Monday, April 14, 2014

'Shrek' On Ogre to Toby's

Fairy tales usually follow a set pattern. They have a timeless setting, unspecified place, one- dimensional characters (both good or bad) with a purpose to entertain, inspire or teach a lesson. The plot may have a quest, magical creatures, humble hero, diabolical villain, maybe a beautiful princess, and most have a happy ending.
Photo: Kirstine Christiansen
Shrek The Musical playing at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia follows the fairy tale formula perfectly. Our humble hero, the ogre Shrek, played by Russell Sunday, is content in his swampy abode far from other creatures.  His life is turned upside down when his swamp is overrun by a ragtag bunch of fairy tale characters, labeled as “freaks” and “fruitcakes,” cast out of the nearby kingdom of Duloc. These fairy tale creatures persuade Shrek to go to Duloc and convince the evil, dwarf-like Lord Farquaad (played wonderfully by Jeffrey Shankle) to let them return so he can resume his solitary existence.
Farquaad sends Shrek on a quest to rescue the Princess Fiona (Coby Kay Callahan), whom he wants to marry in order to become king.  She is to be rescued from a lava- and dragon-guarded tower in exchange for the deed to his swamp. Along the way, Shrek is joined by Donkey (Calvin McCullough) who becomes his annoyingly talkative friend and “trusty steed.”  

Shrek rescues the Princess Fiona from her long 20 years of waiting and the torch song-singing dragon.  On the way back to Duloc, an unlikely romance develops between the ogre and Princess based on their having more in common; i.e. bodily noises, than what is seen on the surface.  Fiona's secret curse is revealed to Donkey who finally convinces Shrek to return, and with the help of the fairy tale characters and the dragon, stop the wedding and defeat the tyrant Farquaad. With a kiss, Fiona's secret of being an ogress is revealed, and they live happily ever after.
Shrek The Musical is loosely based on William Steig's 1990 children’s book Shrek and follows closely the storyline of the 2001 Dreamworks Animation film Shrek. The film won the first ever Academy Award for best animated feature and has become a children's classic.
The show opened in December 2008 and ran for 441 performances. It received 8 Tony Award nominations and continued the long line of screen to stage musicals. With music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, the musical is full of winking satire, sight gags and nods to other Broadway musicals like Gypsy, A Chorus Line and Wicked.
Russell Sunday, a Toby's veteran of over 30 productions, is the title character and backbone of the show. Despite heavy make-up and costume, he was in fine voice in songs such as "When Words Fail" and "Build A Wall."

Coby Kay Callahan brings great energy and personality to the role of Fiona. She shines in the song “I Know It's Today" with Caroline Otchet as young Fiona and Amanda Kaplan as teen Fiona also giving stellar performances.
Jeffrey Shankle plays the diminutive Lord Farquaad with the flair needed for a comedic villain. Another Toby's veteran, Shankle has the very difficult task of moving, dancing and singing well from his knees.  His vocals were outstanding as evidenced by his performances of “What’s Up, Duloc?” and “The Arrival of Farquaad.”

Calvin McCullough brings great comedic timing and enthusiasm to the sidekick role of Donkey.  Also strong vocally, Mr. McCullough excels in “Don’t Let Me Go” among others.
Ashley Johnson who gives voice to a torch song-singing dragon is another powerful vocalist in the production.

Co-Directed by Lawrence B Munsey and Kevin McAllister, Shrek is a fast-paced, fractured fairy tale. With Musical Direction from Douglas Lawler (reviewed production) and Pamela Wilt, numbers like “A Big Bright Beautiful World” sparkle and is my favorite. Choreography by Shalyce Hemby hit the mark in the big production numbers like “Freak Flag” and “What’s Up Duloc?” where the ensemble players sang and danced with energy and verve.
The set by David A. Hopkins brought the fairy tale land to life with swamps, castles, bridges and towers. Toby’s mainstays Lawrence B. Munsey and Janine Sunday were blessed with the job of Costume Design. They brought to life over a dozen fairy tale characters from Pinocchio to The Three Bears to The Pied Piper.

Lighting Design by Lynn Joslin was instrumental in revealing Fiona's secret. Sound Design by Drew Dedrick made the roar of the ogre and the big dragon believable, and the well-mic’d ensemble were very audible indeed.
Another fairy tale pattern Shrek has in abundance is teaching the lesson of tolerance. It possesses a strong storyline of acceptance of everyone and being true to who you are. Pinocchio says, “I'm wood and I'm good.” The line “Let your freak flag fly” from the musical number “Freak Flag” demonstrates the value of diversity. 

Shrek may have started as a children’s book, and the musical at Toby's had an abundant amount  of children in the audience, but like any good fairy tale, it told a story, entertained and provided a needed lesson of acceptance. Another message offered: you don’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Shrek The Musical runs through June 22 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by visiting or calling 410-730-8311.

'Once On This Island' at Olney

Aisha Jackson as Ti Moune (foreground), Theresa Cunningham as Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Nicholas Ward as Agwe (God of Water), Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate as Erzulie (Goddess of Love), and James T. Lane as Papa Ge (Demon of Death). Photo: Stan Barouh
A booming storm yet again rocks this vulnerable Caribbean island, which happens to be Haiti, “The Jewel of the Antilles.”  And in a matter of 90 minutes—the length of a typical wind-swept, drenching and damaging tempest —theatre patrons attending the musical Once On This Island playing at the Olney Theatre Center will be told how a peasant girl can pull strangers on the island together through the power of love. This is accomplished largely through storytelling, an intrinsic part of the peasant culture on Haiti, which serves to entertain as well as to instill values in children. 
Artistic Director Jason Loewith along with veteran theatre director Alan Muraoka, who is  known for his TV work for Sesame Street and making his Olney debut, assembled a talented cast and creative team to deliver a tightly-staged, colorful spectacle in which the story showcases the best of humanity but at times presents a dark reality. He uses a Red Cross shelter following the storm as the setting in the present to symbolically remind the audience of the effects of such disasters on the population, which have been all too common in Haiti. 
These efforts come into play in Once On This Island as the high-voltage performers are clothed in vivid and at times, rather unconventional Caribbean garb while a stunning set provides an attractive and functional backdrop.  Add to that the splashy bright pastel lighting and excellent sound design and you have a first-rate production through and through.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

MLK's Other Day

Every November 22 we commemorate the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  That date is engrained in U.S. history and many people who were alive then recall vividly where they were when the news from Dallas broke.  We remember that dreadful date but hardly anyone realizes that JFK’s birthday was May 29.

