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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The GLCCB’s ‘Renaissance’ on Display

Only six months ago, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) was clearly at the nadir of the organization’s 38-year existence.  The Center’s officials were still reeling from a town hall meeting in July when they endured testy questions from angry members of the community on a range of grievances from not returning phone calls to a lack of transparency to accusations that minorities are not welcome.  The shift in June of the annual GLCCB-run Pride celebration to a new locale was unpopular, which didn’t help the mood.

Earlier in February, the GLCCB had moved to its new headquarters in the city-owned Waxter Center after a controversial sale of its longstanding grayish white four-story edifice on Chase Street that was in dire need of renovations and repairs.  However, the lease prohibited the GLCCB from making any cosmetic improvements to its new third floor suite at the Waxter Center.  The water was not potable; plumbing fixtures were not operational; and other deficiencies rendered the space unsuitable for an “open house” event that would allow the community members to see it as a new beginning for the GLCCB.
Far more grave was the financial situation.  Debt was accumulating from past years’ difficulties.  Income was slow to come in—less than needed to meet salaries and operating expenses.  Complicating that was the diminishing of the GLCCB brand that was partly caused by the Pride snafu.  Naysayers repeatedly characterized the Center as being in a state of “turmoil”.

Instability on the Board of Directors contributed to the increasing PR damage.  Members came and left with such frequency that one’s head would spin.  In 2014 alone the GLCCB had three executive directors—the latest of whom is Joel Tinsley-Hall who continues to hold down the fort after his appointment last October.  An amiable and soft-spoken fellow, Tinsley-Hall became the first African-American to hold that post at the GLCCB.

Around a hundred people with over half being people of color and/or women showed up to welcome back the Center—something that the relentless critics would not have predicted.

“Back in October when I was entrusted by the Board with being the executive director of the GLCCB I sensed not only among those closely connected with the Center but also in the community as a whole, a feeling that it would not be long before we became insolvent and would close the door on our long history,” he told me.

Undaunted, Tinsley-Hall reached out to other organizations and individuals in an effort to partner with them on a variety of programs that form the core of the Center’s mission.  He met with a diverse group of folks with the goal of alleviating concerns, repairing damage and restoring confidence in the GLCCB.  
A new era of transparency with support from the Board emerged, which began when Kelly Neel was interim executive director prior to the hiring of Tinsley-Hall.  The Center’s bylaws, board applications and financial statements are posted on glccb.org.  Also, monthly board meetings have been open to the public.  (It’s curious that similar demands for transparency are not made to other LGBT organizations that accept donations from the community.)

Soon after Tinsley-Hall arrived on the scene, a significant turning point occurred.  Paul Liller, a familiar face in the community and a former Pride coordinator, returned to the Center to once again perform that function.  This is a crucial development as revenues from Pride constitute the largest source of income for the Center. 
A highly motivated dynamo, Liller almost instantly garnered sponsorships for Pride, brought the celebrations back to its previous locales to the delight of community members and businesses, and has set up highly visible events and fundraisers to promote the big weekend of July 25-26.  He has since been hired to be the Center’s development coordinator in addition to his Pride-related duties.

Receiving two grants—from Brother Help Thyself and Gilead (a drug company that produces Truvada for the PrEP regimen designed to combat HIV) didn’t hurt either.  “The grant has allowed me to hire another staff person, and produce more programming for the Center,” explains Tinsley-Hall.

Ribbon cutting at the grand reopening on April 14, 2015
The GLCCB finally persuaded the city to allow at least some painting to take place on the walls of the new space.  That and a volunteer-powered clean-up allowed the Center to hold what was termed a “Grand Reopening” that took place on April 14.  
Around a hundred people with over half being people of color and/or women showed up to welcome back the Center—something that the relentless critics would not have predicted.  The guests were feted to food, wine, a DJ, drag performances and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  Those attending the free event also included a “who’s who” of local LGBT leaders, signifying the potential for cooperative efforts with the GLCCB.

“With these 100 people in attendance at our recent Grand Reopening I stated that the Center is going through a ‘renaissance’.  I would challenge anyone to recall the last time that many people were seen at the Center,” Tinsley-Hall said.  “The diversity seen in the crowd was also notable.  Various races, genders, socioeconomic statuses were represented, and I was very proud to stand before the community with my husband and daughter.  Our community is so diverse and that must be highlighted and appreciated.”
He credits this new spirit at the GLCCB to having a permanent, full-time executive director, an active Board of Directors with many new faces, new staff members and extraordinary volunteers.  “All of these people are bringing renewed passion, excitement and dedication to the Center and to the needs of our community.”

