Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Arts Collective at HCC Presents 'Eat the Runt'

Imagine having a voice in selecting the cast of a play.  As an audience member of Eat the Runt, which will run for three consecutive weekends at the Arts Collective (AC) at Howard Community College (HCC), you will have the opportunity to do just that.  #hocoarts

The casts of 'Eat the Runt': Photo by JilliAnne McCarty
Members of the audience who show up early are invited to vote on the cast for a particular performance.  Each actor, under the direction of veteran director and Arts Collective producing artistic director Susan G. Kramer, will play multiple roles with no regards to race, ethnicity or gender. 
The rules of the voting as well as the incentives to participate are shown on the Arts Collective website.

According to Kramer, the play by Avery Croszier includes a stellar cast of eight actors poised to take on the challenge each performance (in various roles) featuring HCC students, alumni and guest artists, as well as the work of the best professional designers in the area. 

Eat the Runt is billed as “an outrageous, delicious comic satire that can go in countless, mind-blowing directions.  A seemingly innocent job interview slowly spirals into chaos as jealousy, desire, and deception collide. When the truth is revealed, only the strongest will survive.”
Kramer noted, “The central relationships among the cast of characters could include lesbian, gay, or heterosexual entanglements depending on the cast chosen... some combinations will make sense, while others may plunge the play into the absurd. To quote the playwright, Avery Crozier, ‘but sometimes the greatest discoveries are accidents. This one's waiting to happen. Every night..”

“Casting nightmares drove me to write Eat the Runt, a play that’s recast every night,” explains Crozier. “Quite often, playwrights write fascinating and specific physical descriptions of characters that make the play impossible to cast - especially if it is going to first be presented in a small theater.
“So I’ve stopped writing plays like that. In Eat the Runt, I decided to create roles that any talented actor could play, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. This is not a play in which appearance doesn't matter. It is, in fact, almost entirely about appearance and identity, but is designed to give the director flexibility to cast the best actors available without regard to physical type. Or to choose physical types that heighten the excitement of the situations on stage.”

Crozier adds, “The play is set in an art museum, a wonderful arena for exploring ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues of representation. It’s based on a series of interviews I had for a job at a large encyclopedic museum, a job I was pretty certain I did not want.

“On the airplane I fantasized about sabotaging myself with each interviewer so that they'd reject me before I was put in the embarrassing position of rejecting the job. Ultimately, I opted to behave myself, but on stage I could be much bolder than in real life. In the play, the character Merritt lives out my fantasy, and manifests increasingly strange and contradictory behavior with each interview. My challenge was to figure out why Merritt would go to such extremes, which pushed the play into the realm of impersonation and lying. So it became meta-theatre, a play about acting.”

Eat the Runt runs three weekends: April 17 - May 3 in HCC’s Studio Theatre, with performances on Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.  The theater is located at HCC, Horowitz Center Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. 

Seating is limited so that purchasing tickets early is encouraged.  Individual tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors (60+) and military, and $10 for all students with identification.  The play is not recommended for children under age 14.  Tickets may be purchased through the Box Office at 443-518-1500 or online. 

Come early so you can play the part of an actual casting director.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Extraordinary 'Laramie Project' at CCBC

The tragedy of gay 21 year-old college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder at the hands of two young men in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 still pains most decent people.  Hatred by those whose lot in life is to hate was symbolized by the repulsive protests at Matthew’s funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church led by hater-in-chief Fred Phelps.
Cast of CCBC's The Laramie Project  Photo: Leo Heppner
However, through the tireless efforts of Matthew’s family, particularly his mother Judy, and numerous activists, some good came of the heartbreak in that it helped spark the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed by President Obama 11 years after Matthew’s murder.  #hocoarts
A group of people from the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project led by its artistic director and playwright Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie over the course of the next year to conduct a couple of hundred interviews of the town’s denizens in an exhausting effort to chronicle the impact the murder had on Laramie as well as themselves.  As a result, numerous performances of a play based on these interviews have been presented around the country. 

The Laramie Project, as the play is titled, is derived from those direct interviews, news footage, court transcripts and other found text. It reminds audiences about the effect hatred can have on everyday people’s lives whether you’re a direct victim or not.  It isn’t about being gay or straight; it’s about hate and hate crimes.
Gritty and powerful, the play is not preachy though there is that temptation to be so.  Yet, through its message that speaks to the consequences of hate, The Laramie Project performs an invaluable service. 

The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) to its credit made The Laramie Project a part of their Community Book Collection whereby students and faculty on three of the campuses—Essex, Dundalk and Catonsville—throughout the academic year highlight and analyze the story behind the play through classroom discussions, assignments and artwork culminating with the brilliant staging of The Laramie Project. 

Moreover, CCBC brought in Judy Shepard to speak last October, held World AIDS Week events including the displaying of the AIDS Quilt in December, the screening of the film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine that will take place in April, and The Laramie Project’s Moisés Kaufman who is scheduled to speak on April 28-29.
The performance on March 21 at the College Community Center Theater on the Essex campus was extraordinary and impassioned.  Thanks to a moving rendition of “What Matters” by the New Wave Singers in the theater’s lobby prior to the show, the mood was set perfectly for what was to follow.

Some student productions of plays and musicals tend to have rough edges because of the performers’ inexperience in theatre.  Not this one.  Veteran director Ryan Clark, who also teaches theatre at CCBC and is an artistic associate at Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre, guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
The ensemble cast showcases their talents in such a way that their futures in theatre, should they go that route, would be quite promising.  They succeed in projecting their voices exceptionally well without the need of mics while proficiently delivering their lines.