Also heartbreaking was the assassination of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which occurred in Memphis on April 4, 1968.  Yet the date with which he is most associated is his birthday, January 15.  A national holiday was established on the third Monday of each January near that date to honor the fallen civil rights hero.  
We recently passed the 46th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.  I chose April 4—the other MLK day—to reflect upon Dr. King’s contributions and what might have been had his young life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. On that horrific day, the civil rights movement following Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence experienced a stunning blow.

Whereas the U.S. Constitution provides continuity and stability when a president cannot complete his term, that is not the case when a larger-than-life, charismatic but unelected leader is struck down.  To be clear, other civil rights leaders have attempted to fill Dr. King’s shoes and worked extremely hard in an effort to end legalized segregation and discrimination and attain justice for African-Americans. Rep. John Lewis from the MLK era, as an example, continues the fight even today.  However, there has been nobody I know who has been compared to Dr. King or is perceived to be his equal.  Many have succeeded him; nobody replaced him.
Arguably the one white leader who had been revered by blacks during the 1960s was Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of the assassinated president.  He, too, would be slain two months later.  Kennedy, a senator at the time and running for president during the 1968 primary campaign, disclosed the assassination of MLK that evening in what many have hailed as the “greatest speech ever” at a scheduled stop in Indianapolis.  News didn’t travel as fast in those days—unlike the instantaneous transmission of news and photos today—and the crowd groaned and wept at the announcement of the killing that occurred hours earlier. 

Kennedy implored love and compassion and decried hatred knowing that the audience would be filled with anger especially since the accused assassin was a white man.  It was to no avail. 
Though Indianapolis remained calm, riots broke out in over 100 cities, including Baltimore, reflecting the anger of a populace who lost their spiritual, if not political, leader.  A few years earlier, such riots took place in Detroit, Harlem and Watts, but they were a result, for the most part, of police actions that were hostile to inner city blacks. 

This time the boiling point was reached with the murder of MLK as a substantial segment of Americans saw a hopeless future and acted out accordingly.  Emotions were already ramped up because of the divisive war in Vietnam, which reached its peak in 1968.  Unfortunately, the riots produced a white backlash, spawning a “law and order” dogma by conservatives, which impeded progress.
Nonetheless, there have been substantial gains in the quest for civil rights since the day we lost MLK.  Even before then, largely because of the efforts of Dr. King, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, and we have recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation.

But just as the elimination of homophobia has been a slow slog through history, so has the efforts to end racism.  Income inequality persists for African-Americans as does a sizable achievement and employment gap.  Schools in black areas are sub-standard and poorly funded.  Many families continue to be torn apart because of poverty, drugs, a lack of health care and other influences.  Crime remains a problem in most of the country’s inner cities.
Hope emerged, however, with the election of Barack Obama as president.  Some saw this as the end of racism as the election of the first African-American to the White House was an unimaginable achievement.  People celebrated and imagined how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have reacted to this historic milestone. But the temptation to see this as a new beginning was tempered by the fact that it brought back the old demons of racism and another backlash.

Ugly racist signs, t-shirts and epithets were common during the 2008 campaign.  Efforts to block President Obama on his legislative initiatives are believed to be, in part, race motivated.  The Affordable Care Act or Obamacare was opposed by those who saw this as a way to increase premiums on white people so that blacks can get health insurance.  Even the attempt to allow the country to default on its debts was inspired by hatred towards the president to make him look bad.  And then there was the Trayvon Martin fiasco, which ignited more racist commentary in what we call the “new media.” Add to that the voter suppression efforts.  It goes on and on.
Instead of moving forward, we have taken a step back.  Dr. King would not be smiling on us now despite the election of President Obama.  Instead, he would be shedding a tear—maybe a lot of tears. 

In recalling MLK’s murder on that muggy April 4 afternoon at the Lorraine Motel, it’s important to note how progress can be thwarted so easily and how fragile racial equality is.   We should consider April 4 as another Martin Luther King Day, even unofficially, to reflect upon what could have been and how far we still need to go.
Following renovations, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel re-opened on April 5 to remind everybody of the blood, sweat and tears shed during this movement and that the struggle is far from over. 

As Dr. King said, “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Columbia Democratic Club Endorsements


The Columbia Democratic Club (CDC) issued endorsements for Democratic candidates for the primary elections on June 24, 2014 and the general election on November 4.  To win an endorsement, each candidate had to receive 50 percent plus 1 of the ballots cast.  Only CDC members who are residents in Howard County were eligible to vote.  Over 200 participated.