Gay Life, the monthly magazine published by the GLCCB under the deft guiding hand of editor Daniel McEvily, is more “cheerful, bright and gay,” as Gilbert O’Sullivan would sing.
Yet, Tinsley-Hall cautions that they are far from being out of the woods. “We still have many financial needs and many opportunities to expand services as needed to our community,” he says, “but we are definitely better off today than six months ago.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Dark but Tuneful ‘Carousel’ at Olney

Similar to other Rogers and Hammerstein musical classics, Carousel, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center’s Main Stage, offers memorable music combined with a serious theme that hovers over the production like a gray cloud.  The Sound of Music, The King and I and South Pacific are prominent examples of their work that interweaves sobering social, political and economic issues of the day including paths to redemption with their fine scores.   #hocoarts

Tally Sessions as Billy Bigelow and Carey Rebecca Brown as Julie Jordan. 
Photo: Stan Barouh
With Carousel, the 1945 musical and the second effort for Rogers and Hammerstein since their immensely successful Oklahoma, the plot line involves a slew of bad choices, domestic violence, unspoken love, crime and suicide.  But the blatant sexism laced throughout, which may have been acceptable 70 years ago, would also have been a major point of controversy had the show been launched in the modern era.
Olney’s artistic director Jason Loewith helmed the production, which he said was personal since the first time he heard “Soliloquy”—an emotional aria about impending fatherhood sung by the central figure in the show, Billy Bigelow—he had always wanted to direct Carousel.
Carousel is not one of my favorite musicals in the way the plot’s darkness and sporadic humor is structured.  Nonetheless, Mr. Loewith assembled a talented cast that duly does the show justice especially in the performance of Carousel’s top tier songs: “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Soliloquy,” and one of the best songs of all time, the spiritual “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Ably supporting the superb vocalists is Christopher Youstra who leads the 12-piece orchestra, the largest in Olney’s history.  They sit high above on a platform atop of a symbolic carousel (sans animals) on stage left, which forms the focus of the set designed by Milagros Ponce De León.
Adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, Richard Rogers who composed the music and Oscar Hammerstein II who wrote the book and lyrics, Carousel is set on the New England coast in 1900.  The main character is the anti-hero carousel barker Billy Bigelow (played energetically by Telly Sessions) whose romance with millworker Julie Jordan (Carey Rebecca Brown) comes at the price of both their jobs.

Where Billy is boorish, hot-tempered, and violent, Julie is gentle, sweet and sentimental. She is keenly aware of Billy’s previous dalliances, which are an outgrowth of his seducing women to buy a ride on the carousel.  Neither can directly manage to express their love for each other but deep down they do. And despite Billy’s hitting her—an incident that haunted him but never apologized for even AFTER he died—she chose to stay with him.  
To help support their unborn child, Billy is coerced by another unlikeable chap, Jigger Craigin (Chris Genebach), to attempt a robbery.  It fails.  Jigger abandons Billy during the ensuing chaos, and rather than facing prison, Billy chose to commit suicide—the last of a series of bad choices—leaving Julie and their eventual daughter Louise (Maya Brettell) to carry on. 

As the plot moves “up there” following Billy’s death, he is given a chance by the Starkeeper at redemption to help his sullen, lonely now 15 year-old daughter who is tormented by her peers because of her father’s past.  Even then, invisible, he messes things up by slapping her hand though she mysteriously felt it was like a kiss. 

But Billy persuades the Starkeeper to give him one last chance. Unseen, Billy watches Louise and her high school graduation. Spiritually, he reaches out to his daughter urging her to believe in herself, and he is filled with pride as he watches Louise gain confidence. Turning to Julie, Billy says simply, “I loved you, Julie. Know that I loved you.”