The play requires the actors to perform multiple roles and they do it expertly.  Slipping on a sweater or taking one off, donning a cap or a hat and removing them as well as other garments to create a different character, the actors seamlessly and flawlessly execute these changes. 
Director Ryan Clark... guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
Each one effectively adjusts his or her voice inflections, mannerisms and accents to reflect a particular person being interviewed as well as being an interviewer.  And each one has a turn in delivering a powerful soliloquy, again showcasing their dramatic props and versatility.  

The characters portrayed, such as the young bicyclist who discovered Matthew’s bloodied body tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie where he said he resembled a scarecrow, the policewoman who brought him in, the sheriff, the doctor tending to Matthew who died in a hospital six days after the attack, the assorted townspeople on both sides of the gay issue, the bartender at the Fireside bar where Matthew was last seen leaving with the murderers, clergy, several lesbians, Fred Phelps, the killers themselves and Matthew’s father Dennis whose testimony in court is arguably the play’s most dramatic moment—all allow the eight-person cast to delve into the various roles, and they deliver in superb fashion.
Aside from their solid acting skills, the movements of the performers under Mr. Clark’s guidance are also outstanding.  To convey scene changes, they shift about the several chairs and tables that adorn the stage with a keen sense of timing and placement.  And in true docudrama form, when a person speaks, another cast member identifies the character by name.

No one member of the cast should be singled out for their performance as they are all tremendous.  In no particular order, the ensemble includes: Ashley Saville, William Meister, Giustino Puliti, Christian Fisher, Lavonne Jones, Thomas P. Gardner, Lashay McMillan and Yakima Lich.  Take your bows; you deserve a standing ovation.
The technical elements considerably add to the play’s texture, making good use of projections on a screen upstage that presents pertinent photographs and art as well as “Moments” as the play progresses.  Scenic and lighting design by Terrie Raulie and the simple costuming by James Fasching help depict the realities contained in this play. 

This minimalism is desirable for a play like The Laramie Project. It creates an atmosphere whereby the actors are really speaking directly to the audience explaining how this tragedy impacted Laramie’s residents.  They are just ordinary people trying to make sense of a gruesome crime that had thrust their community into the spotlight.  It makes people pause to think about our society where hate still exists.
Kudos to all those associated with this outstanding presentation.  Make plans soon to see this great play that is ably directed and performed by young student actors with a skill set that soars beyond expectations. The run is ending soon.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: The play contains some profanity and is not suitable for children.

The Laramie Project’s remaining performances are at 10 a.m. March 23 and 1 p.m. March 24 in the College Community Theatre at CCBC Essex, 7201 Rossville Boulevard. Additional performances will be given at 12:45 p.m. March 26 in the Center for the Arts Theatre at CCBC Catonsville, 800 S. Rolling Road and at 12:45 p.m. March 31 in the John E. Ravekes Theatre at CCBC Dundalk, 7200 Sollers Point Road. Tickets are $8 general admission, $5 for students, seniors, and CCBC faculty, staff and alumni. Current CCBC students (with valid ID) are free. Tickets are available from the CCBC Box Office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or online.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Silly Season is Upon Us

The time between presidential elections can be a head-shaking experience among ordinary folks.  Unfortunately, much of this interlude is filled with bizarre statements and other forms of nonsense as we endure the ridiculousness of people who simply fail to think before they speak or possess any form of filter.  This period is called the “silly season,” which challenges people’s intellect and sensibilities and where the absurd can be humorous or downright serious, if not scary. 

Comments, actions and events are so bizarre, so counter-intuitive, that your eyes roll back so far you can see the back of your brain.  Of course, not all of the silliness is related to presidential politics or politics in general, but it starts with politics and it has to begin with none other than Dr. Ben Carson.
If you hadn’t read or heard, the esteemed retired neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins University has made some controversial anti-gay comments in the past, which raised his profile and received the sympathy and support of gay-hating tea partiers—enough so that they are encouraging him to make a presidential run.  He is considering just that. 

In an appearance on FOX “News” Carson spouted this gem:  “Marriage is between a man and a woman. No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don’t get to change the definition.”
At a conference at the Illinois Family Institute, he claims marriage equality advocates are “directly attacking the relationship between God and his people.”

In his 2012 book, Carson wrote of marriage equality: “[I]f we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”
At the National Organization for Marriage’s March for Marriage gala in 2014, Carson explained how Marxists are using LGBT rights to destroy American unity and impose the “New World Order.”

And now the latest gem.  Appearing on CNN on March 4, when asked by Chris Cuomo if being gay is a choice, the highly educated physician replied, “Absolutely.”  Then he added, “Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”
Under intense fire, he “apologized” and vowed that the liberal gotcha press will not stop his momentum and trap him into expressing his views on homosexuality.  We’ll see.  I guarantee that even if he chooses not to run for president, he will be giving a prime time speech at the Republican National Convention and his views on LGBT folks will be a centerpiece.

I will say this in response to Carson’s theory about going into prison straight and leaving gay:  Ben Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, enters the Republican clown car filled with presidential hopefuls and emerges as a moron.
Carson keeps claiming he’s not homophobic.  It’s like the SAE frat boys at the University of Oklahoma who chanted racist chants over and over and claim they are not racists, that it was a mistake whereby their behavior was fueled by alcohol.  No dudes, you’re racists.  Alcohol merely removed your inhibitions to recite those ugly words; it didn’t put them in your minds.