Following are the endorsements by the CDC:

U.S. Congress District 2 – Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger

U.S. Congress District 3 – Rep. John Sarbanes

U.S. Congress District 7 – Rep. Elijah Cummings

Governor/Lt. Governor – Anthony Brown/Ken Ulman

Attorney General – Brian Frosh

Comptroller – Peter Franchot

MD District 9 (Senate) – Dan Medinger

MD District 9-A (Delegate) – Walter Carson, Ward Morrow

MD District 9-B (Delegate) – Tom Coale

MD District 12 (Senate) – Ed Kasemeyer

MD District 12 (Delegate) – Terri Hill, Clarence Lam

MD District 13 (Senate) – Guy Guzzone

MD District 13 (Delegate) – Vanessa Atterbeary, Shane Pendergrass, Frank Turner

Howard County Executive – Courtney Watson

Howard County Council District 1 – Jon Weinstein

Howard County Council District 2 – Calvin Ball

Howard County Council District 3 – Jen Terrasa

Howard County Council District 4 – Mary Kay Sigaty

Howard County Council District 5 – Alan Schneider

Howard County State’s Attorney – Dario Broccolino

Clerk of the Circuit Court – Wayne Robey

Register of Wills – Byron Macfarlane

Judge of the Orphan’s Court – Anne Dodd, Nicole Bormel Miller

Howard County Sheriff – James Fitzgerald

Howard County Democratic Central Committee – Jonathan Branch, Candace Dodson-Reed,    

                       Abby Hendrix, Ethel Hill, Kathy Macfarlane






Thursday, March 27, 2014

How Phelps' Hatred Backfired

I have to admit that when I first read the news that Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps died at 84, I was elated.  He was scum and inflicted pain on others. My first instinct was to organize pickets at his funeral (there was none as it turned out) with signs reading “God Hates Bigots” or “Thank God for Dead Haters” to return the favor for his church’s disgusting activities since 1998.  Few people can induce cheers from a death; Osama bin Laden is a recent example.
Then after my internal celebration cooled down I asked myself why should we stoop to his level as much as it would clearly give us a sense of satisfaction and vindication?      

Phelps’ death does provide us with the comfort that he will never be part of a tasteless protest at funerals and other events (he hasn’t personally since 2007) though his vile, extremist daughter will be sure to carry on the tradition.  He’s gone now, and hardly anyone I know shed a tear. 
But cheering his death and demonstrating visibly would not make us much better than him, if you think about it.  The LGBT community and its allies can rejoice in the fact that we have made historic strides in the overall quest for equality; progress is seen almost every day in the U.S. if not the world.  Part of this advancement can be attributed to the fact we are less likely to be viewed as some abstract, bizarre subgroup of society but everyday folks: teachers, farmers, police officers, lawyers, dentists, physicians, co-workers, neighbors, friends and family members.

Acting in the same way as Fred Phelps and his obnoxious followers (mostly family members) will not help further our cause and win over those people who are slow to come around.   While such release of emotion may be cathartic, it’s best to internalize it and let it be.  Hating is hating, and hate is never good.
But we can at least find solace in reflecting upon how Phelps had been an unwitting ally during our struggle.  Sure he wants us all dead (that’s going to happen anyway) and preaches that God is a vengeful God.  And his hateful language on his garish signs does not make for pleasant viewing.  Look past the idiocy and think of how he helped us in ways he never imagined.

When 21 year-old college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998, there was a chilling sadness among gays and lesbians as well as other sensible citizens.  Another brutal attack on a gay man. Another killing just because of who he was.   We’ve seen them before and we expected more to come.  There were, and still are, too many homophobes out to destroy us. 
The Shepard murder gained national attention because of this evil and heartless act committed by two losers, yet the horrific incident would have faded as other news, such as the Clinton impeachment, crowded out another gay bashing.  But enter Fred Phelps and his rag-tag brood of haters with signs picketing Shepard’s funeral and applauding his death.  They read: “Fags are Nature Freaks,” “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags.”

People noticed this incredible display of insensitivity and hate and paused for a minute.  Who can this group be that could celebrate the vicious slaying of this waifish college student?  Who can add even more trauma and heartache to his grieving family?
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. led by Pastor Fred Phelps managed to extend the news coverage of the Shepard murder by the hate-filled picketing.  People saw this crazy band of people as extremists, and decent-minded people, regardless of their stance on homosexuality, were sympathetic towards the Shepard family.

The compassion remained but it did not significantly change how people perceive gays and lesbians in America.  They saw Phelps and his church as outliers and moved on.  Then Phelps, et al, made the biggest mistake of all and ultimately caused a shift in people’s views towards the LGBT community.
Westboro started to picket the funerals of American soldiers who were killed in the war in Iraq.  They carried signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” among others.  The families and friends of these servicemen were outraged by the taunting.  As Phelps continued this practice repeatedly and winning a legal battle in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 over the right to free speech, more and more Americans had become furious over this brand of heinous extremism.

Phelps did not stop there.  They picketed hundreds of other funerals and events declaring God’s retribution for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and their gratitude for AIDS.  They even celebrated the deaths of the children in the Newtown, Conn. massacre.  How low is that?
The country continued to despise Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Phelps’ hatred of gay people affected the masses whereby the enemy of my enemy was becoming their friend: gays.

A few years ago, Judy Shepard, who successfully crusaded to pass Federal hate crimes legislation that was named after her son, was asked about Phelps.  “Oh, we love Freddy,” she told LGBTQ Nation.  “If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.”   She accurately pointed out that “Freddy” elevated Matthew and hate crimes in general to more prominence than would have otherwise.  Phelps’ extremism caused mainstream America to despise him, and as a result, they became more empathetic to the plight of LGBT folks. 
As for her reaction to Phelps’ demise, Judy issued the following statement: “Regarding the passing of Fred Phelps, [husband] Dennis and I know how solemn these moments are for anyone who loses a loved one. Out of respect for all people and our desire to erase hate, we’ve decided not to comment further.”

As many of us should, Judy took the high road.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Iron Crow Resurrects Poe in 'The Homo Poe Show'

It was an ambitious undertaking for the Iron Crow Theater Company’s founder and artistic director Steven J. Satta to create a production inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and present them through a “queer lens,” as he put it.  The offbeat 19th century author, poet and critic who died in Baltimore from a host of possible causes, would seem like a good fit for this Baltimore-based community theatre company whose plays generally center on issues relating to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and are characterized by atypical, thought-provoking scripts with a good dose of sexuality immersed in the topics.