A secondary plot line deals with millworker and friend of Julie, Carrie Pipperidge (Dorea Schmidt), and her romance with ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Eugenio Vargas) who has big plans for a large family and a huge sardine plant that provided most of the humor in this otherwise somber tale.
Though the plot is rather weird, the potent score and the performances rendered by the cast make attending the show worthwhile.  Mr. Sessions is convincing in making Billy difficult to root for though somehow you try.  Bursts of temper with threats of impending physical violence punctuate his role.  This is not your Ralph Kramden’s “You’re gonna go to the moon, Alice” bravado.  Billy’s threats seem real and scary.

An athletic-looking figure with a commanding voice, Mr. Sessions possesses the physical attributes to convincingly portray Billy’s intimidating persona.  He demonstrates strong range in his vocals hitting the toughest of notes but tamps down his muscular voice enough in the duet with Ms. Brown in the classic romantic number “If I Loved You” whereby the couple’s voices meld splendidly.  Mr. Sessions is strong in the emotional seven-minute long “Soliloquy” near the end of Act I and “The Highest Judge of All” in Act II.
Ms. Brown as Julie acquits herself very well in the duet with Mr. Sessions as well as in the introspective song “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” in which she rationalizes her staying with Billy despite his abusive behavior.

Excellent vocals are provided by Ms. Schmidt as Julie’s friend Carrie especially in “Mister Snow.”  Her chemistry with Eugenio Vargas as Enoch Snow during Carousel’s lighter moments shines.
Another iconic number, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” sung by Delores King Williams as Julie’s cousin Nettie, Ms. Schmidt and the chorus is performed exceptionally and is one of the Carousel’s few high-tempo songs in the ballad-heavy score.

However, the highlight of the show is Ms. Williams’ rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  Her pitch-perfect operatic voice will send chills down your spine upon hearing it.  Bravo for that performance!
Eileen Ward as Mrs. Mullin, the widowed owner of the amusement park and a woman who had designs on Billy even while he was married performs well as does Chris Genebach in the dual role of the Policeman and the iniquitous Jigger who exploits Billy’s weaknesses.
The remainder of the company performs excellently under Mr. Loewith’s direction.  Tommy Rapley’s choreography is smooth and stylish, and the rather lengthy emotional ballet duet with Ms. Brettell and J. Morgan White, playing the role of Carnival Boy, was in sync and beautifully executed.

Costume Designer Seth Gilbert does a wonderful job in fitting the cast in period garb, especially the Victorian-style dresses worn by the women. 
Besides the carousel on the stage, Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce De León added a large circular clock at the rear, a rounded arch surrounding the stage and a projection screen to denote in hazy, misty images, the New England seaside setting. 

The one major flaw in the production was the sound.  Some performers noticeably lost their mics’ audio, and there appeared to be some dead spots on the stage causing the sound to be uneven.  Hopefully, these problems will be remedied for future performances.
Carousel is not an uplifting musical compared to other Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works.  But it is well performed and between that and the music, it’s worth a ride.

Running time: Approximately Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: Carousel contains adult themes and is not suitable for children under 12.

Carousel runs through May 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 301-924-2654 or visiting online.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are We Finally Achieving 'Gay Power'?

In the late ‘60’s, around Stonewall, there was a mantra during what was called the homophile or gay rights movement that was inspired by the black militants during the civil rights movement calling for “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful.”  Homosexuals (the term used then) adopted it and began naming their efforts “Gay Power” or “Gay is Good.”

“Gay Power” was a common chant during and after Stonewall and became a rallying cry for the fledgling movement.  In reality, gays weren’t seeking power per se but an end to injustices while desiring tolerance and in many instances, survival.  Rather than attempting to exert power over straight folks, gays and lesbians were more concerned with the post-war purging of gay soldiers from the military, the threats of exposure that put people’s jobs and homes at risk, police intimidation, violence and many other maladies.
As the decades passed by with victories and defeats marking the timeline in a one step forward, one step back cadence, there was no true gay power.  This is despite right wing blogs who speak of the “gay mafia” as if there is a band of gays in rainbow-colored trench coats and submachine guns going around intimidating straights—those pitiable oppressed heterosexuals. 

They say the radical homosexual agenda is out to destroy Christianity—the largest religion in the world—ignoring the fact that an overwhelming proportion of LGBT folks are Christian.  As a recent example, Erick Ericson, the editor-in-chief of RedState.com, a right wing blog, characterizes the gay rights movement as “totalitarian” when it comes to religion.
With momentum building for a nationwide ruling by the Supreme Court in June that will likely strike down state bans to same-sex marriage and the myriad Federal court cases that have ruled against those bans already, as well as burgeoning public support for marriage equality across every demographic,  one can see a turn in the so-called culture war.

