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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Prideful First for Howard County

LGBTQ Pride festival set for June 29 at Centennial Park

“This year we will finally celebrate Pride right here in Howard County,” states Howard County Executive Calvin Ball who along with the Howard County chapter of PFLAG is co-hosting the historic event.

After a year of planning by members of the local community with support from several key sexual and gender minority advocacy organizations along with an affirming and inclusive county government, the dream of holding the first ever LGBTQ Pride Celebration in Howard County is about to become a reality.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the famous Stonewall uprising, HoCo Pride, as it is known, will take place on Saturday, June 29.  The festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Centennial Park, 10000 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, MD 21042.

Historians have credited the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City—a spontaneous violent backlash at the Stonewall Inn against persistent police harassment of gays (the umbrella term used then for what is now the LGBTQ+ community)—as the launching pad for the gay liberation movement.  Beginning in 1970 in New York City, Pride parades and festivals had sprung up in cities and towns all over the world to commemorate Stonewall.

Indeed, planners of the inaugural event in Howard County have embraced its historical significance in the motto “Remember/Resist/Rejoice.”

Says County Executive Ball, “At the 2019 Pride Festival, we will Remember those who fought for justice. We will Resist those who would turn back the clock on equal rights, and we will Rejoice because of the LGBTQ+ love we have in our community.”

This motto will manifested at HoCo Pride with an interactive Historical Art Wall consisting of a four-panel display, according to Alisha Tronetti, the display’s coordinator.  Three of the four panels will depict past events that are significant to the LGBTQ+ community, which have occurred in the U.S and in Maryland.

“There will be space for attendees to add their own history into the wall (i.e. when they got married,
The Stonewall Inn, New York City, 1969
when they came out, when they adopted/had a kid, etc.),” says Tronetti. “This will be the Remember and Rejoice section that reflects both the good and the bad that has happened to our community. The fourth panel will be the Resist panel, where attendees will add where we think we need to go still, and what we still need to do to fight for our equality.”

In addition, a memorial recognizing those transgender individuals who had been murdered since last June is planned. It will be situated near the Historical Art Wall.

There is a sizeable LGBTQ+ population in Howard County, and over four decades ago it became one of the first jurisdictions in the state to enact protections based on sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.  In 2011 the county added similar protections based on gender identity.  #hococommunity

Noting the diversity and the numerous accomplishments for LGBT individuals in Howard County, leaders believed the time was right to celebrate Pride.

“Howard County [is] such a population center for the state but we don’t have an event to highlight the diversity we supposedly treasure here,” Jumel Howard, chairperson of the HoCo Pride Planning Committee and vice president of the Howard County PFLAG chapter told the Baltimore Sun  last June while the planning for HoCo Pride was in its nascent stages. “This is a great way to not just show how much we care for the LGBT community [but] to educate the community on some of the issues that affect the LGBT community.”

The festival, which is free to the public, will feature food, games, entertainment, speakers, art, and community-based vendors, at this family-friendly event. There will be Family Pride spaces and Elder Pride spaces set aside from which to enjoy the festivities. 

Family is a point of emphasis for the organizers, and accordingly, alcoholic beverages will not be available.

“I want HoCo’s first Pride to help foster a new sense of family in Howard County’s diverse LGBTQ+ community and celebrate the tremendous progress we’ve made–both inside and outside of our home,” explains Howard.

Entertainment, a hallmark of virtually all Pride celebrations, promises to be a fun-filled attraction at HoCo Pride’s debut.

“We have many entertainers being featured at Pride, and some fantastic speakers as well,” according to Chris Hefty, HoCo Pride Sponsorship and Fundraising Coordinator.  “It’s a great line-up and we even have the School of Rock booked.”

The HoCo Pride website provides information on how you may donate monetarily to this event as well as to volunteer.  Areas where people may help out include parking attendants, event tabling, event set-up crew members, and clean-up crew among other functions.

The HoCo Pride Store has handmade rainbow jewelry and a beautiful Pride flag scarf that are all original designs and creations made by Chris Hefty. “All the sales benefit HoCo Pride to ensure our historic event will be a huge success,” he says.   Visit the Store  for more information.

Sponsorship applications can be found here and vendor applications are here

For more information and to find out the latest developments, LIKE the HoCo Pride Facebook Page , follow on Twitter @hocopride or Instagram @hocopride.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Why Not, for Pete's Sake

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announces historic candidacy for President.

Pete Buttigieg officially announcing his candidacy on April 14
“The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing, all-consuming. But starting today, we are going to change the channel. Sometimes a dark moment brings out the best in us, what is good in us, dare I say, what is great in us.”

Those words were spoken by South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-edge-edge) or as he is affectionately referred to simply as Mayor Pete as he officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States.  The widely anticipated event took place on April 14 at a partly rebuilt former Studebaker factory in South Bend during a chilly, rainy afternoon.

In doing so, Buttigieg, 37, made history as the first open LGBT person to contend for the U.S. presidency. If elected, he would also be the youngest president ever. 