Alec Weinberg and Nick Horan in “Grieving and Sequins”
Photo: Zachary Handler
“Iron Crow has always had a very big definition of ‘queer’ - to include expression that skews or re-invents things in a dramatic way that connects to gender or sexual themes,” Mr. Satta told me prior to the opening of The Homo Poe Show at the Theatre Project.  “I think that Poe is already more than halfway towards this definition of ‘queer’.  His take on the world is so idiosyncratic and unexpected (twisted, in some cases) that he created his own genre of literature.  He deals often with obsession and lost love, which, while it is not explicitly sexual in his stories, is an easy path into the territories of gender and sexual desire.” 
Mr. Satta summoned up several playwrights who had previously helped give Iron Crow its edgy persona and strung together seven short pieces—a mixture of individual mini-plays and some aerial dance performances—in an attempt to present Poe’s works through this “queer” lens.  Mr. Satta also wrote one of the pieces and, along with Ryan Clark, directed the production.   As Poe’s efforts over the years met with mixed results, so, too, did The Homo Poe Show.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Taking the Local Road to Equality

As the transgender rights bill (Fairness for All Marylanders Act) continues to work its way through the General Assembly with hopefully positive results, the last big piece of legislation for LGBT Marylanders will be joining marriage equality in the rear-view mirror.  This is not to say the work is done, however. 
Carrie Evans, the executive director of Equality Maryland, indicated that there are future legislative initiatives concerning equality and justice that intersect with being LGBT.  “We are more than our sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said.  “We are black, immigrant, parents, rural dwelling, disabled, young, and senior citizens, and Equality Maryland will work on advocating for the whole of an LGBT person’s identity and issues.” 

While Equality Maryland re-tools its mission to take on matters that concern these groups, there are those who strongly believe that the most effective way to deal with anti-gay brushfires around the state is to go local.  The recent physical attack of a gay couple in New York’s West Village should underscore the fact that there are too many haters out there, which cannot be masked by recent victories in marriage and transgender equality.
Having local affiliates throughout the state, similar to what the NAACP does, makes patently good sense.  Volunteers consisting of LGBT folks and allies in each county (or region) should form groups that could be called, for example, “Equality Allegany” or “Equality Eastern Shore” or “Equality Prince George’s” depending on the jurisdiction.

With an LGBT presence at the local level, there could be more efficient ways to interact with the police on crimes or hate bias incidents directed towards LGBT folks.  Local affiliates could meet with police representatives to discuss such matters and hold conversations to educate the police on LGBT concerns that cannot be accomplished at the state level.
Local equality affiliates could also interact with their elected officials whether they are county executives, councilpersons, state representatives or other elected officials.  Maryland is a diverse state with each jurisdiction having unique problems.  Residents of these localities are familiar with these issues; perhaps they know the officials well enough to have a cup of coffee and initiate meaningful dialogue.

The same could be said for the local school boards.  Numerous LGBT families have children attending schools, and there are, of course, LGBT kids all over.  While the state has anti-bullying measures in place, individual incidents need to be addressed at the local school board level.  Who is better equipped to discuss anti-bullying policies than those people living in the same county and who may be members of the PTA or personally know members of the board?
Getting the local business community behind its LGBT neighbors cannot be overemphasized.  As the fracas in Arizona proved, business people saw discrimination as counter-productive and applied strong pressure on Governor Brewer to veto the preposterous discriminatory bill.  The local affiliate representatives should meet with business owners—large and small—to determine how supporting LGBT rights would be mutually beneficial.

I would also encourage each local group to form a speakers’ bureau consisting of at least one LGBT person, a parent of an LGBT child and another ally to foster trust and understanding.  The speakers would explain that as more and more people come out as LGBT, they are your family members, friends, classmates, neighbors and co-workers.  The presentations and discussions concerning LGBT issues should be directed at businesses, government entities and even religious organizations.  They should push to get invited; such talks would resonate given that the presenters are neighbors and customers.
Efforts at the local level have already paid dividends over the years, and there are already such “equality organizations” in place.  I’ve seen firsthand the myriad accomplishments of PFLAG-Howard County, which is a model for advocacy in the state.  The chapter has been successful at the county and state levels as well as in the private sector to eliminate the last vestiges of discrimination.

The progress being made by both The LGBT Center and the PFLAG chapter in Frederick has been notable.  They are working with the police and businesses to create a comfortable environment for a growing LGBT population in what was once a very conservative area.
There are other PFLAG chapters around the state that could serve as the root organization for the equality affiliate.  Chapters exist in Baltimore, Carroll, Kent and Montgomery counties, so they would be off to a fast start.  There has also been some movement in organizing LGBT events in Anne Arundel.

The GLCCB perhaps could serve as the principal organization in Baltimore City.  They have already taken big strides through their partnering with city government on a number of issues and have maintained a good relationship with the police—key successes in an urban environment.
Other affiliates, of course, would have to be established in rural counties.  The tasks are more daunting in those areas given the socially conservative mindset, but that is where the work is most needed.  Again, one should stress that those folks are their neighbors, customers, teachers, physicians and friends.  It’s worked before; it should work again.

All this localization is not designed to reduce Equality Maryland’s role in the quest for LGBT rights.  On the contrary, that organization could be a significant factor in the success of this effort.  I believe it should serve as the umbrella organization for the local affiliates.  Since the local groups would consist of volunteers, it would not place a financial burden on Equality Maryland.  They can use their database to identify potential volunteers around the state.
The larger organization would provide guidance on policy matters and connect the locals to elected officials.  Equality Maryland could hold an annual conference/fundraiser to discuss best practices among other subjects.  To the extent Equality Maryland would have control over the local groups would be left to the affiliates to negotiate. 