Anticipating this “gaymageddon” on the horizon, social conservatives (bigots) have been putting in place laws to protect the religious liberties of individuals who don’t like the idea of same-sex couples getting married because in their belief systems it goes against God.
However, “gay power” began to creep back into the lexicon for the first time in over four decades. The recent enactment of religious protection laws from Indiana and Arkansas thinly disguised as assurances for businesses that they don’t have to deal with LGBT individuals based on “religious beliefs” indeed brought on “gaymageddon” and not just with LGBT folks—mafia or not.

The uproar over these laws was so deafening that both Republican-led states had to mend the law so as not to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Where the “power” entered the fray was not just us LGBT folks who were savvy of the original intent.  It came from an unprecedented number of businesses, organizations, corporations and celebrities.  As a result, the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal, according to Time, laid the groundwork months ago in Indiana to forge a redoubtable coalition to fight the law by the time it passed the legislature.
Clearly we can understand that Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of tech giant Apple, would protest the measure.  But other groups, such as Indiana-based Angie’s List, and the NCAA where the marquee college basketball tournament was about to take place, joined the chorus.  Even the four coaches of the Final Four men’s teams added support and two of those teams were from the South!

Others included Nike, Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, American Airlines, Levi Strauss and Company, Gap, PayPal, Twitter and more.  In all, over 100 tech companies called for nationwide non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 
The governors of New York and Connecticut threatened to ban travel by state employees to Indiana.  However, Republican newbie Governor Hogan of Maryland dismissed an effort by state Senator Rich Madaleno to follow suit as a “political stunt.”

But get this: middle America behemoth Wal-Mart protested the law and NASCAR did as well.  If one can get NASCAR—not exactly a liberal institution (certainly not their fans)—to jump in for gay rights, well what would you call it if not “gay power”?
Greg Ballard, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis as well as former Indy mayors, slammed the law.  The Indianapolis Star featured a rare front-page editorial. “FIX THIS NOW,” the headline screamed in World War III font.  “Indiana is in a state of crisis,” the editors warned the governor. “It is worse than you seem to understand.”

While these businesses and corporations understand that discrimination will hurt the bottom line, the American public is also on board.  According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on April 9, there was “solid opposition to allowing businesses to refuse services or refuse to hire people or groups based on religious beliefs. Fifty-four percent said it was wrong for businesses to refuse services, while 28 percent said they should have that right. And 55 percent said businesses should not have the right to refuse to hire certain people or groups based on the employer’s religious beliefs, while 27 percent said businesses should have the right.”
With expected backlash from the Supreme Court ruling this summer and other last-ditch efforts to stem LGBT equality momentum, there is much more work to do.  Most of the states do not have non-discrimination laws and a Federal law continues to languish in Congress.  You can marry one afternoon and be fired the next morning.

We should use this new gay power surge to fix this and use it at the ballot box.  We may not have achieved “gay power” in the literal sense, but you know you’re on the right track when Newt Gingrich calls us a “lynch mob.”

Friday, April 10, 2015

Heartwarming 4000 Miles at Center Stage

Four thousand miles may seem like nothing in our connected world.  It’s huge, however, when you’re on a bicycle trip for that distance, and it could be a chasm that wide when people from different generations are brought together.  4000 Miles, which is part of the Amy Herzog Festival along with After the Revolution playing at Center Stage’s Head Theater, attempts to close that chasm. #hocoarts
Inspired by her own grandmother who lived to 96, Herzog’s 4000 Miles portrays in realistic terms what happens when an elderly woman Vera, a leftist, who was a character a decade earlier in After the Revolution, receives an unexpected visit from her scruffy, smelly 21 year-old grandson Leo, an ecological-minded neo-hippie, who drops in at 3 a.m. at her Greenwich Village apartment.

Coming off a cross-country bike trip that was ruined by a tragic accident, Leo and Vera get together as the story unfolds.  Leo visited her ostensibly because of her elderly status and because he hadn’t seen her since her deceased husband’s funeral.  If he couldn’t stay with her, Leo was prepared to pitch his tent somewhere in Manhattan.  But you know that wasn’t going to happen.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.