Dr. Carson, you’re a homophobe in every sense of the word. Don’t pretend you’re not.
Ben Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon, enters the Republican clown car filled with presidential hopefuls and emerges as a moron.

Adding to the silly season were the 47 Republican Senators (known on social media as #47traitors) who usurped the authority of the executive branch to conduct foreign policy.  Under “wunderkind” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas who persuaded the other senators to sign off on an outlandish, condescending letter to the leadership of Iran aimed at scuttling the sensitive negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, achieved something that has been a long time waiting: it finally woke up Democrats. 

Ceding the social media platforms, talk radio, TV interviews and other media to Republicans during the non-stop anti-Obama thrashing, Dems finally found a cause in which they could respond.  And they are correct.
Imagine Democratic Senators writing a letter to the Soviet Union’s leadership in an effort to warn them that the Senate may not approve any nuclear proliferation treaty President Reagan was negotiating.  How would have the GOP responded?   None too pleased, I would suspect.

It would be as if Republican Senators and Representatives had written the following:
Dear Osama Bin Laden,

We writing to advise you that the Navy Seals have discovered your location in Pakistan and will come to get you.  As you know, our previous dear leader President George W. Bush had to abandon his search for you at Tora Bora so that we could invade and liberate Iraq, the actual purveyors of 9/11, and create another democratic and U.S.-friendly state in the Middle East. 
Our current President Obama is much too stubborn to let things slide as Mr. Bush did.  Obama and his henchmen for some reason doggedly want to capture or kill you even though Saddam Hussein was responsible for the over 3,000 deaths on 9/11, not you.

We will do anything to keep our President from getting the credit for your demise because he is a foreign-born Socialist Muslim who hates America and a black man who is considerably smarter than us.  
We felt it as our patriotic duty, and in the name of freedom and the right to bear arms, to warn you of this diabolical plan.

Best of luck in your travels,
The Real Americans  

Indeed, it is the silly season, and alas, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Faith and Family Clash in Iron Crow’s '…Bobby Pritchard'

In its recent works, Iron Crow Theatre, Baltimore’s queer theatre company, has delved into the subject of death from different angles.  From the Jeffrey Dahmer murders in Joseph W. Ritsch’s Apartment 213 to suicide in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, death and its impact on others have been explored with a degree of creative artistry that is open to interpretation.  With the world premiere of The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard written by Baltimore playwright Rich Espey currently playing at The Theatre Project, audiences are given another view of death, and in this case two deaths.

From left: Sean Kelly, Heather Peacock, Dave LaSalle,
Julie Herber, Sarah Lynn Taylor and Susan Porter
Photo: Zachary Z. Handler
The intense one-act play that brings to the forefront the struggle for LGBT acceptance in a Southern town called Boiling Springs with its religious dominance forms the backdrop of a splendid performance by the six-person cast under the deft guiding hand of director Steven J. Satta.    #hocoarts

Espey’s play relies heavily on flashbacks to 40 years ago that alternate with the present and the use of symbolism, which is laced throughout. Most cast members are called upon to play dual roles reflecting the different time periods, and they do so expertly.  To underscore the connections the characters have with religion, the majority perform Church hymns during several points in the play and do so melodiously demonstrating their vocal skills.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

'Grounded' Soars at Olney Theatre Center

Even if one entered Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab without knowing anything about George Brant’s taut play Grounded, the visuals already established will tip you off that you will be in for a tense, bumpy ride.  Seated on a black swivel chair, motionless, is a slender woman in an olive drab flight suit (designed by Ivania Stack) before a group of imageless TV monitors except for gray wavy lines across the screens.  The audience is eventually in place, the lights black out for a second, and then pow!     #hocoarts
Megan Anderson as The Pilot in Grounded. 
 Photo: Clinton B Photography

The Pilot, the sole identity of the woman in the flight suit, springs to her feet from her chair and tells Brant’s poignant story of how we arrived at this point.  Megan Anderson, who recently turned in a terrific performance in Rep Stage’s The Whale and is a resident actor at Everyman, delivers the punches like a brawny fighter making use of rapidly spoken, high-octane soliloquies, often employing combat stances and macho swagger, and energetically moving about the stage with a purpose in a tour de force that is as riveting as it is outstanding. 
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Hollywood’s Journey Down the Rainbow Path

When openly gay Neil Patrick Harris strutted out on the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to host the 87th Academy Awards, one would think that the battle for gay rights received its own statue.  After all, NPH became the first ever openly gay man to host the iconic TV special.  Not only that, but he has now hit the trifecta of award show hosting that also includes the Tony awards and Emmys.  Can the Grammys be next for the grand slam? 

This is no small feat given the audience numbers that each of these major shows attract bring tons of advertising dollars to the networks.  Therefore, it behooves the shows’ producers to put on stage someone whom the TV audiences will accept and enjoy.  And they seem to have no problem with the multi-talented and popular gay man, Harris.
But do these accomplishments signal the end of homophobia in Hollywood?  Over the years there had been a homophobic mindset in some of the producers and decision-makers in the film and TV industries causing numerous LGBT performers to remain in the closet lest their careers be in peril. 