This is a big undertaking that will take time to succeed.  But going local is the right direction to take on the winding road to equality.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Virtuoso Acting on Display in 'The Dresser'

Bruce Nelson (l.), Carl Schurr and Deborah Hazlett
It’s not surprising that stellar actors Bruce R. Nelson and Carl Schurr would click so well in The Dresser, a well-balanced dramatic and humorous play, which is currently on stage at the Everyman Theatre.  They have a long string of theatrical successes under their belts with Mr. Nelson, a local favorite, capturing a Helen Hayes Award among other honors.  These Everyman resident company members formed an extraordinary duo and gave what some could rightly call an acting clinic as the two leads in Ronald Harwood’s play.
The Dresser opened on London’s West End in 1980 and then on Broadway in 1981 where it ran for 200 performances.  It was made into a movie in 1983.  Harwood’s work was inspired by his own personal experience as a dresser to Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit.  But The Dresser is neither autobiographical nor biographical.

It’s the story of an aging British Shakespearian actor-manager, Sir, (Schurr) whose faculties have been steadily deteriorating.  Sir’s lifeline besides his wife, Her Ladyship, played by Deborah Hazlett, has been his personal dresser, Norman (Nelson), a somewhat effeminate and loyal servant to Sir, catering to his every whim. 
Sir is the domineering lead actor of a ragtag touring troupe of Shakespearian actors who must perform in the British provinces amidst the bombs from German aircraft during the Blitz.  Never wanting to be upstaged, the one-time great actor is often tyrannical and hardly ever satisfied with the other actors’ performances.    

The weary Sir is preparing to don his triple crown in King Lear for the 227th time, yet he is challenged to remember which play he is performing in, much less his opening lines.  Norman, his rock for 16 years—doting after Sir, boosting his confidence, adjusting his costumes and make-up, massaging him and otherwise caring for him as if he were his lover—convinces Sir to perform one more time.   He not only had to struggle to persuade Sir who is sensing his own mortality, but did so over the objections of Her Ladyship and Madge, the stage manager (Megan Anderson).  They want him to forego this performance and retire altogether. 
But Norman, whose own existence is tied to Sir’s career and becomes a powerful force when this relationship is challenged, prevails. You see, Sir needs Norman but not quite as much as Norman needs Sir in this symbiotic relationship.  Sir is Norman’s life—dutifully serving the dominating Sir between nips of brandy.
As bombs and air raid sirens blast outside the theater, Sir reluctantly steps on stage to deliver one of his best performances as King Lear for what was to be yet another curtain call.  I will refrain from divulging what unfolds hence, but be assured the play packs a powerful dramatic conclusion.

Yet, for all the dramatic moments, the play’s clever wit shines through and through.  Veteran Director Derek Goldman is blessed with a highly skilled cast and crew to maximize this story of loyalty, dedication, love and the human spirit and guides the production with a steady hand. 
Bruce R. Nelson, as he so often does, pulls out all the stops, employing varied voice inflections, mannerisms, body language and gestures in the role of Norman.  His comic timing is also spot on as he delivers one witty retort after another.  Norman’s devotion to his master Sir is the foundation for his performance that included a display of jealousy during a fiery confrontation with Irene (Emily Vere Nicoll), the youngest actor in the troupe who allowed Sir to have a physical encounter with her.

Carl Schurr as the once great but ailing Sir is riveting.  Moving ploddingly, speaking softly until his authoritative persona needs to come through, Mr. Schurr convincingly takes on Sir’s complex character.  He also delivers a number of amusing lines—even some with gallows humor about the war and sickness—bringing the audience to laughter.
Together, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Schurr form an impressive acting duo whereby each action, gesture and spoken word is blended in perfect harmony.  Deborah Hazlett’s performance as Her Ladyship is also proficient in allowing the audience to believe that Norman is more able to reach Sir than she could at this stage of their relationship.
Photos by ClintonBPhotography
The other actors Megan Anderson as Madge, Emily Vere Nicoll as Irene, Will Love as Geoffrey Thornton, James Whalen as Mr. Oxenby and the remainder of the ensemble, James Bunzli, Will Cooke, Benjamin Lovell and Frank Tesoro Vince provided the leads with strong support.
 James Fouchard was meticulous in designing the set, with its stage lighting fixtures and high brick walls to depict the backstage of a 1942 theater in the English provinces.  Most of the scenes take place in Sir’s dressing room, which is brought out on stage via a turntable to the audience’s left side. 

Unfortunately, that positioning put the Everyman audience seated on the right side of the theater at a slight disadvantage.  The center of the stage is used for the actors to walk to and from the dressing room’s door and later during the King Lear play within the play.
Nonetheless, the dressing room set was so detailed and complete one would think that it was Sir’s flat.  In a way it is surprising that the room contained such accoutrements as bookshelves, a stove, photographs, and an assortment of knick-knacks along with the standard desk and sofa given that this is a touring company—not one that took up a more long-term residence.  One indication that this room is a temporary setting: the open trunk at the side of the sofa.  Regardless, the set is splendidly designed and serves as a great backdrop to where most of the dialogue takes place.

