republican senators announcing support, the fact that many Republicans submitted friends-of-court briefs to advocate for marriage rights in the Supreme Court arguments, and the party rhetoric saying that the GOP needs to be more inclusive, it is clear their rank-in-file is not ready to approve same-sex marriage.  In that same NBC/WSJ poll, two-thirds of Republicans oppose marriage equality—most of whom are in rural areas.  But the numbers are improving, albeit slower than Democrats and Independents.

The Republican National Committee on April 5 approved a resolution that stated: “The Republican National Committee affirms its support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and as the optimum environment in which to raise healthy children for the future of America; and be it further resolved, the Republican National Committee implores the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the sanctity of marriage in its rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.”
This is the trap the GOP officials are falling in: they continue to pander to their rural and shrinking base and ignore the fact younger people including young Evangelicals are supporting same-sex marriage.  The issue most likely will hurt the party in 2016 and beyond as these younger people vote and the older, more conservative voters leave us, resulting in more elected officials jumping on the bandwagon.

Evan Wolfson, President and Founder of Freedom to Marry, commented: “With Republican support for the freedom to marry increasing every day—aided by the journeys of leaders like Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman—the RNC is showing itself out of touch with this resolution.”
Aside from marriage there is also some LGBT progress in the world of sports, which is by no means insignificant.  Although those in the sports industry do not make laws, their influence on our culture cannot be overstated.  Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson (who has a gay son) and Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks both said they would welcome a gay player on their team.  A growing number of hockey players as part of the You Can Play Project have also publicly stated their acceptance of a gay teammate should one come out.

Ex-Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo told the Baltimore Sun that he is in discussions with as many as four gay players in the NFL who may come out soon as a group in a coordinated effort to mitigate the pressure that would normally be heaped on one individual under that circumstance.
Though much work in other areas needs to be done, the marriage efforts have been paying dividends as well as a possible improvement in the sports environment.  The bandwagon still has lots of room for those to jump on.  France, for instance, is about a month away from approving same-sex marriage. Bienvenue à bord!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Shakespeare Factory Produces a Fresh 'Romeo & Juliet'

Brendan Edward Kennedy (Romeo)
and Kathryn Zoerb (Juliet) Photo: Will Kirk
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an ancient play as it was written sometime between 1591 and 1595.  The language used, Elizabethan English, is rather arcane.  And the costumes reflect 16th century everyday wardrobe.  But the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of Romeo and Juliet, though staying true to the original work, adds a dose of freshness and contemporary whimsy that makes it a fun experience—the play’s tragedies notwithstanding.  An unexpected moment, for example, occurs when cast members begin to dance to “Call Me Maybe” during the play.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory prides itself on presenting their plays that are authentically Shakespeare in the manner in which they are staged.  Three productions this season take place in a venue that was once a church but is formatted so that the seating, all pews, is arranged on both sides of the stage as well as in front.  (Two other plays this season will be performed in an outdoor setting.) 

To read full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Lots of Horsepower in Spotlighters' Equus

When Spotlighters Theatre Artistic Director Fuzz Roark enthusiastically told the audience prior to the performance of Equus that this production is “special,” he rather understated it.  In fact, Roark would have been on target had he called it a “masterpiece,” for that it surely is.
The 1973 play was written by Peter Shaffer and won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1975.  It tells the story of a child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart attempting to treat a 17 year-old boy, Alan Strang, after the lad blinded five horses with a hoof pick.  Shaffer was inspired by an actual similar incident in Suffolk, England and crafted the play as a fictional account to uncover what could have led to this act without his knowledge of the crime’s details.

As Shaffer pens it, Alan has an abnormal obsession with horses that encompasses religious worshiping of and a sexual attraction to them.  Dysart’s mission is get to the core of the problem while dealing with what appears to be his own rather insipid existence.
Director Sherrionne Brown, who is no stranger to the cozy, in-the-round stage at Spotlighters, does an exemplary job of handing the powerful script over to the talented cast while staging a picture perfect play.  At one point, Ms. Brown deviates from previous productions of Equus and with the guidance of choreographer Alani Harris, presented a superb, mesmerizing dance scene by five horses that slowly surround Alan in a graceful but heart-pounding experience. 