With his husband Chasten on hand as well as his mother, Buttigieg gave a superbly written and delivered speech that mixed solemnity, humor, charm and resolve. He informed an enthusiastic throng (and the thousands of viewers watching this moment on cable television) his background, why he is qualified to be the 46th President of the U.S, his rationale for running and the contours of his progressive policies, which are encapsulated in the basic themes of freedom, security and democracy.

Buttigieg embracing his husband Chasten following kick-off speech.
Considered once to be the longest of shots, Buttigieg has gained much attention and momentum by hitting the TV interview circuit and impressing folks with his earnest, intelligently expressed nuanced policy proposals.  He raised $7 million in the first quarter of the year—an impressive haul given his then lack of name recognition.

Vying to emerge from the “flavor-of-the-month” label, Buttigieg is picking up supporters and has been a powerhouse on social media. He has risen to number three in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire behind Bernie Sanders and yet-to-declare Joe Biden and ahead of big name contenders Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris among others.

People see him as a major antidote to President Trump. Examples include:

Buttigieg possesses a sunny optimism and faith in the sustainability of American values; Trump sees American "carnage."

Buttigieg is a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; Trump refuses to reveal his academic records from high school and college.

Buttigieg speaks seven languages; Trump barely speaks one, and with his breathlessly limited vocabulary he recycles the same adjectives, like "great," "strong," and "terrific."

Buttigieg is a Navy Reserve veteran and served in Afghanistan; Trump allegedly paid a doctor to state he had bone spurs to avoid military service. (Here is what I think of Trump's relationship to the military.)

Buttigieg, a millennial, is 37 while Trump’s age is nearly the reverse.

Buttigieg is born into humble means while Trump was a millionaire before he had his first sip of milk.

Buttigieg is a devout Christian (he even has the gravitas to challenge Vice President Pence on how religion is being used to discriminate against people); Trump rarely attends a church service.

Buttigieg as a mayor boasts that he has more government executive experience than Trump and Pence and more than many of his fellow contenders.

There are many other contrasts between the two especially in disposition, compassion, ethics and morality but I would wear out my keyboard if I try to list them all.

Mayor Pete appearing on The Ellen Show.  Photo: IndyStar
I like Pete Buttigieg for many reasons. While I don’t agree on every detail of every single policy prescription, there is sufficient agreement for me to be in his corner.  (Democrats would be served well if they abandon the check-every-box requirement and ideological purity litmus test for a candidate and instead, back the winner of the nomination process or we are sure to have four more years of MAGA.)

His being gay is not the primary reason to support him but that fact is a huge plus.  To those young kids grappling with their sexuality and gender identity as well as the decision to come out, having Mayor Pete Buttigieg as an out role model is inspirational.  With LGBTQ kids continuing to be bullied in schools and on the internet, suicide rates among this group are higher than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. Seeing one of their own as a possible President will do wonders for these kids and their families.

Of course, his sexuality will be a target by the bigoted right. Already a conservative outlet is labeling Buttigieg as a “sodomite.” Maybe they’re worried.  But I’m not.  Pete could handle it.

I have no doubt Buttigieg will use it to his advantage.  All he has to do is point to Trump’s cheating on all three of his wives, the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump and the paying off hush money to porn stars to keep his adulterous affairs quiet.

I will support any Democratic candidate who eventually becomes the nominee regardless of their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background or policy prescription. But for me, Mayor Pete is my guy and I will help him any way I can. Just watch him on the debate stage.

For more information, visit his campaign website

A video following his announcement speech is shown below.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s is a Bell Ringer

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

As Disney animated films go, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not your typical treat for children and others who crave magical moments with happy-ever-after endings, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Frozen.  Rather, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, is on the darker side of the Disney spectrum with few jolly and uplifting moments.  

Nonetheless, the 1996 film was a commercial success, and its rich score with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (the only time these iconic composers collaborated on a project) earned an Oscar nomination.  Peter Parnell penned the book.  #hocoarts

In spectacular fashion, the animated film comes to life at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  Co-directed by Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick with the music direction of Ross Scott Rawlings, the scrupulously staged and wonderfully performed production should position this show for Helen Hayes recognition next year.

Set in 15th century Paris, a deformed baby is born to carefree Jehan Frollo (played by Justin Calhoun) and a gypsy named Florika (Louisa Tringali).  The baby is handed off to Jehan’s brother, Dom Claude Frollo (Russell Sunday), the powerful and devious Archdeacon of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral, who reluctantly agrees to take care of him.  Because of his new charge’s grotesque looks, Frollo confines the boy to the cathedral’s bell tower and names him Quasimodo.

As he grows up, Quasimodo (Sam Kobren) becomes physically strong and is the cathedral’s bell-ringer but experiences a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.  His imagination allows for gargoyles and statues in the bell tower to come to life and urge him to find his own path.  