Sound designer Chad Marsh also excels.  The booming sounds from bombs and air raid sirens made the theater vibrate lending stark reality to what is transpiring outside.  When cast member were using thunder sheets, drums and other devices to depict a storm scene in King Lear, they had to beat these instruments even harder to drown out the sounds of bombs—a chilling effect.
The creative team as a whole backs up a solid cast.  With The Dresser, one is sure to enjoy a potent story with sufficient opportunities to chuckle and to witness a pair of sterling actors working brilliantly at their craft.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
The Dresser runs through March 23 at the Everyman Theatre, 315 E. Fayette St., Baltimore 21201.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-752-2208 or online.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why the Jason Collins Signing is Big News

By the time you read this, NBA player Jason Collins will have nearly completed his 10-day contract he signed with the Brooklyn Nets on February 23.  But his impact on organized sports, society as a whole and perhaps most importantly, on gay kids in the U.S. will live on, even if Collins’ contract is not renewed.
Jason Collins becomes first openly gay pro male in big 4 sports
When Collins stepped onto the Staples Center court in Los Angeles that evening, he became the first ever openly gay pro male athlete in North America’s big four sports leagues, which include the NFL, MLB, NHL and the NBA to play in a game. 
“Today Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America,” Brian Ellner, a founding member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about homophobia in sports. “This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate.”

Others disagree.  For some reason, they don’t recognize the significance of this landmark that frequently draws analogies to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 with another Brooklyn team. 

When I posted a complaint on Facebook that the local TV sports reports failed to mention this breakthrough that night, I received this perplexing response: “Why is someone’s sexuality an issue anymore?”  That individual, who is a straight, supportive friend of mine, was probably thinking of what SHOULD be rather that what reality is.
Another opined that the signing was merely a “publicity stunt” in an effort for the NBA to beat the NFL for bragging rights of being the first league to have an openly gay player.  In addition, TV time was too “precious” to include the story especially since Baltimore doesn’t have a NBA team.

These are bogus arguments.  The Nets stated unequivocally they needed a defensive back-up center and Collins was available.  The sports report on WBAL-TV included the Olympics (of course), a NASCAR race, a golf tournament and a Calvert Hall-Loyola high school basketball game footage.  All well and good, but to sidestep this historic event is dubious at best.  It should be noted that WJZ also failed to mention it.
I hope the reason for not reporting the story was based on “it’s no big deal” even if that decision means blindness towards history rather than a conscious effort to exclude it because of any discomfort about the subject in the station’s sports department.  We’ll never know and I will give them the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, I won’t forget how one of the Baltimore Sun’s beat writers for the Ravens tweeted (and quickly deleted) a response to a story on LGBT advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo’s work:  “Hopefully, we have seen the end of the Brendon Ayanbedejo [sic] stories and his crusade.  Enough already.  Actually, way too much.” 

With gains for LGBT Americans happening almost routinely, one can see how folks could be suffering “gay fatigue” or shrug off an openly gay player entering the macho-centric culture of organized sports.  But that would be misguided. 
Yes, there have been some victories on the marriage front, but we’re on a treadmill on other matters.  Pressure had to be applied to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (the one who once disrespectfully poked her finger at President Obama) to veto an atrocious bill that would have codified discrimination against gays and lesbians based on nebulous religious reasons.  As obnoxious as that is a D.C. lobbyist who is seeking Congressional legislation to ban gay players from the NFL.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues to hold up a Senate-approved bill to end discrimination against LGBT folks in employment. Bullying against gay youth in schools and in cyberspace persists.  Globally, we’re witnessing the horrific laws enacted in Russia and Uganda.  And gays in several Middle Eastern countries face death sentences if caught.
I point these out to counter the erroneous thinking that gays are doing so well that playing a professional sport as an openly gay man is no big deal.  Barriers still remain, and for a player to overcome them, it would require courage, an even-keeled temperament, thick skin and likability.  Both Michael Sam, the heralded Mizzou pass rusher who came out prior to the upcoming NFL draft, and Jason Collins clearly possess these attributes.  And it doesn’t hurt that these two men are blessed with camera-loving good looks.

There will be more opportunities in the other sports for gay athletes to come out.  The suspected “media frenzy” following Collins’ first game did not materialize.  Sure, Michael Sam drew substantial media attention recently at the NFL Combine.  But a frenzy?  Not so much.  And as more enter the scene, less attention will follow; the novelty will have worn off.
Players throughout the Big Four leagues have publicly expressed support for a gay teammate—not all, but enough—to quell any feared backlash.  The locker room issue is a red herring; gay players are not going to do something stupid especially when their actions will be under a microscope.  Such unfounded fears surfaced during the process in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Again, no barracks or showers-related incidents have surfaced, to my knowledge.

While the circumstances were far different nearly 70 years ago, Jackie Robinson had to endure vitriol and death threats to succeed, which opened the door to other African-American kids to realize their dreams.   Collins and Sam will be role models for gay kids.  They won’t feel alienated and will have the knowledge that the hard part had been accomplished by these two trailblazing athletes.   
That may be reason enough that this is indeed a big story.

UPDATE: Collins to be offered a second 10-day contract, which would sign him through the season.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Rainbow Appears Over Harford

No one will ever describe conservative Harford County as the hub of LGBT life in Maryland.  Voters have sent homophobic legislators, such as Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Del. Richard Impallaria to Annapolis to represent them.  The county’s public school system had once tried to block LGBT-themed websites from the school’s computers.  The voters in the county opposed the marriage equality referendum in 2012 by a 56 to 44 percent margin.
Photo: Randy Billings

Despite this history, LGBT folks in Harford County are seeing progress, albeit slowly, as some have been taking matters into their own hands.  There is a welcoming church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Harford County led by the Rev. Lisa Ward.  A PFLAG chapter has existed as well the Rainbow Youth Alliance support group.  And openly gay Havre de Grace Councilman Joseph C. Smith will be seeking election to the Harford County Council this year.
While the political winds have been swirling, if not completely shifting in Harford, and not many gay happenings going on, a group of LGBT county residents had formed a social group six years ago this month.  “Four friends (two couples) decided that we were tired of having to drive to Baltimore to do anything ‘gay,’” says Calvin Wheatley, an Edgewood resident and one of the group’s founders.  “We wanted some local fun and decided to form what we called ‘Harford Rainbow Society.’ Members have since dubbed it HRS and we more or less use that name more frequently that the full name.”