Homophobia like racism or misogyny is a state of mind, an attitude, that just doesn’t simply turn on and off like a switch.  To fully eradicate these attitudes, succeeding progressive generations will likely be less and less bigoted, so in the long run, the prognosis is good.
Unquestionably, there has been a huge amount of progress regarding attitudes towards LGBT folks in Hollywood (film and TV) with an increasing number of LGBT characters on TV shows, in particular, and more being employed.  This is following a national trend towards LGBT acceptance.  But we’re not there yet.

“People are what they are, believe what they believe, and I think most open-minded heteros have evolved over the last 40 years,” a straight, long-time Hollywood-based comedy writer, told me through an email interview, whom I will name “Frank” for this piece. 
“There have always been gays and lesbians in Hollywood,” he says.  “Face it, any business that regularly employs choreographers, dress designers, set decorators, hairdressers, and makeup people, will have gays in it.  So unlike many businesses, the movie industry has had gays, working side by side with straight folk.”

Frank points out that in the 70s, they were mostly closeted. “They were there, we knew who they were, for the most part, but they weren't talking about it.  When it came to writers and directors, I will say that gays were few and far between - again, people were in the closet, so I am assuming there were gay writers (other than Bruce Villanch) out there. But I didn't know any myself. Was this homophobia, or was it a different cultural phenomenon?”

“Ellen’s personal life met up with her character. Dramatic series had gay characters. The world was changing.”

The emergence of West Hollywood as a city in 1984 helped push acceptance. “Suddenly, everyone paid attention to a place, which was mostly known for its bar scene,” explains Frank.

“Gays in WeHo were out of the closet, not just gay businesses and bars, but gay politicians, city councilmen and mayors. There was a city where the rights of the gay community mattered. A city adjacent to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and West L.A. - places where people in the industry lived and worked. I can’t prove that this created change in the industry, but I don't see how it couldn’t. The Pride parade was on local cable TV. The gay national religious holiday - Halloween - was celebrated on Santa Monica Blvd. with mixed crowds, again on TV.  This causes greater acceptance.”
Frank also credits the producers who inserted gay characters on such TV shows in the 1990’s as MTV’s Real World as agents for change and in particular, the saga of an AIDS-stricken cast member in San Francisco.  “Pedro Zamora, a man living with AIDS, and AIDS activist, became a national symbol. An entire generation, through the proxies of the assortment of people in that show, not only saw someone gay, but someone who lived and loved in the face of the disease which people still feared.”

He also recalls talking with Norman Lear later in the decade regarding the increase in gay writers.  “The change was noticeable,” Frank said. “Ellen’s personal life met up with her character. Dramatic series had gay characters. The world was changing.”

Shows like Survivor, in its first season with gay Richard Hatch as a star, was huge.  As was Will & Grace and now Glee, which Frank characterized as the “gayest show ever” and ironic that it is on FOX.  Now shows like Modern Family and Empire make good use of gay characters.
He explains that Neil Patrick Harris came out in the middle of the run of How I Met Your Mother.  “The amazing thing about that is that his character could best be described as a ‘rampant heterosexual’ - a man whose life revolved around sex with women. Nobody commented about the fact that a gay actor was playing that role; people were able to separate the character on TV from the actor who played it. This is a massive advance in the world.”

Frank states, “If TV is the great enlightened arena of entertainment, movies are its more timid cousin. Look, it’s not because of homophobia; the only phobia movie studios have is losing money. Unfortunately, there are many countries around the world which practice institutionalized homophobia. Not little ones - Russia, China, India, the continent of Africa. We may have to wait a while before studios will risk a gay version of Sylvester Stallone starring in a major action picture.”

Progress, to be sure, but the rainbow path still has its bumps.  A recent Williams Institute survey of SAG-AFTRA members indicates there are still issues regarding homophobia and transphobia within the entertainment industry. Read the results here.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Snobbery and Wit on Display in 'Earnest'

What’s in a name?  Apparently, a lot as evidenced by Oscar Wilde’s classic work The Importance of Being Earnest currently playing in the spanking new venue of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) on Calvert and Redwood Streets.  The theatre, which is now housed in the building the Mercantile Bank had occupied, is a horseshoe shaped, three-tier structure that provides a modern-day setting to the presentation of old-time plays.
Travis Hudson as Jack (L.) and Joe Brack
as Algernon 
Photo: Teresa Castracane

The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened in London in 1895, is a farcical comedy that pokes fun at British high society in the late Victorian era and treats such serious institutions as marriage as trivial.  Though successful at the outset, this play led to Wilde’s decline as his homosexual double life was exposed to the Victorian public and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment.
The plot involves two upper crust eligible bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Joe Brack) and John “Jack” Worthing (Travis Hudson), who both create dual identities (one each for the city and one each for the country) to avoid social obligations and to pursue their intended love interests.

As their plan begins to collide, the wealthy, strong-willed and overtly snobby Lady Bracknell (Lesley Malin) implants fear in the duo as the real story of Earnest Worthing is discovered, along with an explanation of his heritage.

…Earnest is one of the most revered works by Oscar Wilde.  An endless parade of witticisms and biting rejoinders throughout spawned as long a list of memorable quotes as you will find in literature.  A good example is Lady Bracknell’s comment to Jack while interviewing him as a suitor for Gwendolyn (Katherine Elizabeth Kelley): “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” There are many more.
Erin Bone Steele directed the talented CSC ensemble with deftness.  The actors moved about with vigor creating the visual action that accompanied the witty dialogue. 