Donned in velour leggings and leather harnesses (some readers may recognize) and sporting spectacular silver horse heads and hooves that were provided by San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, the dancers emulated large majestic horses in appearance and movement.  It is a striking scene that allows the audience to take in what Alan is experiencing.
Credit Ms. Brown again for her ability to impeccably transition to numerous short scene changes without the choppiness that such tasks would ordinarily entail.  Some of these locales include Dysart’s office, Alan’s room, a beach, Dysart’s mind, stables, a cinema, etc. So to accomplish these varied settings with only three benches that comprise the Spartan set is quite creative.  Brad Ranno’s lighting design is also a key component of these effects.  By keeping the set simple, Ms. Brown places all the focus directly on the performers as it should be in this performer-driven play. 

Another unique staging approach is that the actors who are not in a particular scene are seated as observers off on the side but still in view of the audience.  When called upon, they effortlessly appear on stage and by doing so in this manner, contribute to the fluidity of the action.

As exceptional as the staging and costuming are in this production, the acting takes it to another level.  In previous versions of Equus, there had been such theatrical heavyweights as Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Anthony Perkins as well as Charles S. Dutton (when it appeared in Baltimore’s Longrove Alley Theatre in 1979) who played the part of Dr. Martin Dysart.  I cannot see how Phil Gallagher in this production could have taken a back seat to any of them. 

Martin Dysart (Phil Gallagher) comforts Alan Strang (Thomas Bowers)
It would be tempting to overact in the Dysart role, but Mr. Gallagher does not cross that line.  Instead, he offers a commanding performance, displaying impassioned determination in ferreting out the underlying issues with Alan while realizing the emptiness in his own life.  Dysart pulls out from his bag of tricks such techniques as hypnotism and placebo truth drugs, to untangle the mystery as to why Alan could perform such a dastardly act. Never missing a line even during several hard-driving, passionate soliloquies, the Cambridge University (England) graduate and stage veteran puts on an acting clinic.  Gallagher also serves as an Assistant Director in this production.

Making his debut on a main stage, American University student Thomas Bowers also came through, effectively exhibiting the rage and stubbornness bottled up in the Alan Strang role.  The tension between the two main characters is palpable, which is how the play is designed.  Feeding off each other’s frustrations, they executed their lines and movements flawlessly with an abundance of chemistry and flair.  A sexual moment Alan experiences while on the back of a horse is tastefully but realistically presented as is the nude scene towards the play’s end.
Alan’s mother is an extremely devout Christian and his father is an atheist.  (What could possible go wrong with that?)  But it’s his mother, Dora, played solidly by Kathryn Falcone, who seemed to have the most influence on him by constantly reading to him from the Bible. 

Alan’s father, Frank Strang, well-played by Frank Vince, was concerned that Alan was mostly focused on the violent aspects of Scripture.  He destroyed a violent picture of the Crucifixion Alan had placed at the foot of his bed.  The boy replaced it with one of a horse with large staring eyes.
Also in the cast is Karina Ferry as Hesther Salomon, a court magistrate, who is one of the saner characters in the play.  She provides a steadying, soothing hand for Dysart.  Ms. Ferry, who had performed well in Tea and Sympathy, another Spotlighters hit, is also strong in this role.

Kerry Brady played nicely by Jill Mason, is a young woman who attempted to seduce Alan with tragic results.  Stephy Miller plays the Nurse, and David Morey is effective as the stables owner Harry Dalton.
Rounding out the cast are the five horses: Ruta Douglas Smith, Megan Farber, Kevin Gordon, Alani Harris, and Alan’s favorite horse “Nugget,” Warren Smith.  Kudos to all.

Equus is not your everyday boy and his horse story.  It is an intense, psychological drama that is gripping and that has the audience on the edge of their seats.  The production at Spotlighters is magnificent to the core in every respect—a complete masterpiece—and should not be missed.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains adult themes and full nudity and is not recommended for children.
Equus plays through May 5 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St. in Baltimore.  Tickets can be obtained by calling 410-752-1225 or online
Photos by Ken Stanek Photography 

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Ball is in Their Court

Ever since the passage and signing of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” the march towards LGBT equality has picked up in pace that would have been considered inconceivable just five years ago.  Aside from the setback in this year’s Maryland General Assembly where comprehensive non-discrimination protections for trans folks failed to advance again, the rainbow path recently has been lined with victories.
This is especially true in the progress towards marriage equality.  Following President Obama’s announced support for same-sex marriage last spring, the tide has swung in earnest towards the seemingly improbable goal that gay and lesbians in the U.S. will finally no longer be treated as second class citizens.

The apex of this momentum was reached on Election Night as voters in three states, including Maryland, chose marriage equality while a fourth beat back an attempted ban—developments that had never occurred before.