Assuming this project would take off on its own, the guys designed a logo and flyers even though there were no other members.  They didn’t know how to go about reaching out to the LGBT community.
“We ended up posting ads in Craigslist in the Groups section but that was a flop,” Wheatley admitted.   “With not a single response we went to the Personals (M4M and W4W) and that worked for us… our first meeting pulled in about 12 people.”

Every meeting after that the membership increased as they scheduled dinners, happy hours, parties, bowling events, cookouts, movies,  and visits to theme parks.  Word of mouth took over and soon they could boast nearly 500 members.   “They were mostly inactive but they were getting our emails and notices and a single event would pull in between 20 to 60 people,” Wheatley recalls. 
Along the way, two of the original founders decided that they did not want to continue to participate and have moved on, leaving Wheatley and his partner to do all the work.  “Our group was becoming a huge success but after several years I started tiring of running everything especially during those frustrating times when events would fail,” he said.  “However, after giving up the group it began to implode under a weakened less committed leadership as well as ‘drama’ that the group had never known prior.  Membership fell to under 100 members on Facebook and even those had little interest in attended events.” 

Undaunted, Wheatley decided to return to the leadership of the group last July that had now gone nearly a year with no active events and began posting dinners and happy hours.  Membership has grown again and with those who are on their Gmail list and Facebook, which has about 155 members, there are nearly 400 people on the HRS mailing/notification list.
However, Wheatley senses a loss of confidence by the group members who think the “drama” may return as individual events typically attract 15-20 people.  In an effort to change the course, Wheatley has published two upbeat newsletters called the Harford Gay-zette since the last quarter of 2013 with the hope that it will bolster confidence once again.

In the first issue, Wheatley wrote: “We enjoyed many good times and made so many friends. It cannot be denied that many of our members have developed incredible friendships and relationships that they may not have experienced without HRS bringing them together so let’s hope that we can once again return to that valuable aspect of the group, as friendship and local experiences had always been the original intent of the group and still remains the goal.”
He went on to reminisce about all the successful events and candidly pointed out the “fails”.   Wheatley highlighted individual members and listed upcoming birthdays and events to boost camaraderie.

The next issue, a 10-pager, Wheatley highlighted several couples who tied the knot following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. He also used the opportunity to welcome the new members by first name and first initial of last name, spread the word about the Harford chapter of PFLAG as well as other articles including the Affordable Care Act.
The Harford Gay-zette is a professional quality newsletter with abundant information to keep the membership informed and in good spirits.  Now if the members show up to the local events in greater numbers, it would be a big shot in the arm to the LGBT folks living in Harford County.

They’re off to a good start.  Despite the snowy night on February 12, HRS had a successful Happy Hour at MaGerks Pub and Grill in Bel Air.  Further opportunities will soon take place as there will be Bingo Night on February 25 at Pulaski Bingo in Joppa and the monthly dinner will be held on February 27 at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
For more information about the Harford Rainbow Society, visit the group's Facebook page or email

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's Time to Walk the Walk, NFL

When one looks at two photographs of the sky with one taken at sunset and the other at sunrise, it’s hard to distinguish them with the same combination of oranges, reds and blues swirled together amidst wispy clouds.  But the difference in time—sunset or sunrise—makes it significant.
Michael Sam
The same can be said when comparing the latest coming out announcements from the world of pro male sports.  Last spring, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay, and in doing so became the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out. 
At no point in his career was his average point total over 6.4 per game. Since the 2006-2007 season, he never played more than in half the game. And now at age 35 and having been a marginal producer, it is questionable if another NBA team would be willing to take a chance on this free agent.  He is still waiting for that phone call.

Some simply conclude that his age and his lack of production are the reasons no team has taken the chance.  Others surmise that his sexual orientation would be too much for a team’s front office, coaching staff, players and fans to cope with.  He is still “active” in that he had not retired, but Collins is unemployed in the NBA nonetheless. 
Being in the “sunset” of his career probably had a lot to do with the reluctance by the NBA’s teams to deal with the media frenzy that would surely follow.  Worse, they would fear a backlash, and for what?

When collegiate football star Michael Sam announced he was gay to the New York Times and ESPN, he did so in the “sunrise” of his career.  A star defensive lineman for the University of Missouri with a penchant for sacking opposing quarterbacks, he is an All-American and named the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, considered the nation’s best league. Teammates named him the Mizzou’s most valuable player.  And his teammates not only knew he is gay, they supported him wholeheartedly. 
While this was kept under the lid for the most part, there were still rumors floating around.  Sam wanted to come out on his terms.  “I came to tell the world I'm an openly proud gay man,” he said in the ESPN interview.  His announcement was met with encouragement and praise from the President of the United States and the First lady among many others.

Given his shining record, Sam would have been a near certain draft pick in the NFL’s draft in May.  Experts projected him to be a third to perhaps seventh round selection.   Now there are questions.

Some anonymous coaches, players or team officials have stated that the NFL is not quite ready for a gay player.  Others said his stock had dropped even with the talent the 6-2, 260 pounder possesses. 
Any breakthrough in professional sports of this magnitude immediately conjures up the history of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 when Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey took a chance and signed the talented, multi-sports athlete.

Robinson was told to turn the other cheek amidst taunts, attempts to injure and death threats from fans, opponents and even his own teammates.  He endured and demonstrated his superior inner strength and athletic prowess during a Hall of Fame career.  Robinson’s courage cannot be overstated.
Though we are in the 21st century, society still has its bigots and homophobes.  If a team drafts him, the locker room will take care of itself.  Though there will be some exceptions for sure, the players are warriors and want to win and will accept Michael Sam sooner or later.  Management, on the other hand, is concerned about “distractions” that could include negative fan reactions. 