However, there was no sound designer listed in the program, and that could explain why the volume from some of the actors’ voices was uneven as they bandied about the stage.  One could point to the less than perfect acoustics stemming from the theatre’s near in-the-round configuration and high ceiling; if the actors were mic’d, it would have been easier to hear each and every witticism. 
No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair.  His muscular, rich voice and comedic timing is a huge asset to the production.  In Mr. Brack’s sparring with Mr. Hudson’s Jack, he elicited guffaws from the audience with this: “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.”   

"No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair."

The two male leads played off each other with strikingly good chemistry as did their respective love interests Ms. Kelly’s Gwendolyn character and Lizzi Albert as Cecily.  Playing the uppity Lady Blacknell, Leslie Malin turned in a delicious performance. 
Rounding out the cast are Lisa Hodsoll as Miss Prism, Cicely’s governess; Lyle Blake Smythers, playing dual roles as a servant and butler; and Gregory Burgess as a priest were admirable and added laughs to the production.   

Costume Designer Krisitna Lamdin did a fine job in fitting the performers in period attire especially Lady Blacknell’s exquisitely lush white gown in the second act.  Lighting Designer Katie McCreary brightened up the simple set.
The Importance of Being Earnest will keep you laughing throughout, and you are likely to enjoy a talented ensemble performing the witty brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes with an intermission.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays Thursdays through Sundays through March 22, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore 21202.  For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570 or online.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Truth or Consequences

The recent kerfuffle over Brian Williams’ false statements about a helicopter he was riding in being hit with enemy fire during the war in Iraq motivated me and others to reflect on journalism and our own roles in the press. The wounds from Williams’ fictional accounts or conflation of events were self-inflicted. Williams shot himself in the foot with those mistruths and called into question not only his own integrity and trustworthiness, but he also cast a shadow over so many other journalists—deserved or not.

Though more popular today than other news sources, the Internet as a purveyor of news has its perils, especially because bloggers, tweeters and Facebook posters, who are not necessarily journalists, can essentially write what they want.  Throw in YouTube users who can present a partial picture of real-time events whereby one could speculate as to what actually occurred immediately prior to and following the footage.  
For these Internet news sources, fact-checking has become a nuisance to many, not a necessity, as the inconvenience to take time out to verify a particular assertion would hamper the race to first break a story on the Net.  For bloggers, there are few penalties in place for false reporting, and there are seldom any higher-ups for them to report, so that the authors of these news pieces are essentially unaccountable.
Regardless of the medium, whoever is delivering the news is assumed to be trustworthy, at least minimally.  Over a half a century ago, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered by many to be the most trusted man in America.  That is quite a label to tag someone with the weight of that responsibility adding to the pressure.  If he had faltered in the way Williams did, the country would have been in collective mourning and journalism would never be the same.
So how does a journalist gain the trust of his or her readers, listeners or viewers?  Simply put, do the job properly.  You write or tell the story as accurately as humanly possible; fact-check and verify; and never make yourself the story as Brian Williams did.
It’s not always easy.  In over three decades of reporting and commenting on LGBT news, there have been obstacles to these principles thrown my way, which I needed to navigate.  For one thing, if you have a source, make sure the source is reliable and credible.  This is where the road can be filled with potholes.
To the extent possible, a journalist should rely on first-hand knowledge of an incident; too often our sources are second-hand.  That means, we’re being told of an incident but not from an eyewitness.  The source heard about it or knew someone involved in an incident.  The rumor mill is not a source of news.  Rarely is there any truth attached to rumors, and if there is some relationship to the rumor, it’s usually partial at best.  Verification is essential when given such “leads.”
"There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way."

Recently, we’ve heard rumors swirling about a certain bar that had been sold to a drugstore chain.  No one could substantiate it but people expect us to write about it.  The rumor was not only false but potentially damaging to the business.  That’s how you get sued.  Rumors of the demise of gay-owned businesses or LGBT organizations may be fun to gossip about in our communities, but unless they’re backed up by facts, it will never see the light of day in any responsible news medium.
Then we have the “report and retreat” source—a moniker I created for this piece.  That person will tell you of an incident—usually an assault—and quickly call it a hate crime.  OK, but when asked if it was reported to the police, the source says “no.” 
If you do not report any such incidents officially, it’s not a crime for the purpose of police statistics, much less a hate crime. Without a report, there is no way for the police to accurately allocate resources to the affected areas.  And if you refuse to report it, I won’t write about it because the police serve as a collaborating source. 
In addition, there are “report and retreat” sources who simply refuse to go on record for whatever reason.  There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way.  No story was written on the matter, and that person will never be considered a reliable source in the future.
There are exceptions.  Someone who is not out would not want to report such an incident if it occurred in or near a gay establishment.  Therefore, the journalist, after recognizing this sensitivity, must meticulously interview the person and decide if the story holds up under scrutiny.  This would apply to any source who asks to be anonymous in exchange for information.
We also have the “report and contradiction” source.  An alleged attack outside a bar was running rampant on Facebook—a site that should be looked at with skepticism.  I checked with some folks who supposedly “witnessed” the attack and their stories were contradictory.  Their descriptions of the attacker and the sequence of events were completely dissimilar.  Nothing was written about it since there was no consensus of facts, and again, nothing was reported to the police.
These are just a few examples of the frustrating challenges I have faced in trying to ferret out the truth and then report it to the larger community. The key term here is “truth.”  That’s what responsible journalists seek and that’s what they should only report. 
If not, there are consequences as Brian Williams and other journalists can attest.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Crazy 'Addams Family' Delights at Toby's

Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky—that surely defines that ooky Addams family.  You can add hilarious and goofy to the mix and you have the recipe for a delicious, zany production of The Addams Family currently playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

The Addams Family cast.  Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Not many musicals include potions to provoke one’s inner dark side, torture apparatus, and de-blooming of flowers but The Addams Family has all that and more.  Toby’s production also includes an incredibly well-cast ensemble under the precise direction of Mark Minnick who also handled the choreography.
This is not a knock-off of the loveable and popular TV series The Addams Family of mid-60’s yore with Baltimore native John Astin and Carolyn Jones as the leads.  Instead, the musical whose music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, was patterned after the ghoulish, comical characters in Charles Addams’ cartoons.  

