Monday, May 27, 2013

Words Do Matter in 'The Submission' at Olney

Ari Butler (Pete), Craig Dolezel (Trevor), Lellee Knighten Hough (Emilie)
and Frank DeJulio (Danny) Photo: Stan Barough
Historically there have been tensions between African-Americans and white gay folks that are rooted in race, privilege, and victimization.  Such conflicts emerged during the debates surrounding same-sex marriage when some of the skirmishes centered on the term “civil rights”.  
Although not related to marriage equality, these strains are ignited in The Submission, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Lab.  The venue is smaller than Olney’s Main Stage and, therefore, provides an intimate, personal view of intense conflict with humorous dialogue interspersed especially in the first part.

Jeff Talbott flexed his writing muscles in The Submission that throws political correctness out the window in a provocative, daring, fast-paced play. Director David Elliott deftly allows the four-member ensemble to perform with both intensity and restraint among a cornucopia of emotions contained in Talbott’s script.
Frank DeJulio plays Danny Larson, a white gay man and a graduate from an unnamed university in New Haven, Conn.   He has been distressed that none of his previous four plays have ever been picked up.  But it seems that his latest work about a poor black family trying to escape the projects just might be his ticket to early retirement.  The problem is, as a white middle-class male, he knows he cannot instill credibility in the play because of his disconnect between himself and the subject matter, so he devises a plan—one that the audience knows has zero chance of success with disaster on the horizon.

Danny submits the play under an “African-sounding” female penname (Shaleeha G’ntamobi to be exact) to the career-launching Humana Festival in Louisville.  When shockingly the play is accepted for production, he hires an African-American actress, Emilie, played by Kellee Knighten Hough to stand in for him at the crucial festival.
Suspicious from the start, Emilie accepts the odd assignment mainly because she loves the play and can use the portion of the profits from the production.  Ultimately she loves the attention, too.   But she cannot understand how a man of Danny’s race could describe so accurately the black experience.

What starts out as two people wary of each other but finding this arrangement to be mutually beneficial, it soon devolves into a bitter, combustible war of words laced with f-bombs and worse.  Emilie doesn’t buy into the idea that Danny’s experience as a gay man can equate to that of a black woman, which becomes the core of the conflict.  With that as the heat, incendiary racial and homophobic epithets become the fuel. 
Emilie presents herself as an intelligent, tough young woman who is well-aware and protective of her culture.  Danny seems too self-absorbed to be fully likeable but can elicit some degree of sympathy from his previous failures. Neither one ostensibly appears to be a racist or a homophobe, but in the heat of verbal combat, they turn into just that.  Words do matter.

Photo: Stan Barough
Danny’s straight, even-keeled friend from college, Trevor, played by Craig Dolezel, becomes Emilie’s lover.  He has the unenviable task of attempting to mediate between two people for whom he deeply cares.  One flaw is that Dolezel’s Trevor and Hough’s Emilie lack the chemistry and warmth to be credible as lovers. 
Until the climactic end, Danny gets support from his more affluent partner Pete, played by Ari Butler.  Pete injects some humor into the drama and had his big moment during a surprising temper tantrum near the end that targets “theatre people”.
As supporting actors in the ensemble, Dolezel and Butler, performed well in their roles.  DeJulio is superb, embracing a full range of emotions that was a joy to observe. 

Hough is also magnificent.  She and DeJulio played off each other brilliantly with passion and force —each vehemently defending their own turf with neither willing to yield the last word. 

Emilie is a sturdy character, but even her apparent strength is compromised by her knee-jerk homophobic reactions during the fiery exchanges that nearly cause them to come to blows in the next to last scene.  And Danny’s racist comments are ironic in that his play about black poverty and dreams for a better life so impressed his adversary.
Scenic and Costume Designer Bill Clark crafted a stellar set with two art deco-style walls on both sides of the intimate, compact stage with colorful rectangular panels.  These panels are cleverly used in scene changes whereby a coffee shop sign would be shown in one and then it would flip to a painting to signify Danny and Pete’s apartment.  Pullout-beds augment the apartment and hotel scenes while two small upholstered benches are used to bisect the stage in half.

Scene changes were also marked by Max Krembs’ rock guitar soundtrack, which was a bit loud, and Chris Dallos’ lighting effects.
Talbott’s The Submission is pure dynamite in more ways than one.  It raises lots of issues, such as competing claims of victimhood and that prejudice may dwell at some level in all of us.  He questions whether a playwright or author needs to have the same racial, ethnic or sexual background as the characters to write about them honestly. 

Fortunately, those are not answered in this play.  But it brings these issues to the surface so that the audience can contemplate them and have those conversations after the performance.  With solid directing, acting, staging and a good thought-provoking script, The Submission is highly recommended.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: The Submission contains adult subject matter and a considerable amount of profanity and is not recommended for children.
The Submission plays through June 9 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD. For tickets and information call 301-924-3400 or visit online .

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Scouts' (Dis)honor

Some issues are simply too thorny to resolve, especially when both sides of the ledger are entrenched in their positions.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to reach common ground.  While they seem desirable on the surface, compromises don’t always work.  
One example that stands out is the now defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that President Clinton was forced to accept if he wanted gay and lesbian individuals to be able to legally serve in the military.  Neither advocates for gay service members nor anti-gay opponents in the military and Congress were satisfied with the deal.  It was a total flop.

Now we have another so-called compromise from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) which once again satisfies few and disappoints many—from both sides.
On May 23, BSA by an historic vote of 61 percent of the national delegates removed the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation.  But left in place was the organization’s membership policy for all adult leaders of the BSA, which means gay adult scout leaders are still banned. 

This created a situation where a gay youth could become a scout and then be forced to resign when he reaches age 18.  The message is mixed: you’re OK if you’re a gay kid, but not so when you become an adult.  Gay parents of scouts would be barred from being leaders in the organization.
Understandably, the anticipated decision not to end the ban on gay adult leaders elicited significant reactions in the LGBT community. 

PFLAG National perhaps said it best in a statement: “Inclusion, by its very nature, cannot be selective: either you are a welcoming organization or you are not. In going halfway with this policy, the BSA suggests that their members are only capable of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous and kind until their 18th birthdays. Once taught, do these traits diminish or disappear once a child comes of age? Shouldn’t being a scout serve as the best training to then lead other scouts in the future? And for same-sex parents who want to participate as leaders in their children’s troops, should the message be that their commitment to their child’s scouting activities is suspect?”
What I find appalling about the policy is the continuation of the stereotype that adult gay men are predatory and must be kept away from children. The unstated implication is that gay men have the desire to prey on minors or even recruit them to play on the gay team.  That is purely inaccurate, discriminatory and inflammatory nonsense.

The same fiction was used by opponents of President Clinton’s initial attempt to stop the ban of gays and lesbians in the military.  Remember how they instilled fear in members of Congress with the “shower” scenario?  “How can there be unit cohesion and effectiveness if openly gay soldiers took showers with their straight comrades?  How can they sleep in the same barracks?”  As we know, this fear-mongering proved to be total bunk.  The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has not caused problems within the military.
That gay men should not be allowed to be around children is preposterous.  Incidences of sexual abuse of minors are mostly perpetrated by straight individuals like relatives, clergy and even former college football coaches. 

In our society, children are around adults—gay and straight—all the time.  They are teachers, school bus drivers, pediatricians, police officers, barbers, soccer coaches—you name it.  While many of the homophobes object to openly gay adults being around kids, life goes on anyway with nary a problem.
BSA should be no different.  But religious organizations like the Mormon Church, which has a big footprint on the BSA, employs the same tired arguments and stereotyping that were frequently heard during the efforts to achieve marriage equality.  The policy that bans gay adult leaders caters to that church and other right wing religious institutions and does not make things right.

Though gay kids will now be allowed in the Scouts, the continued discrimination against gay adults would send the wrong and confusing and precarious message to the millions of young scouts—straight or gay.
“The decision to lift the ban is the first time the organization has welcomed openly gay youth — an important step in the right direction,” Ted Martin, Executive Director of Equality Pennsylvania acknowledged in a statement.  “But the Boy Scouts of America still has a long way to go before it will regain the trust of its donors, members, and the American people, a majority of which think this ban must end not only for kids, but for adults too.  Maintaining the ban on gay adults sends a dangerous message to young people that gay adults, like their friends' parents or even their teachers, can't be trusted.  By banning gay parents, the Boy Scouts are giving credence to long-debunked myths and stereotypes that promote fear, misunderstanding, discrimination, and hate.”

Eventually this policy will change.  But for now, this is just another failed attempt at compromise while BSA basically compromised itself.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reaching the Heights at Toby's

The ensemble for In The Heights at Toby's Columbia
QuĂ© espectáculo! There are 96,000 reasons to love In The Heights now playing at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre in Columbia through July 21.  But space constraints permit me to go over just a few.  Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey ably co-directed this production and took it to new heights with outstanding orchestration, a talented likeable cast, and a superb set.
Lin-Manuel Miranda composed the music and lyrics, and Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book for the four-time 2008 Tony Award-winning show, which captured Best Musical among the statues.  It also won a Grammy for Best Musical Album.  Miranda wrote the first draft in 1999 as a sophomore in college, and it was an ongoing project until it moved to Broadway.

The action takes place in the gritty, largely Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge during a typically sultry three-day period surrounding July 4.  Each character has his or her story, but they are all connected in some fashion.  A youthful, vibrant ensemble added spice to this rich mixture of contemporary urban hip-hop, Latin rhythms, family drama, economic hard times, community, love, devotion, expectations, dreams realized and those not fulfilled. 

The setting is realistically amplified by the creative design work by David A. Hopkins.  Placing a series of three dimensional panels depicting New York’s skylines around the upper walls of the theater, it allows Lighting Director Lynn Joslin to illuminate a silhouetted sky to coincide with the time of the day—a wonderful effect.  So detailed is Hopkins that he even had chewing gum stuck to the neighborhood’s light posts.
In the Heights contains many high points in the way of individual musical performances, either as solos or duets.  The main performers along with the rest of the ensemble also burnished their talents in the stirring high-energy production numbers like “96,000,” “Blackout,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” 

The ensemble sang and danced with dazzling energy to the music that in some instances contained a mix of Spanish and English lyrics.  However, the songs were composed in a way that one didn’t have to know Spanish to understand their messages.  While some of the numbers are not necessarily melodious, they are all solid because of the powerful and affecting lyrics as well as the amazing vocals by the cast members. 
Numbers, such as “In The Heights,” “Breathe,” “Inutil,” “No Me Diga,” “Paciencia Y Fe,”  “When You’re Home,” “Sunrise,” and “Everything I Know” stood out.  Most of the high tempo songs (and the better ones) are performed in the first act while more ballads can be heard in the second—a distinct change in mood.

Christen Svingos’ choreography presented solid, realistic urban Latino dancing to the thumping beats supplied by the magnificent orchestra led by Cedric D. Lyles.

David Gregory is remarkable in the role of Usnavi, a Dominican-born owner of a small bodega (corner store)  who is a central character throughout.  His passion and hopes are conveyed with great skill.  Most of his dialogue and songs are performed in rap, and he is quite proficient at it.
Crystal Freeman is moving as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who practically raised Usnavi after his parents died.  She is the neighborhood’s loveable matriarch, the moral anchor.  Her stellar voice is evident in the tender “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Nadia Harika who plays Vanessa, Unvavi’s love interest, also possesses a glorious singing voice. Her performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now” shined.
Also spectacular with her vocals is Alyssa V. Gomez as Nina.  She was the one member of the “barrio” (neighborhood) who went off to college (Stanford University) on a scholarship only to fail in her first year, deeply disappointing her parents. Her rendition of “Breathe” is memorable, and fortunately she performed in a few other selections.

Nina’s father, the overprotective Kevin and owner of the local taxicab business played by David Bosley-Reynolds, is sturdy in both acting and singing.  He brought his commanding baritone voice that audiences loved as Tevye in Toby’s recent presentation of Fiddler On The Roof  to this production, especially in his emotional solo “Inutil (Useless).”
The always reliable and talented Tina Marie DeSimone is wonderful as Nina’s strong-willed mother Camilla. Skillful in her acting, she shined in her powerful rendition of “Enough.”

Another standout is Marquise White as Benny, who is in love with Nina and an employee of Kevin’s taxi service and is the only non-Hispanic character.  Also possessing strong acting and musical ability, Mr. White was particularly effective in the duets “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down” with Ms. Gomez.
Santina Maiolatesi as Daniela, the chatty owner of a beauty salon, was effective in that role and also demonstrated her vocal prowess in “No Me Diga.”  Her employee, Carla, was played well by Olivia Ashley Reed.

Then there is Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who works with him at the bodega.  Played fabulously by Ryan Alvarado, the character provided most of the comedic moments in the show.  Mr. Alvarado’s timing and stage movements excelled.
Rounding out the sterling cast is Tobias Young, another strong vocalist, as the Piragua Guy and Calvin McCullough as Graffiti Pete.

This production of In The Heights at Toby’s soared thanks to the amazing work in all the theatrical elements as well as the efforts from an enthusiastic, youthful and talented ensemble.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

In the Heights runs through July 21 at The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311, 1-800-88TOBYS or onlinehocoblogs@@@

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Senseless Loss of Dennis Lane

With Dennis (l.) and Paul Skalny (r.)  on his podcast in 2011
I was devastated by the shocking news of the murder of a great guy Dennis Lane. I was honored to have been a guest on his excellent podcast "And Then There's That," and he made me feel so welcome and comfortable while asking probing questions about the progress of marriage equality in Maryland. 

Dennis cared deeply about the citizens in Howard County and those of Maryland. This is a tragic loss and Dennis will surely be missed by so many. 

My heart goes out to all the people who loved Dennis and were touched by his affability, intelligence and class.

R.I.P Dennis

Thursday, May 09, 2013

An Eyewitness to 10 Years of History

The debut article in Baltimore OUTloud
One of the blessings of writing a regular column for Baltimore OUTloud over the past ten years has been the opportunity to witness and report on the myriad events—good and bad—that shaped the continuing progress of LGBT rights.  It has been an eye-opening ride, and I am happy to have chronicled the movement over the years, having missed only three issues during that time.
Of course, I had been writing for Gay Life and before that, the Baltimore Gay Paper, for two decades prior to OUTloud’s debut.  So providing commentary about political and social issues was not new to me. 

Ironically, my first column in the May 16, 2003 issue of Baltimore OUTloud did not discuss an LGBT-specific topic.   Instead, the column titled “Tale of Two Cities” pointed out the economic dysfunction that was taking place in Annapolis and the war-torn morass that was just beginning in Baghdad.  Here, I was surprisingly prophetic; I correctly predicted just two months into the initial attack on Iraq that the conflict would eventually devolve into a quagmire with enormous casualties.
The next installment changed gears dramatically as I opined that the defeat of Clay Aiken in the finale of Season 2 of American Idol was caused in part by his mannerisms and appearance that may have been perceived by the public as his being gay.  That stereotyping probably turned off numerous people who voted instead for the less vocally gifted Ruben Studdard.  For his part, Aiken denied being gay and remained in the closet until just a few years ago.

The “OUTspoken” moniker didn’t occur until the April 1, 2005 issue.  That article, “Come Out and Play Ball,” presented reasons why it would be advantageous for a gay baseball player to come out amidst the steroid scandal that was besetting the sport.  I was proud that piece found its way onto—a site that relates LGBT issues to the world of sports at all levels.
Through the years, covering several hundred editions of the paper, I focused on political matters pertaining to our community both nationally and locally.  The presidential elections of 2004, 2008 and 2012 were illustrative of the challenges we faced and how, as time passed, attitudes towards LGBT folks have shifted. 

We saw the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and the predictable backlash that was a key component of the 2004 election.  We also witnessed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” arguably the greatest achievement thus far for LGBT equality at the federal level.
The climate for gays in Maryland was dim but improving.  The gubernatorial elections of 2006 and 2010 saw Governor Martin O’Malley defeat the not-so-gay-friendly Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.  In 2012 O’Malley was able to come to terms with his religious beliefs and enthusiastically backed marriage for same-sex couples.  Following previous failures in the legislature this development, along with other factors, led to the historic victory of marriage equality in the General Assembly and at the ballot box, which was unprecedented.

While political roads were traveled frequently in my column during this 10-year period, numerous other issues were explored.  Among them were the plight of LGBT homelessness, the impact of our youth on future achievements, hate crimes, homophobia and race, the meaning of Pride (an annual staple), the dangers of political apathy, strategizing to win over the persuadable political center, transgender discrimination and violence, how the legalization of same-sex marriage would benefit all LGBT folks regardless of their relationship status, the challenges of gays in sports, trashing opponents of LGBT rights, and a number of columns devoted to the influence of our culture, especially television, on our community.
My greatest thrill in writing over this period was being stationed just a few feet from Governor O’Malley’s historic signing of the bill that legalized same-sex marriage for Marylanders and the ensuing raucous celebration.  With his stroke of the pen (and the eventual victory on Election Day) the lives of gay and lesbian families in Maryland were profoundly changed and there existed the sense that all of us—married or not—are no longer considered second class citizens in the eyes of the law.  Following that was the joy of covering the first same-sex marriages that took place in Baltimore’s City Hall on New Year’s Eve.

While I can pat myself on the back for making some predictions that were ultimately correct and being afforded the opportunity to cover significant milestones in the LGBT rights movement, I must also slap myself on the wrist for failing to bring to light other matters involving our community.
In an effort to be positive, I overlooked information I received pertaining to several local LGBT organizations that included mismanagement and the lack of transparency.  Despite the column header “OUTspoken,” in these matters, I confess I had been anything but.  When one is in journalism, there is a responsibility to enlighten readers as to any defects that may exist within those institutions to which community members provide donations.

Journalists who offer their opinions are duty bound to demand accountability from these organizations and not be concerned that their officials will lash out and blame the messenger for their own failures. 
Again, in trying to be positive, I fell into the trap of letting things slide, looking the other way, or not doing due diligence in investigating specific charges in order to avoid being accused of trying to destroy these organizations.  That was never a goal; rather it would simply be to expose these weaknesses and allow the community to demand better results.  Who could argue with that?

During the next 10 years, I hope to improve upon that record and truly be “OUTspoken.”