While Paris revels in the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo escapes his imposed imprisonment to enjoy the festivities for one day.  At first, he is innocently gawked at for his appearance but then things turn nasty as the crowd humiliates him. Quasimodo is eventually rescued by a beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda ( Jessica Bennett). Frollo, who is on a mission to rid Paris of gypsies, sends Quasimodo back inside the cathedral.

Quasimodo becomes enchanted with Esmeralda and her free spirit but he has competition. Dashing Captain Phoebus (Jeffrey Shankle) who is Captain of the Guard falls for her as well as Dom Claude Frollo who is conflicted by his religious beliefs and his desire for Esmeralda.  Quasimodo emerges as the unlikely savior for all.

The story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is relatable today: certain groups of people are scapegoated and treated harshly; individuals who are different are marginalized. During their ordeals, they attempt to find their inner strength to fight back. What transpires are the manifestations of these conflicts, and I will leave it there for the audience to experience.

Jessica Bennett and Sam Kobren Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
In the end, we are all people who seek love and acceptance regardless of our religion, race, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin. The story in The Hunchback of Notre Dame reinforces this truth.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins provides the appropriate atmosphere for this production.  Bells hanging from the ceiling complete with sand bags for balancing are a fine touch.  Stain glass windows and candelabras as well as Gothic-designed banisters and other accessories add more flavor.  Then you throw in fog effects and the environment is complete.

Under the co-directors' guidance, the staging of the show is superb.  Scene changes occur swiftly and seamlessly as large set pieces are moved in and out without any distractions.  Every nook and cranny of the available in-the-round space and on two levels are utilized by a large cast that is perpetually in motion. This effect allows members of the audience to feel they are right in the middle of the action.

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin offers the right illumination for scene changes and dramatic moments, but despite the fact there were no high levels of incandescence in the 15th century, the lighting during many moments in the production seems a bit on the dark side. 

Corey Brown’s sound design is perfect as the cast is well-mic’d.  The seven-piece orchestra ably supports the performers without drowning them out.

Janine Sunday fitted the company with an array of extraordinary  period costumes from the gypsies to the soldiers to the clerics. However, the costumes for the gargoyles and the statues could be more identifiable. If you are not familiar with the story, it would not be obvious that the initial dialogue between Quasimodo and these characters were imaginary.  Other than that small quibble, the costuming is fantastic.

This production is very well-cast, and the individual and collective performances alone make the show a must-see event. While dancing is not a major feature of the show, it is executed meticulously, guided by choreographer Mark Minnick in the high-tempo numbers “Topsy Turvy (Part 2)” and “Tavern Song.” Moreover, the large cast is constantly moving around the stage, which requires expert choreography. Mr. Minnick and the company deliver impressively.

When songs are performed by the entire 24-person cast, you will get goose bumps, I promise. Perfect pitch and harmony with resounding finishes are displayed in these group numbers, which comprise most of the selections. You will really feel you’re in a large cathedral.

Individual performances shine as well. Sam Kobren reprises his role as Quasimodo from his performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame presented by the Toby Orenstein-founded and -directed Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts production a couple of years back.  He is even better today. 

An exceptional tenor voice carries him through such challenging songs as “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light.”  Mr. Kobren’s outstanding acting skills are also evident exhibiting a wide range of emotions from melancholy from being lonely to joy when in the presence of Esmeralda to rage when he confronts Frollo. He is a stunningly versatile performer.

As the gypsy Esmeralda, Jessica Bennett is also excellent. A Helen Hayes Award nominee, Ms. Bennett effectively conveys the compassionate and free-spirited nature of her character.  Her soprano voice is silky and performs beautifully in such numbers as “Top of the World” and “Someday.”

Russell Sunday as Frollo  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Jeffrey Shankle, as the rather cocky but charming, Phoebus de Martin, brought his talent to a new level. Always dependably strong in Toby’s productions, his powerful tenor pitch-perfect vocals soared like I’ve never previously heard.  Most of his selections are part of group performances, and he is particularly solid in “Rest and Recreation,” “Rhythm of the Tambourine” and the sparkling duet with Ms. Bennett in “Someday.”

Russell Sunday does a creditable job as the villain Dom Claude Frollo who becomes Quasimodo’s caretaker and attempts to wipe out the gypsies.  His attempt to woo Esmeralda leads to a tragic conclusion.  Mr. Sunday’s solid baritone is featured in the duet with Mr. Kobren “Out There” and in the solo “The Assault.”

The remainder of the cast with most playing multiple roles turn in superb performances especially vocally.  They include: Justin Calhoun, Louisa Tringali, David Bosley-Reynolds, DeCarlo Raspberry, Noah Beye, Matty Montes, Adrienne Athanas, Heather Beck, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Camille Capers, Samantha Deininger, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, David James, Santina Maiolatesi, Christian Montgomery, Beth Rayca and Taylor Witt.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby’s is an extraordinary production that captures your imagination from centuries past while serving as a reminder that many of the same human issues exist today.  The performances and staging are stellar, the buffet scrumptious, and the experience is fulfilling on all levels.  Don’t miss this one. It's a true bell-ringer.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through May 19 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online