The Addams Family opened on Broadway in March 2010 and ended its run on December 31, 2011 after over 700 performances.  The show failed to capture any of the eight Tony Award nominations in 2010, even with Nathan Lane in the lead, but did receive a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design.  Despite less than stellar reviews and the lack of accolades, The Addams Family did well financially on Broadway and spawned numerous regional and touring productions both in the U.S. and internationally.
Toby’s presentation is more similar to the touring production than the Broadway original. The storyline centers on the morbid and crazy Addams family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch—whose preoccupation with death and darkness provides most of the humor in the show.  They are visited by the straight-laced Beineke family from Ohio—a swing state as bellowed by Gomez—whereby the son Lucas, the beau of Wednesday, brings his parents Mal and Alice to meet the Addamses in a what-can-possibly-go-wrong scenario. 

Fortunately, a lot does go wrong, which forms the essence of the story and the ensuing hilarity.  The hijinks, nuttiness and zingers, however, are largely packed into the first act, which sets up the show.  The second act lacks that same comedic punch and pace with the characters turning to sentimentality and reconciliation, but it is still enjoyable.  In the end, the Addams clan realizes it’s too crazy, and the Beinekes acknowledge they’re not crazy enough.
"The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast. "
Musically, Lippa’s score does not contain the tuneful melodies that will leave you humming as you exit the theater.  Nonetheless, his lyrics are potently funny, and in the manner of Sondheim, the lyrics will get your attention.  #hocoarts

Those songs that stand out include, “When You’re an Addams,” “Trapped,” “Pulled,” “One Normal Night,” “Full Disclosure,” “Crazier Than You,” and “Live Before We Die.” Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a fine job as always backing up the vocalists.
It’s not just the songs and dialogue that will keep you chuckling.  The set, designed by David A. Hopkins, is detailed to the core with 19th century Gothic furniture and other accoutrements including gas lamps encased by spider webs and a Spanish Inquisition chair that is bound to get a response from a person sitting on it.  Even "Thing "and "Cousin Itt" make brief appearances through Mr. Hopkins’ creativity.

Credit Costume Coordinator Lawrence B. Munsey and Lighting Designer Coleen M. Foley for adding the appropriate spookiness to the production.
The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast.  In such a campy production, the temptation is for the performers to go overboard, but under Mark Minnick’s guiding hand, the performers exhibit the right amount of restraint without sacrificing the comedy.

Lawrence B. Munsey turns in yet another masterful performance.  He sparkled in recent Toby’s productions playing Javert in Les Misérables and King Arthur in Spamalot, and as Gomez Addams, he continues that solid streak. 
Mr. Munsey’s commands the stage with his well-timed rejoinders, gestures and a rich baritone voice. He is particularly strong in singing “Trapped” and “Live Before We Die.”  Gomez is challenged to placate Morticia because he kept a certain secret from her (she abhors secrecy) and is one of the major plotlines. 

Morticia is played by another Toby’s veteran, the lovely Priscilla Cuellar.  Her stellar singing voice shined in Spamalot, and she brought that vocal prowess to Addams in “Secrets” and “Just Around the Corner.”  Morticia gave a lot of grief to Gomez and was convincing in doing so. Their onstage repartee is excellent.
Wednesday Addams, played by MaryKate Brouillet, did a fine job conveying her sadism towards  her younger brother Pugsley, and her desire to marry Lucas (played well with exuberance and earnestness by AJ Whittenberger). 

Gomez (Lawrence B. Munsey) kisses Morticia's (Priscilla Cuellar) hand
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
She performed nicely in a duet with Jace Franco as Pugsley for the performance reviewed in “Pulled.” (Gavin Willard also plays Pugsley in other performances.)  Ms. Brouillet possesses a powerful singing voice as does the young Mr. Franco.  The latter commands a good range and comedic instincts, which bodes well for his future in musical theatre.
Cross-gender cast as the centenarian Grandma is David James who is funny at every turn. You can laugh simply by looking at him/her.  

Rounding out the Addamses are Shawn Kettering as Uncle Fester who discovered he is in love with the moon and David Bosley-Reynolds as the near silent, methodically plodding Lurch.  Both played their respective characters to the hilt.
Darren McDonnell as Mal Beineke, Lucas’ father, excels as a control-freak whose marriage was about to collapse from deceit and other maladies.  He needed to be crazier, and where would be a better place to start other than the Addams’ mansion in the middle of Central Park?

His wife Alice, played energetically by Elizabeth Rayca, is seemingly victimized by Mel’s bland personality had turned to random rhymes for solace. The marital problems seem to work out at the end. 
The remainder of the company included ten living, dead and undecided Addams’ ancestors, and they did a splendid job of supporting the principals in song and dance.