Most recently, March 26 and 27 became another landmark period in LGBT history as two cases contesting the manner gay and lesbian couples are treated with respect to marriage rights made it to the highest court in the land.  Oral arguments were heard by the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court that on the first day saw the challenge to California’s Prop 8. 

Several hundred marriage equality advocates braved the cold temperatures and assembled in front of the Court in a colorful, raucous rally.  Opponents were fewer in number but they attempted to drown out the pro-equality rally with a lot of noise, chanting their dwindling number of rational arguments against same-sex marriage.
While it is nearly impossible to predict what the Court will ultimately decide based on questioning during this phase, conventional wisdom imparted by legal experts indicate that the Court will either strike Prop 8 down or even more likely revert back to the lower court’s ruling in that the measure is unconstitutional in California only. 

In that case, gay and lesbian couples in that state will again be able to marry.  If that occurs, some 30 percent of all U.S. same-sex couples would then be living in states that legally allow such marriages with several more looming on the horizon. 

There will likely be no sweeping edict that would affect same-sex couples in the rest of the country.  In other words, the Court is not likely to say in general terms that gays and lesbians have the legal right to marry, which is what marriage equality advocates had hoped for.  The least likely scenario, however, is that the Court will uphold Prop 8.

The picture seemed brighter and somewhat clearer following arguments on the second day. The constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, which denies over 1,100 federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, was being questioned.  At least five justices had key problems with DOMA’s purpose and constitutionality.   
The case had been brought to this point by Edie Windsor, 83, who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died. Because Windsor would have been eligible for an estate tax exemption had Spyer been a man, she argued that DOMA's Section 3 violates her equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment.

Again, it is not certain if the Court will grant eligibility for the 1,100 federal benefits to same-sex couples that are legally married.  Should that happen, it would constitute a huge victory for those couples married in the nine states (including Maryland) plus D.C.  Social Security survivors’ benefits and tax breaks would be among the major benefits if Section 3 of DOMA was struck down.  And it could form a precedent for future litigation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has a well-deserved reputation for being plodding and incremental and often lagging behind the social attitudes of the general public.  Sweeping landmark cases are rare, and these two could (and should) have been among them. 

The punditry noted correctly that attitudes on “gay marriage” shifted dramatically since 2004 when Republicans used the issue as a wedge among Democratic voters.  Indeed, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, support for marriage equality has increased in virtually every demographic, region and party affiliation except those from rural areas and those between the ages of 50 to 64.  Blue collar workers represent the largest increase in support.

African-Americans, long seen as a group that had not supported marriage equality, increased their support by 19 percent since 2009 alone.  Analysts credit Obama’s change in his position on the subject as a significant contributor to the shift.

Moreover, young adults who will be playing a larger role in elections and are overwhelmingly supportive, will be replacing the older generation as they leave us.  But even though folks over 65 do not favor same-sex marriage (37% - 54%), their support has increased substantially since 2004 (16% - 80%). 
The justices’ votes have already been tabulated, and their rulings will be announced in June.  As most of the LGBT community will be celebrating Pride that month, the announcement will be eagerly anticipated.  

The justices would be wise to consider the trends in public acceptance because if the rulings do not unequivocally confer the same legal rights, benefits and responsibilities for all Americans, you can be sure the younger people will be back again knocking on the Supreme Court’s door.  For now, the ball’s in their court.

Iron Crow’s 'Slipping' is Sure-Footed Drama

Tanner Medding as Eli and Rich Buchanan as Jake
We know how complicated love can be.  With all its obvious pleasures associated with it, we recognize how many challenges exist and how they must be overcome to sustain a loving relationship.  Tricky as that proposition is, imagine how it must be for a teenager to cope with figuring out what true love is.   Then add to that mixture the pain of family loss, his own self-loathing, a past that maintains a strong grip on his psyche, and his dealing with a sexual orientation that society frowns upon albeit to a lesser degree than years ago.

This is what Eli, the central character in Daniel Talbott’s powerful first full-length play, Slipping, currently presented by the Iron Crow Theatre Company, has to confront.   According to Talbott, the play was inspired by among other factors, his own experiences with his best friend in high school.
Iron Crow’s artistic director Steven J. Satta tightly helmed the Baltimore offering and did so with his usual expertise and meticulous attention to detail.  Aided by a strong cast and technical crew, Slipping portrays the angst that most teenagers feel as they grow up especially in matters of the heart.

Towson University student Tanner Medding was blessed with taking on the complex role of Eli to demonstrate his proficient acting skills as well as his ability to remove and put on clothing at a frenetic pace throughout. 
Eli left San Francisco following his father’s death in a car accident to move to Iowa with his mother Jan (played by Michele Minnick).  He had a difficult time in adjusting. 

Eli is gay.  The factors leading to his father’s death troubled him, and he regrets he never had the opportunity to tell his dad the truth about himself.  He is constantly haunted by a crush back home, Chris (Christopher H. Zargarbashi) whose internalized homophobia prevented them from forming a loving relationship.  When he moved to Iowa, Eli seemed out of place (dying his hair a sort of pinkish hue didn’t help his assimilation) and was burdened by the memories of his past.

He is befriended by a new boy, 17 year-old Jake (Rich Buchanan), a handsome, popular, seemingly straight baseball player, who discovers his own attraction to Eli.  Suspicious of Jake’s motives, Eli at first rejects a sexual encounter with Jake but ultimately relents.
They remain friends with benefits for months with the entire school becoming aware of their “relationship.”  But each time Jake tries to solidify that relationship, the angry, jaded, often-sullen Eli pushes back.

As a subplot, the audience learns that Jan was never in love with her husband, that she cheated on him, and didn’t wait long enough “for the insurance to be settled” before she engages in her own sexual encounters.  One thing in her favor, which mitigated Eli’s already difficult adolescence, is that she is supportive of his sexual orientation.
Nonetheless, the melancholy Eli continues a problematic self-mutilation practice of “cutting” that began in San Francisco—the consequences of which open the play.

Through flashbacks to events in San Francisco and rapid back flips to the present in Iowa, Talbott constructs the foundation of Eli’s character and opens the window into his sexuality.  Eli is timid while in San Francisco but transforms into a bitter yet vulnerable youth in Iowa. 
Christopher Zargarbashi, having appeared in Iron Crow’s Love and Human Remains and Swimming in the Shallows, played the dangerous Chris with dramatic verve.  His physical attractiveness and penchant for dominating Eli explain why Eli was so hung up on him.   “I wanted to be owned by him,” Eli laments.  But that was not going to happen.

Appearing in five scenes, Chris presents a dark, scary caricature who abhors the fact that he and Eli had sexual encounters and projects that hatred onto Eli by mistreating him.  As they say, love is blind.   Chris warns Eli of the consequences “if any of this gets out,” and in a heart-pounding moment says, “Every time I see you at school I want to just rip you apart.”

Rich Buchanan, who was stellar in Iron Crow’s The Soldier Dreams, is more than up to the task of playing Jake.  His polished acting skills, energy, voice inflections and movements are clearly on display in this role.  Jake’s youthful sexual chemistry with Eli is flawless.

Michele Minnick, another Iron Crow veteran, was solid as Jan.  As Eli’s mother, she was challenged by his suspicions that his father’s death was somehow caused by her.  Eli was closer to his father than Jan, and it is evident in the dynamics of their relationship. 
Tanner Medding is outstanding.  Onstage for almost all of the scenes, Medding plays brooding Eli expertly, playing opposite each of the other three characters who all have conflicts with him.

One device the play employs is that Eli would go off occasionally to the side of the stage in a spotlight and speaking into a microphone to deliver soliloquies on his reflections. The mic isn’t needed as the echo chamber effects of the sound amplification interferes a bit with the monologue.  Other than that, Sound Designer Todd Mion aptly used music in scene changes to great effect.
Tanner Medding as Eli and Rich Buchanan as Jake
Another device was the role of two stage hands in interacting with Eli.  They are frequently called upon to move props on and off the cozy Theatre Project stage as one would expect.  But with subtle gestures, they either help Eli to stand up or prod him to move a chair—almost metaphorically trying to assist him on his path towards happiness.

Eli is often seen as an unlikable character whose journey is fraught with danger, sadness and disappointment.  But as the play progresses and his hardships exposed, empathy for him gains traction.
This is not a feel-good story in that it poignantly examines gay teen angst.  Talbott does sprinkle in some humor and jokes, however, to lighten the mood a tad.  But Slipping is a sturdy drama, directed and performed with sure-footed skill.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: This play contains full nudity and profanity and is not recommended for children.

Slipping runs through April 13 at the Theatre Project, 45 East Preston St. in Baltimore.  For tickets, visit Iron Crow Theatre online or call 443-637-CROW (2769).