Here are examples of such vitriol already posted on a FOX Sports comment thread:
From Toyhunt: “Now if he fails to get a job, he can play the gay card. See how this scam works gang. Just like the d party, run a half black man, object to anything, play the race card. This is getting old fast. The right seems to fail to use the same tactic.”

From BigMark1954: “I am so fed up with the LGBT community cramming their propaganda down our throats. The media is sensationalizing Sam's perversion, or should I say affliction. Will it ever end! And what about the players that have to be in the locker room with Sam, how comfortable will they be.....knowing full well they are ‘eyecandy’ for his perversion. Let alone his team mates that have a moral code, and some human decency?”
Sam will see and hear this and worse, but his character, strengthened by what he has suffered already with his family in his young life, will keep him focused on winning and will eventually earn the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. 

The NFL had instituted a non-discrimination policy that states in part: “Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player's sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.”
Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass offered support.  “I don’t think his being gay would be an issue at all for the Ravens,” Cass told “We’re all about winning. If he’s a good football player who can help us win games, he will be welcomed here. I was impressed by the report he received from his teammates and coaches at the University of Missouri. He obviously knows how to be a good teammate.”

It will certainly be a most interesting draft in a few months.  Michael Sam could be another Jackie Robinson-type trail blazer.  What we need, though, is another Branch Rickey.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Moving Forward

The GLCCB’s relocation signals renewed hope for the organization.

Waxter Center: New home for GLCCB  Daniel McGarrity Photography

The long anticipated move of GLCCB’s headquarters will have finally taken place by the time you read this.  The GLCCB sold the venerable off-white, brick, four-story edifice at 241 W. Chase Street just weeks before Pride after serving as its home since 1980.  Its new digs, effective February 5, are located on the 4,700 square-foot third floor of the familiar red-brick Waxter Center on Cathedral Street—a mere couple of blocks away—where it’s being leased by the Center.
The older building outlived its usefulness and required tons of money to make it ADA-compliant as well as other needed repairs and upgrades.  The best option, despite protests from some old-line traditionalists, was to find a new place rather than sinking scarce resources into a deteriorating structure, which had once been converted from a warehouse to the current office building.

To be sure, these traditionalists recalled the joyous days when Harvey Schwartz, then the executive director of the Center, led the effort to raise money in a grass roots appeal to the community and purchased the building.  Baltimore then became one the first cities in the country with a gay center—a place the community could call its own—with unlimited potential.  So when news of the building’s sale broke last June, there was a mix of sadness, anger and resignation among those who, over three decades ago, helped coax Baltimore’s gay community out of the closet and into its own space.
Sadly, for reasons discussed in earlier commentaries, that potential was never realized at 241 W. Chase Street.  The Center had a rocky history with some bad apples running the place and with some good apples making bad decisions.  But the thing about history is that it is just that, history.  The future is a separate matter but a successful future depends on learning from the past and building on it.

That’s what the new leadership of the GLCCB plans to do: not ignore history but learn from earlier miscues and start anew.  It’s patently unfair to blame past mistakes on the current leadership when the original building was purchased before most of the leadership were born.  Trust me; they have a very good notion as to what went wrong over the years and are dedicated to not repeating the same errors.
The move, of course, does not automatically wipe the slate clean.  But if the community gives the GLCCB a chance, that earlier vision of a center that fully embraces our diverse community can not only be realized but exceeded.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done, and the Center can and should play a major role.

To be successful, the GLCCB needs to gain the confidence of the community and the community needs to get involved.  The way the Center’s leadership can accomplish this is to follow through on its stated pledge for more transparency and accountability.  Nothing says you’re welcome more than complete openness and encouraging the community’s input on everything from planning to programs and how best to utilize its new space.  If the various components of the community feel that it is respected, it will invest in the Center with volunteer work and hopefully, much needed donations. 
Another way to succeed is for the Center to do what it can to encourage women and minorities to be included.  This has been a difficult challenge over the years because a wide swath of the community believed they had not been welcome. That certainly had been the case for much of the Center’s history.  On the other hand, efforts to attract more women and minorities have been thwarted by a feeling of “why bother?” by these very groups.  To fix a problem, one needs to be part of a solution and not just grouse from the sidelines.

This pattern needs to stop.  I know the new leadership is earnest in their desire to have a flourishing Center that is sensitive to the needs of the entire rainbow and truly wants diversity. 
A number of years ago, the Center’s leadership had a conflict with those running Black Pride.  It wasn’t pretty as the ensuing dispute divided the community.  Last year, the new leadership at the Center reconciled their differences to the extent that both components became partners in their respective endeavors.  That accomplishment cannot be overstated as it led to a better relationship between LGBT African-Americans and the GLCCB and serves as a template for future unity.

The Center should continue this path in forging relationships with the community.  Many LGBT folks who regularly attend Pride aren’t aware that the annual celebration is run by the GLCCB and many weren’t even born when the Center was formed or even knowledgeable of its troubled past. 

The best way to attract this new pool of energy is to hold a series of well-publicized community meetings at the Waxter Center.  There should be a different subject or theme at each.  For example, a meeting on community activities, or one on issues of concern to youth, or transgender issues, or seniors could attract folks interested in solving problems.  Yes, these community meetings often lead to shouting matches, and individuals like to promote their own agendas.  But the Center needs to prove that it is worthy of being the focal point for the LGBTQ community and may have to undergo some painful moments to demonstrate the leadership is sincere.  No pain, no gain.
And the community should step up and get involved.  Attend these meetings. Serve as a volunteer.  Be a board member.  Donate to the cause.  Make the original vision a reality. 

As the Center leaves the ghosts of West Chase Street behind, the new headquarters will afford an opportunity for the Center—hopefully with a new name—to make a fresh start and move forward.  We need it to.