The Addams Family at Toby’s is guaranteed to keep you laughing, and you will count your blessings that you’re not a relative of that kooky but loveable family.
Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

The Addams Family runs through April 19 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Wood Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  To purchase tickets call 410-730-8311 or visit online.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lively, Joyous 'Godspell' at Olney

Olney Theatre Center launched its 77th season with a joyful and uplifting production of the musical Godspell.  With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who went on to write Pippin and Wicked, and a book by John-Michael Tebelak, the production opened off Broadway in 1971 and has become a staple of high school and community theatre as well as numerous professional mountings and tours since.
Photo by Stan Barouh
Based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show is a mixture of Scripture parables as told by Jesus loosely tied together with songs and dance. 
  Godspell at Olney is an updated version based on the 2011 Broadway revival. The original 1971 production had a hippie clown folk motif in keeping with that era. The Olney production has more of a hipster, rock and amped vibe more in keeping with the generation brought up on the musical Rent.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Revisiting O'Malley's March to Equality

As the final snowflakes dissipated during newly elected governor Larry Hogan’s inauguration, I couldn’t help but think of his predecessor’s legacy on LGBT equality and what an arduous journey it was.    #hocopolitics
Signing the historic marriage equality bill into law
There was much hope on the marriage equality front with the former Mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, defeating Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. in November 2006.  Ehrlich had stated that same-sex marriage would never take place “on his watch” and was generally unsympathetic to LGBT rights in general. Never mind that he employed two openly gay chiefs of staff during his term.

With O’Malley, however, we saw the possibility of a rainbow across the skies of Maryland.  Alas, it did not start off well. 
In his inaugural address in 2007, O’Malley said, “I take responsibility as one leader for never trying to divide our people by race, class, religion or region.”  Unfortunately, there was no mention of sexual orientation let alone gender identity.

When the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down a lower court’s ruling in September 2007 that would have granted 19 plaintiffs and consequently other gays and lesbians the right to legally marry in Maryland, O’Malley stated, “I look forward to reading the court’s full opinion, but as we move forward, those of us with the responsibility of passing and enforcing laws have an obligation to protect the rights of all individuals equally, without telling any faith how to define its sacraments. I respect the court’s decision.”

“That offensive statement represented just one of O’Malley’s tortured positions on the issue,” commented Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff.  “In 2004, O’Malley told a Baltimore TV station that, ‘I’m not opposed to civil marriages.’
“Also in 2004, he sent an e-mail to a plaintiff in the state marriage lawsuit that read, ‘I’m just supporting something I strongly believe in,’ referring to marriage equality. But by early 2006, O’Malley’s position was shifting and he said, ‘I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a fundamental issue of the state’s public policy, and a decision that ultimately should not be made by a single trial court judge.’ When confronted by gay activists after issuing that statement, O’Malley disavowed any previous support of marriage equality.”

There were few, if any, meetings between the governor and Equality Maryland, the organization that was spearheading the effort towards achieving marriage equality during O’Malley’s first term.  A leading advocate who was present at one such meeting said the governor avoided the subject.
From 2008-2010 legislation was introduced to legalize same-sex nuptials but each time the bill died in committee.  All the while O’Malley stated his support for civil unions but not same-sex marriage.

In 2010, Attorney General Douglas Gansler issued an opinion whereby Maryland would recognize the same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.  This development was a significant landmark in the ultimate road to equality.
The effort gained momentum in 2011. When the bill again was introduced in the General Assembly, O’Malley said he would sign it if passed, saying, “I have concluded that discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation in the context of civil marital rights is unjust. I have also concluded that treating the children of families headed by same-sex couples with lesser protections under the law than the children of families headed by heterosexual parents, is also unjust.”  Though he testified for the bill, it failed to garner enough votes to make it out of the House.

Following the passage of marriage equality in New York State in June 2011, O’Malley took a far more proactive role in the 2012 General Assembly.  Allaying the fears of religious conservatives, the bill—Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act—contained explicit language that would not force religious leaders and institutions to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies among other protections. O’Malley vocally supported the bill, testified on its behalf, and lobbied wavering legislators to vote for it.
When the governor gave the State of the State address in February, he said, “It’s not right and it’s not just that children of gay couples should have less protection than the children of other families in the state.”

O’Malley admitted that his reluctance to use the term “civil marriage” early on was based on advice given by his political advisors while he was mayor.

The bill narrowly passed both houses, and the governor joyously signed it into law on March 1, 2012.
During the ensuing Question 6 referendum battle, O’Malley pushed hard for victory as this was to become a legacy issue for him along with the Dream Act, repeal of the death penalty and other social measures, which would showcase his progressive bona fides should he decide to run for President.

He continued to press for a win to uphold the law by persuading leading clergy to support the effort. He went outside the state to raise money for the referendum campaign that was run by the Human Rights Campaign-led Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition. 
It was clear that O’Malley was displeased by the progress the coalition was making. In August, there was only $400,000 in the coffers—a decidedly low amount considering the need to air TV commercials.  He installed Delegate Maggie McIntosh to handle the day-to-day operations as the campaign had been in disarray, and paid staff was cut by a third.  In the end, after $6 million was spent, the voters upheld the law by a 52-48 percent margin.

O’Malley admitted that his reluctance to use the term “civil marriage” early on was based on advice given by his political advisors while he was mayor.  Nonetheless, he saw the light, perhaps motivated by the passage of marriage equality in New York whose governor Andrew Cuomo was a potential rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Regardless, we would not have won marriage equality in 2012 without him.  And the same could be said for the passage of the Fairness for All Marylanders Act in 2014.

It had been a long, hard march towards equality but Martin O’Malley finished it in style

Friday, January 23, 2015

'One Night in Miami' Wins by a Knockout

What perfect timing for Center Stage to present Kemp Powers’ outstanding play One Night in Miami!  The fictional story of four African-American icons who were also friends—Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke—who gathered in a Miami hotel on February 25, 1964, the night of Clay’s upset win over heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston that took place during the height of the civil rights struggle.   
We are approaching Black History Month; we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday; and we’re about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  But where the past is so often prologue, the country is still living under the shadow of racial tensions ignited by the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner—developments not lost on Director Kwame Kwei-Armah who superbly helms Powers’ compelling work.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Hall of Famer Through and Through

Colette Roberts will be inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame on March 12, 2015.  She will be joined by four other distinguished women and those wh o had been inducted in the past. 

Here’s why:

Colette Roberts distinguished herself in Howard County’s efforts to advance human rights by identifying the need for equality and support for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their families and friends.  
The mother of four children, one of whom is a lesbian, Ms. Roberts strongly believes that her gay daughter is every bit as worthy and equal as her other children.  She applied this principle to all LGBT individuals, and in 1995, co-founded the Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Throughout the years at the helm of PFLAG-Howard County, the chapter had become a model for the other 500 PFLAG chapters nationally to emulate.  The chapter’s mission includes support, education and advocacy components, and it has excelled in all three under the stewardship of Colette Roberts.

But her contributions to human rights in Howard County transcended the efficient functioning of the chapter.  Over the years, Ms. Roberts had taken countless numbers of phone calls—many during the middle of the night—from parents who have extreme difficulty in dealing with finding out that their child is LGBT. 
Additionally, she received frantic, emotional, sometimes desperate calls from teenagers who have found that not only were their parents not accepting such disclosure, but also were frequently hostile.  Because some parents actually evicted the children, Ms. Roberts worked with community services and individuals to seek placement for these children until stability was restored within the family.

Jefferson Jackson Community Builder Award
from then County Executive Ken Ulman
Understanding that children are vulnerable to the hostility and fear in a society that is not always accepting of LGBT individuals, even in a progressive and inclusive area as Howard County, the chapter, under Ms. Roberts leadership formed a youth support group, now called Rainbow Youth and Allies (RYA). It provides a safe place for LGBT youth ages 14 to 22, to meet, socialize and receive support. 
The RYA has been a success story that has received national attention.  It has been instrumental in establishing Gay-Straight Alliances in the county high schools and has been a safe haven for youth to come to terms with their sexuality and form social and support networks.   Many straight teens and young adults who are supportive have also participated in the RYA.  Moreover, Ms. Roberts worked closely with the Howard County Public School System and its board to foster a safe environment in which all students—gay or straight—may successfully learn.

Under her leadership, Ms. Roberts also established a very successful support group for parents of LGBT children of any age.  In this endeavor, parents who have completed the journey from denial to full advocacy of LGBT equality lend support to parents who are confronted with this issue for the first time.

 In addition, Ms. Roberts, with other members of the chapter’s Advocacy Committee, had continually met with legislators and other elected officials to present the case for full equality for LGBT individuals.

For her efforts, Colette Roberts received an award in November 2005 from Equality Maryland, the state’s principal LGBT civil rights organization.  She was honored before such dignitaries as then Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and civil rights activist Julian Bond.  Colette Roberts was recognized for her energy and drive in making lives better for the LGBT community and their families in Howard County. 
Receiving Human Rights Commission Award
In 2007, she received the Howard County’s Human Rights Commission Award for her efforts to improve the lives of LGBT citizens and their families.  In accepting her award, Ms. Roberts acknowledged the work of the chapter in supporting parents and families of LGBT children but also in trying to eradicate discrimination. 
“We welcome everyone who shares in the vision of a world that respects all people,” she said.  Calvin Ball, then Chair of the Howard County Council said after the presentation, “Colette Roberts is a committed public servant, and we’re lucky to have her in Howard County.”

In 2010, Ms. Roberts was honored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) for her years of service to the community. The same year she was honored by the Howard County Democratic Party when she was presented with the Jefferson Jackson Community Builder Award by County Executive Ken Ulman.

Colette Roberts has improved the lives of women by keeping Howard County families together.  She served as a volunteer for the National Organization for Women in its quest to achieve an Equal Rights Amendment.  As a member of an interracial couple, Ms. Roberts experienced first hand the stain of discrimination.  She has fought discrimination all her life and does not want to see her daughter to be a victim of hate and prejudice based on who she is.  Ms. Roberts doesn’t want any other children to be victims either. 

Her achievements in the area of human rights have been bold and enduring.  She helped to create and maintain a viable organization that has garnered an incredible amount of respect and admiration throughout the county.  She succeeded in keeping families together by dedicating much of her time and energy to this cause.  As such, Colette Roberts has made a difference in the lives of Howard County’s citizens.

Ms. Roberts had resigned her post as PFLAG chapter Chairperson in January 2010 for personal reasons.  She along with her now late husband Jim owned a small business for many years on Ellicott City’s Main Street.  She is currently employed as an administrative assistant at Howard Community College.

Colette Roberts’ legacy in the area of civil rights and improving the lives of so many is lasting and, therefore, is worthy of being selected in the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame.