Monday, August 31, 2015

10 Questions for GLCCB President Jabari Lyles


Jabari Lyles is a teacher, the outreach specialist at FreeState legal Project and co-chair and education manager at GLSEN-Baltimore.  Busy as he is, he has recently taken on an additional role: President of the Board of D
Jabari Lyles   Photo: Bob Ford
irectors for the Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB).
In doing so, Lyles becomes the fourth person to hold that position in the last 10 months.  He graciously agreed to be interviewed so that the community would be more acquainted with him and to allow him to address the rate of turnover at the GLCCB, the center’s purpose, its finances as well his vision for the center.

Steve Charing: What motivated you to join the GLCCB board and ultimately agree to be its president?
Jabari Lyles: I joined the GLCCB Board to work towards reifying its potential. After working in the local nonprofit and LGBTQ advocacy scene for some time, I became curious as to why, besides Pride, the GLCCB seemed nonexistent and hidden. It was particularly confusing, as a young, black, gay person in Baltimore, that I didn’t feel a connection to this center. I certainly knew this absence was not for lack of need.

Eventually, I learned about parts of the center’s history, the community concern it generated, and perhaps the reason why the GLCCB seemed to exist in the shadows. Instead of continuing to condemn the organization, I saw an opportunity to make change from within. To me, continuing to neglect the center was continuing to neglect the people it could represent. I decided to apply to join the Board, with a specific focus on the GLCCB’s transparency and inclusion, work with people of color, youth, and the transgender community.
I immediately took an active role on the board and became heavily involved in the center’s operations and direction. I became impassioned with the idea of a community center that is truly community held, community-serving and community-building—supported by an organization that has the trust and buy-in from the people we serve. To me, this is what a community center should always be. I agreed to be Board President because I believe in what the GLCCB can be, I believe in my community, and I believe that I can lead with hope, love, knowledge and courage.

SC: You have been working with several successful non-profits, such as GLSEN and FreeState Legal.  What has been your experience at these organizations that you can bring to the GLCCB?
JL: I have worked with GLSEN Baltimore for nearly 10 years now, and for several years under the tutelage of the late, great Kay Halle, longtime social justice advocate and community servant. There was a bit of love in everything that she did, and though small in stature, she was a force to be reckoned with. Although I am quite large, those who know me would agree that I approach my work with a nice balance of tenderness and intensity.

GLSEN is a fantastic organization that continues to show me the importance and impact of investing in young people, speaking up for the victimized, and refusing to negotiate safety and respect for all people. FreeState expanded my understanding of LGBTQ issues and encouraged a more intersectional approach to my work. From my work with FreeState, I learned how race, gender, class, all come into play as one navigates systems: education, legal, or health care. Both organizations are well run, consistent, and have a high sense of integrity and accountability to the community. All decisions are tied to the mission. Routines and expectations are firmly in place. I will bring all of these things, my approach and experiences to my work at the GLCCB.
SC: What do you see as your number one priority and why?

JL: My number one priority is identifying appropriate, reliable and stable leadership at all levels. Effective leadership will add value and credibility to our organization, has been sorely needed, and will begin the process of mending the GLCCB’s relationship with the community. This includes assembling a dynamic and well-resourced board that reflects the diversity of our community, hiring an Executive Director who has strong executive chops with an authentic understanding of the needs and interests of the entire community, and reviving a Community Advisory Board to look to the people we serve for direction.
SC: Over the course of the past 16 months there have been 4 different executive directors or interim directors serving in that capacity and 4 board presidents since November.  How can you reduce the frequent turnover and create stability and thus, generate more confidence in the GLCCB?

JL: We need to be much better at setting our leaders up for success so they are best poised to lead. That looks like: proper on-boarding and orientation, a reliable directory of resources, and open communication between board and staff leaders.  I feel the first step is stepping back and clarifying and perhaps recalibrating our mission and purpose. It’s time for us to reboot.
The GLCCB is due to ask itself: Why are we here and what do we do? Who do we serve? How do we serve? We will surely find stability in this renewed sense of purpose. What will be most important is how we listen to the community to answer these questions. At this critical junction in the center’s history, we are presented with an opportunity to recreate our organization in the community’s image.

My job will be to unify the right group of people who identify strongly with this mission who will realign and recommit, and who will move forward together with passion and cohesion. As your current President, I don’t intend on going anywhere so long as the people I serve will have me. I have a hands-on, bear-through-the-storm approach to this position; I don’t scare easily, and have advised a similar approach to my fellow board members.
SC: The GLCCB has often been criticized for virtually disappearing once Pride is over.  What can you and the board do to change that reputation?  In other words, please explain how the GLCCB can serve the community year round.

JL:  Honestly, before joining the board, I was probably one of those community members that wondered what the GLCCB did when Pride wasn’t happening. I now know of the many amazing, wonderful services and opportunities that the GLCCB offers year round, that many people take advantage of, but are not well-known by the community.
One of our longest running and most well-attended groups, Sistas of Pride (formerly Women of Color), meets nearly weekly. Mixed Company, another regularly well-attended group for LGBTQ young adults, provides weekly educational and networking opportunities. During this past summer, we hosted 20 Youth Works hires who developed their very own homelessness support program called Helping Hands, which attracts regular patrons. We are hoping to expand our programs and outreach strategies to better support the community’s needs and to keep the community better informed. For more information on current programming, visit www.glccb.org/programs. 

SC: During the past few years board members have assumed more of an oversight role rather than rolling up their sleeves to help in the operations of the center.  Will you encourage a more hands-on role for the board?
JL: Taking into account how much work has yet to be done, we simply cannot have it any other way. Willingness to get hands dirty is a requirement to join this board, and I’ve mentioned this during each interview with every new board member. We are certainly a working board in many respects; however, being a working board certainly does not absolve us of our governing duties.

Strategic delegation of tasks is how we will ensure strong action as a governing body, such as hiring a new executive director, and ways we act as individual working members, such as staffing an event. It is also important to note that I expect the duties and expectations of board members to vary as the needs of the organization change.
SC: Money problems continue to beset the Center.  What do you see as the best strategy to put the GLCCB on a better financial footing?

JL: The money problems that beset the Center are multifaceted, are the result of missteps of many people, and thus require a multifaceted, multi-person solution. We must strengthen our financial oversight. This includes taking a concentrated look at who spends, how much is spent and why, and, how records are kept. We must (re)establish the Finance and Audit committees on our Board, and enlist the help of financial professionals to improve our accounting practices.
We must empower the Board, as chief fundraisers of the organization, to work closely with our development coordinator on a fundraising plan. We must always consider financial decisions ethically, legally, and with the community’s best interests in mind. Most importantly, we must prove ourselves worthy of support from the community if we ever want individual giving to be a thing. 

SC: One of the biggest criticisms of the GLCCB has been its perceived lack of inclusivity of minorities and transgender folks in its governance.  How will you change that perception?
 Lyles addressing crowd at Pride  Photo:Bob Ford
JL: This entire year, I have observed the GLCCB making strides towards becoming an organization that authentically represents people of color mostly in its programming and outreach decisions. We will continue to move in this direction. As an outspoken, strong ally of the transgender community, I will say that the we have a bit more work to do on trans* inclusivity and representation.
As current chair of the Programs and Outreach committee, I plan to work diligently on how the center works with and for these communities. I am specifically interested in transgender representation on our Board and staff and investigating how we can work with existing trans-focused organizations, such as Sistas of the T, Baltimore Trans Alliance, and Black Trans Men, Inc.

SC: As the first African-American in decades to hold the position of GLCCB board president, how will you go about trying to improve race relations within the LGBT community?
JL: I firmly believe that my status as an African-American Board President offers nothing different or extra to improve race relations within the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ racists will not learn or believe anything different by this positioning, I cannot tell them anything that hasn’t already been said, and in the end it will be up to them to work towards changing their damaging mindsets.

Minorities in positions of leadership do not an anti-racist society make. President Obama is ending his second term in office, yet black churches are being targeted by terrorists and unarmed black people are being killed by police. What I will do, as a Board President that condemns racism and approaches all work with a social justice lens, is lead this organization in a direction that visibly recognizes and works against racism in all its forms, intentionally works to uplift those who are most marginalized, encourages and eventually leads conversations about oppression, intersectionality, and authentically serving communities of color.
SC: What would you like the community to know about Jabari Lyles?

JL: I am a passionate public servant who finds true happiness and endless energy in working for positive change. I have over ten years of combined experience as an educator, program manager, outreach specialist, and LGBTQ activist. My interests include STEM education, urban education, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and educational technology.
I am a proud Maryland native, and I currently live in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore City. When I’m not working, I’m usually cooking, dancing, or spending time with those I love. I am outgoing, extroverted and approachable. I believe in my city, my community, and the great things that come out of working together. I am excited to work and grow with the GLCCB.

Monday, August 24, 2015

'LGBT Baltimore' Chronicles City’s LGBT History


Browsing through the new pictorial history book, LGBT Baltimore, just released on August 17 you will see a float from a 1990 Pride parade.  You will notice a black and white shot of the Names Project Quilt on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1988.  And there is a color photo of Harvey Schwartz, the Community Center’s first executive director and a founder of the Center’s Chase Street building, sitting behind his desk on the phone.  These and 150 other images are contained in this chronicle of LGBT history in Baltimore spanning five decades. 

Long time LGBT activist Louise Parker Kelley authored the soft cover, 96-page book that contains photos and captions depicting the fight for LGBT rights and showcases those who stood on the frontlines.  Arcadia Publishing, which has produced LGBT pictorial histories in such cities as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco, published the Baltimore installment.
The images for LGBT Baltimore were donated by individuals or organizations or were selected from the archives of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) that are currently housed at the University of Baltimore.

For those of us who have lived through part or all of the history of the struggle for LGBT equality in Baltimore during this period will wax nostalgic at these photos and recall some of the local leaders who led the fight. Among the heroes pictured besides Schwartz are Elliott Brager, Lynda Dee, Ann Gordon, Jim Becker, Mardie Walker and Steve Shavitz. 
Scenes of Pride parades and celebrations from yesteryear are dotted throughout.  Photographs from venues like the 31st Street Bookstore, which was a feminist business that became popular with Baltimore’s lesbian community, played a key role in our culture and movement and are exhibited in the book.

Sad recollections of the AIDS epidemic are also represented in various ways, but images portraying the community’s response to the crisis are inspirational.  A poignant shot of marchers carrying a PFLAG-Baltimore banner is a gloomy reminder that such a chapter no longer exists in a city that sorely is in need of one.
There are uplifting photographs that record our long-fought triumphs, such as those images that illustrate the tireless efforts to get a non-discrimination bill through Baltimore’s oft-resistant city council as well as the photograph of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake with the two men whose nuptials she officiated, thus becoming the first same-sex couple to marry legally in Maryland.

LGBT Baltimore may not be a perfect telling of the story, but history, as we know, is imperfect, and the book does have its flaws.  The frenetic three-page Introduction did not start off well as the author uses the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender,” in the first line, which is considered by many in the community as inappropriate terminology.  The error is repeated in several other places in the book. 

That same Introduction is too crammed with text in minuscule print rather than allowing the photos themselves to capture the history.  The Introduction should merely contain a high-level summary of what to expect inside.
While LGBT Baltimore is divided into four sections, there is a lack of flow and bridging from one to the next.  If a chronology of events should form the basis for these sections, then photos from 1992 and 1994 should not be mixed in with more recent shots in the final section, “Gaily Forward.”

Moreover, and this is a quibble with the publisher’s design team, the olive green background for the cover does not scream out “LGBT Baltimore!”  It is more akin to an old Army manual.  Something loud, something gay, something lavender would have been more fitting and more eye-catching.
On the positive side, the author Louise Parker Kelley, perhaps better suited to handle this project than most as she had been a warrior through much of the period covered in the book, worked indefatigably to compile as many representative photos as she could.  A good number of the samples had their origins before digital cameras with high resolutions, yet the quality was surprisingly good. 

LGBT Baltimore provides an excellent means to revisit the highs and lows of the city’s culture and battles through the years.  And if you are a younger person, it’s a good opportunity to explore the last few decades through photographs that shaped the current era.
_____

LGBT Baltimore by Louise Parker Kelley, $22.99, 96 pages/soft cover, Arcadia Publishing.  Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing and The History Press or call 888-313-2665.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Trump Card: Who Wins the Hand?


Pity those poor clowns in the GOP clown car who think they can be president of the United States.  They run around the country kissing the asses of fat cat donors. They suck up to their bigoted, misogynous, and homophobic gun-toting, Bible-thumping party base.  They raise tons of money through unfettered PACs and super PACS and super-duper PACs.  They attempt to speak to “ordinary” folks at the Iowa State Fair amid the stench of cow dung and the acrid aroma of fried foods encased in even more fried batter.  #hocopolitics

They go through all of this but why aren’t they gaining any traction?  Why are they mired in single digits like they are up to their necks in Iowa hog waste?
The answer my friends is blowing in the wind.  And that wind is Donald Trump.

Homophobe Mike Huckabee, who knows what to do with an Iowa Fair corn dog when he sees one, is flummoxed. Trump, according to the former governor of Arkansas, is receiving “10 times the media attention” so no wonder Trump is leading in the polls.  Huckabee claims if he enjoyed that amount of attention, he’d be winning.  Right.
It is true that Trump is ahead of this sorry pack based on the latest polling and by a wide margin.  Four years ago Herman “9-9-9” Cain was a Republican frontrunner as was Michelle Bachman at one time before they both flamed out as their idiocy caught up with them.  Will it be different in this cycle? 

“Teflon Donald” has been able to insult Mexicans, John McCain’s war service, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and women in general in short order with relative impunity; his polling numbers remain stout.  The GOP pack won’t stand up to him (other than tepid appeals for him to change his tone) lest the Donald reaches from his vast arsenal of insults and fires verbal slingshots at them, which is more than the Democrats are willing to do. 
The Dems are gleefully sitting on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle that is Donald Trump and hoping that Trump-mania will diminish (if that’s possible) the other GOP contenders and deflect attention away from their own flawed frontrunner.

It’s not the correct approach.  Rather than passively avoiding the fray and hoping upon hope that Trump stays in the race to injure the eventual nominee, Democratic strategists should have been seizing on this gift-wrapped opportunity and swing into attack mode—a tactic that’s not natural to them.
With every Trump gaffe, rather than condemning the self-centered showman, Dems need to put out releases that say, “Trump is only saying what the rest of the Republican hopefuls are thinking but don’t have the courage to say for themselves.”  This is not a stretch; few GOP candidates respond to Trump on the substance of his comments, only to the manner in which he states them.

It is a win-win strategy for Democrats.  Either the electorate will tie Trump and his bluster to the GOP field if the Dems keep taunting or his antics will force the other contenders to confront Trump and risk the verbal equivalent of a nuclear war.  On the other hand, his outrageous comments can make the other candidates seem less extreme and more adult by comparison, which is a risk for Democrats.
Of course, as long as Trump stays in the race he will cause trouble for the other candidates.  He has commanded most of the attention without question and attention is like catnip to a guy like Trump.  He’s already proven that he can say just about anything and get away with it.  Though his policy positions have been scant so far, they’re likely to mirror those of the rest of the field whose differences aren’t dramatic.  

Trump’s distinction is that he and only he can get the job done and “Make America Great Again.”  It’s about him as the savior, not his particular positions on issues that should matter.
One good thing about Trump is that he is not a demagogue on social issues like most of the other GOP hopefuls.  His pro-life position had evolved to meet the requirements of the GOP but he is unconvincing.  While he is for “traditional marriage,” he doesn’t offer anti-gay diatribes as most of his fellow contenders do.  One reason for his relative silence on the topic is that he cannot come up with a good answer to the question, how do your three marriages represent traditional marriage?

He also said on Meet the Press on August 16 that being gay should not be a reason to fire employees of private companies.  Only Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and George Pataki of the other Republican candidates share that view.
How long can or will Trump remain in the race is the billion dollar question.  As long as he’s riding high in the polls, he is not going anywhere.  A significant dip may cause him to pull out, but that doesn’t seem likely now.  Such decisions will have to wait for the primaries and caucuses to get underway in the winter.  That will be a better measuring stick than current polling.

He has threatened to run as an independent should he be treated as badly by the GOP.  That is unlikely because of the need to gather so many signatures in all 50 states and the added costs of doing so.
Right now, he is riding the wave of voter anger and people are backing him no matter how absurd his comments and unrealistic his positions are.  They like people who call our elected officials “stupid”  and will keep him rolling along, so he remains a nightmare for establishment Republicans.

The longer the disarray, the better it is for the Democrats.  The Trump card will help them win the hand…for now.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Good 'Catch' at Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre


I must admit that when I first saw the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, the last thing I suspected was that this crime drama would ever be made into a Broadway musical.  Yet in 2011, with a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, a musical, indeed, opened at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.  Oh, by the way, it garnered four Tony Award nominations, winning one for Best Actor. 

Josh Schoff (L.) and Noah Broth in the lead roles Photo: Rina Goloskov
For an all-too-brief run at Beth Tfiloh’s Rosen Arts Center, the musical Catch Me If You Can scores high marks under the polished direction of Diane M. Smith.  Based largely on the mega-hit film, which, in turn, was based on the biography of Frank Abagnale, Jr., the true story centers on a New Rochelle, NY teenager (Abagnale) in the 1960s who left home and made millions of dollars by being a con artist, check forger and counterfeiter, assuming a slew of identities and professions throughout his worldwide journey before being finally caught by the dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty.
The eyebrow-raising ruses that young Abagnale is able to pull off (airline pilot, lawyer, doctor, a Lutheran, etc. without ever finishing high school), his tender relationship with his father, his falling in love with Brenda, and his lucky near-miss evasions from the relentless Hanratty provide the essence of the plot.  #hocoarts

Noah Broth as Frank Jr. demonstrates a tremendous amount of poise for a 16 year-old performer.  His vocals are quite strong and on key in meeting the challenges of some difficult songs, such as the group opening number “Live in Living Color,” “Seven Wonders,” and especially “Goodbye.” 
Mr. Broth moves with agility and finesse around the stage in several dance routines, and his acting skills are showcased throughout.  The Abagnale character must exude confidence, swagger and charm to pull off his con games, and Mr. Broth, through facial expressions, voice inflections and body language, plays the role to the hilt.

Also performing with great skill is Josh Schoff as the determined and oft-frustrated agent Carl Hanratty.  At times intense and commanding but on other occasions allowing glimpses into Hanratty’s vulnerabilities, Mr. Schoff superbly handles the complexities of the role and does so with a bit of campiness and flair.  His powerful singing voice shines particularly in “The Man Inside the Clues.”  
Both of these young performers play off each other well in the production and both have promising futures in theatre if that’s the path they choose.

Photo: Steve Isack
Veteran Beth Tfiloh Theatre actor F. Scott Black is another outstanding addition to the cast as the elder Abagnale.  Having lost his store leading to financial hardship, refusing help from his newly “successful” son, being under pressure from the IRS, enduring the indignity of his wife leaving him, and ultimately driving himself to drink leading to his tragic demise, Frank Sr. is the character we have compassion for, and Mr. Black’s portrayal of him is robust.
Nicole Smith as Brenda Strong, a nurse whom young Frank met while pretending to be a doctor, does a fine job in her role.  Brenda lacked confidence until Frank instilled it in her.  They fell in love, planned to marry and have a family until her love got caught by Hanratty. Ms. Smith’s solo, “Fly, Fly Away,” highlights her sparkling singing voice.

As Brenda’s parents, Amanda Dickson and Carl Oppenheim provide the most laughs in the show as Brenda brings Frank home to New Orleans to meet them in a truly fun scene.
There are over a two dozen members of the company who ably support the leads with singing and dancing with many playing multiple roles.  The aforementioned Nicole Smith and Amanda Dickson along with Sharon Byrd coordinated the spot-on costumes that ranged from everyday wear to production number costumes for nurses, doctors, flight attendants and pilots uniforms.  Ms. Dickson also choreographed the well-executed dance routines.

Chris Rose leads an outstanding eight-piece orchestra whose rich sounds emanated from a multi-level platform on the stage cleverly designed by Evan Margolis.  Most of the action takes place in front of this platform bringing the performers closer to the audience.  But some performances take place on a platform between the orchestra sections, which change the eye-level and add depth to the staging.
In addition, Avi Goldman’s lighting design and Director Diane Smith’s sound design provide strong technical support to the overall production.

As a community theatre production, Beth Tfiloh’s presentation of Catch Me If You Can deserves high praise for its direction, performances and technical elements.  The problem is that it only runs for two more performances so you should definitely catch it while you can.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Catch Me If You Can plays August 18 and 20 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikeville, MD 21208.  Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling the Beth Tfiloh Arts Department at 410- 413-2436 or online.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Summer Winds of Change are Blowing



No one can say this has been hum-drum summer in LGBT Baltimore.  Huge victories, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriages throughout the nation and the Boy Scouts of America officials voting to allow gay leaders grabbed the headlines.  This progress, unthinkable just a few years ago, were reasons to celebrate.
Taking it to the streets  Photo: Brian Gaither

Locally, other developments have taken place or occurring during the summer that are changing the LGBT landscape. This began prior to the summer when the iconic Hippo stunned the community by announcing its closing later this year after more than four decades of being a major LGBT institution in the city.

Another institution, Equality Maryland—a 25 year-old statewide civil rights advocacy organization that started out as Free State Justice—disclosed in June that financial difficulties stemming from declining revenues following the  passage of same-sex marriage among other factors led to the laying off of its executive director Carrie Evans. 

They recently vacated their Sharp Street offices to reduce overhead and gave away office furniture, old lawn signs from the marriage battles, and other such memorabilia.  On August 2, a new transitional board was established and decided the organization will remain open for the time being but with a scaled down operation.

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) is constantly in a state of flux so that any changes this summer are almost to be expected.  The GLCCB is experiencing a staggering amount of turnover in their Board of Directors and at the executive director position.  Since December four individuals have served as the Board’s president, and in less than a year and a half, four have held the executive director or interim executive director’s post.

To be fair, other local organizations have also experienced changes in leadership or in key personnel this summer.  Examples include Hearts & Ears, Moveable Feast and Iron Crow Theatre.  In the spring FreeState Legal hired its new executive director Patrick Paschall.

A major departure from the norm, however, was the recent GLCCB-led Pride celebration that took place in July rather than its customary June spot during Father’s Day weekend.  Schedule conflicts with the city forced the dates to July 25-26, and it worked out well overall.  The separation from other area Pride festivities allowed the Center to increase its sponsorships and more importantly, it provided greater opportunities for potential Pride-goers from out of town to visit Baltimore instead of having to make choices during June’s congested Pride calendar.   

The two-day event in Baltimore drew sizable crowds and in theory should have provided critical revenue to the financially wobbly GLCCB.  For these reasons, if the GLCCB continues to operate Pride in the future, keeping it in July should be seriously considered.

An additional change during the summer has been a renewed brand of activism that is by-passing conventional models and is instead taking it to the streets.  This is significant in that it is not a seasonal event but potentially the beginning of a larger movement. 
#BaltimoreTRANSUPrising marching at Pride  Photo: Bob Ford
Inspired by the protests under the banner #BlackLivesMatter that followed a spate of police-involved killings of unarmed African-American men including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, transgender advocates banded together and formed a #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising movement to air a list of grievances. 

Much of their disquiet centers on police relations with transgender individuals and unsolved murders of transgender victims.  Other issues include homelessness among transgender people, better access to health care in general as well as trans-specific health care, and other forms of discrimination, particularly towards transgender people of color. Many trans folks believe that they have been ignored during the fight for marriage equality and their concerns have been brushed aside.  Now it’s time, they feel, to raise their voices and be heard.

One day before Pride, around a hundred vocal demonstrators marched through the streets of Old Goucher—an area where many transgender women have been harassed or harmed.  They ended up at Washington Monument Plaza for a rally whereby a series of demands were announced.
"...potentially the beginning of a larger movement"

The amount of individuals participating in the movement and the support it is receiving from the broader community could signal a new dynamic in the quest for overall equality.  Perhaps as a way to recognize this cause, Pride officials agreed that a contingent from the #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising group lead off all marchers in the Pride parade.  This is a rare phenomenon in recent Baltimore Pride events in that increased focus was given to a political initiative, and it’s welcome.

As older, established organizations are becoming less relevant today to a younger group of impatient activists, a new wave of leaders are emerging to try to create visibility and support to help reach the goal of equality for all. 
This may be the most significant result of a summer whose winds of change are blowing through the streets of Baltimore.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Into the Woods at Toby's is a Good Choice


If there’s one thing you can say about Into The Woods, the Tony Award winning musical whose score and lyrics were brought into the world by the genius of Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, is that the production playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia was perfectly cast.  With every one of the show’s 22 characters popping up at a frenetic pace throughout the musical donned in dazzling old-time costumes by Eleanor Dicks, it is clear that there is no one better who could have performed each of the roles.   #hocoarts
Photo by Jeri Tidwell
Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick ably took advantage of this abundance of talent and helmed an entertaining, message-laden, family-friendly spectacle.  The technical crew is also commendable particularly Lynn Joslin’s Light Design, which is effectively used to illuminate the characters that appear at different locations in the in-the-round stage while blacking out parts of the stage so that others seamlessly exit.

When we were kids we remember that the characters in fairy tales “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not necessarily the case in Into The Woods.  In this magical and sometimes dark musical, real choices found in adulthood—not necessarily childhood—and the consequences of these choices are brought to the fore.
Into The Woods is not just one fairy tale; we get to enjoy four from the Brothers Grimm—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel”—whose plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle and Priscilla Cuellar, respectively.  Russell Sunday with his deep resonant voice is the Narrator who ties everything together, and there’s a lot to tie.  He also performs admirably as the Mysterious Man.

In order to break a spell from an ugly Witch (played zestfully by Janine Sunday) that had prevented the couple from bearing children, The Baker and his Wife needed to venture into the woods to find four items the Witch demanded: a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, and hair as yellow as corn.  
"perfectly cast"

During their arduous journey, they encounter Cinderella (Julia Lancione) for the slipper, Jack (Jimmy Mavrikes) for the cow (Alex Beveridge), Little Red Riding Hood (Sophie Schulman) for the red cape and Rapunzel (Katherine Riddle) for the hair.  They, too, had wishes of their own as they meandered through the woods in search of those dreams.

Act One conforms to what we expect: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after”—or did they?  In Act Two we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge.
Serious problems must be addressed, such as dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In tackling this and other challenges, the four surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

As mentioned earlier, all members of the company were suitably cast as if the roles were written specifically for each.  Their vocals excel during Sondheim’s lyrically solid numbers and backed ably by the robust sounds of Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra.
As the determined Baker, Jeffrey Shankle mixed his acting and singing ingredients to form a delicacy of a performance.  Working with Priscilla Cuellar as the Baker’s Wife, the duo exhibits excellent onstage chemistry and performs well in “It Takes Two.”  Mr. Shankle also does very well in the group number “No One is Alone.”

Ms. Cuellar with her lovely voice in top form sings beautifully in her solo “Moments in the Woods” among others.
Another stellar combo are Jimmy Mavrikes as the simple boy Jack whose friend was his cow Milky White and veteran actress Jane C. Boyle as his struggling mother. Nimble and energetic, Mr. Mavrikes is in constant motion playing the youthful and rather dim-witted Jack.  His solo “Giants in the Sky” soars.  Ms. Boyle performs at a high level in her attempts at parenting.

As Cinderella, Julia Lancione demonstrates her superb vocal skills in a duet with Ms. Cuellar in “A Very Nice Prince” and her solo “On the Steps of the Palace.”
If you have a Grimm fairy tale then you need a handsome Prince Charming, and Jonathan Helwig as Cinderella’s Prince checks that box.  He and his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Justin Calhoun, provide much of the campiness in the show.  Their comical duet “Agony” whereby the two muse about the women in their lives hits the mark.

Ms. Sunday as the Witch sparkles in the ballad “Stay With Me” and later after her youth and beauty were restored but her powers were stripped by the potion comprised by the sought after ingredients in “Last Midnight.”
Other favorites performed by the company include the title song as the prologue and “Your Fault.”

The remainder of the cast also turns in stirring performances, notably Heather Marie Beck as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Lawrence B. Munsey as Cinderella’s Father and the hungry Wolf, Sophie Schulman as Little Red Ridinghood, Katherine Riddle as Rapunzel, Scott Harrison as Steward, and Katie Keyser and MaryKate Broulliet as Cinderella’s stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda.  And last but not least, a pat on the rump is in order for Alex Beverage’s strenuous work as Milky White.
The show takes on serious and complex subjects in a creative and artful way.  Sondheim’s music and the cast’s sterling performances make the trek Into The Woods worthwhile.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission.
Into The Woods plays through September 6 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

There'll Always Be a Place For Pride


All that talk of mainstreaming, assimilating, acceptance, the loss of gay bars, and the potential loss of LGBT organizations, one has to wonder why there is even a need for LGBT Pride anymore.  Given these shifts in our own culture as well as society as a whole, I posed that very question to one of our popular LGBT leaders while we were discussing Pride.  She set me straight, so to speak.

“We most certainly need Pride to gather as a community and celebrate our identity at least once a year,” she stressed without any hesitation.  And upon further contemplation, she is absolutely right.
I guess I had been soured by what Pride has evolved into. The notion that Pride is aimed at celebrating the Stonewall uprising and the fight for gay rights is a quaint one.  It’s no longer the case.

Back in the day, that was the motivation for the parades and rallies.  Gay liberation was the battle cry.  People of all ages, genders, walks of life and ethnic backgrounds held up signs and chanted slogans.  It was indeed an assertion that gay people should not be relegated to second class citizenship and that we are proud of who we are as human beings who just happen to be LGBT.  We were not about to go back into or remain in the closet because straight society would like us to.  It was a day to proclaim our identity, and we demanded the rights that others enjoyed.
Ironically, these demonstrations proved to be counterproductive.  Opponents of such rights were aided by the media’s coverage of Pride parades with their ratings-conscious focus on the more flamboyant and exhibitionists among us.  This served to feed the stereotypes to information-starved heterosexuals who found comfort in this selective portrayal.  It reinforced their beliefs; their bigotry had been validated.

As key victories began to amass, the political and emotional impetus for the Pride celebrations that was so evident in the first three decades following Stonewall have all but dissipated.  No longer do you see numerous placards and banners with compelling messages.  No longer do you hear political speeches from officials clamoring for equality. 
Sure, there are folks going around soliciting donations or asking people to sign up on organizations’ mailing lists and perhaps sign a petition or two.  But it is no way the same as the grass roots movement that carried us through those difficult years.

“Where can we drink?” is the operative question.
Instead, our Pride festivities, especially the block parties, have become similar to other events that celebrate ethnic or national identities.  We get the crowds, the music, the food vendors, the entertainment and the booze.  No political speeches and no serious subjects are engaged publicly.  Make no mistake it has become a party, plain and simple. 

This is no one’s fault, mind you; it is now what most attendees want and expect.  The GLCCB, which runs Pride and who needs it to succeed to keep that organization afloat, is simply satisfying the demand.  “Where can we drink?” is the operative question.  If there was a ban on alcohol, how many would still show up?

I may be old school in that I appreciate our LGBT history and try to understand how our movement has been shaped.  But I love a party just like anyone else.  I just need to recognize that the current generation does not see these celebrations through a historical prism.  It’s sad because of the sacrifices made by our LGBT pioneers and that these folks and their efforts are not recognized at Pride events.

Nonetheless, I will continue to celebrate Pride by acknowledging the distance we have traveled and the progress we have achieved.  Nobody thought five years ago that marriage equality would be the law of the land but it is.  Nobody thought we would see a transgender person making a speech to primarily a sports audience on national television that received a standing ovation and the degree of widespread praise it garnered despite a pushback from within and outside the LGBT communities.
We must acknowledge, however, that much work remains.  We need a federal all-inclusive anti-discrimination law.  We need to address the disproportionate amount of LGBT youth who are homeless and bullied and to deal with the reasons why these kids are still unaccepted by their families and schoolmates.  We need to strive to end the harmful outdated nonsense called reparative therapy.  We must convince our younger generation that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is far from eradicated and risky sexual behavior remains dangerous. 

We must also be wary of the backlash stemming from our success on the marriage front, and expect that we will be used by Republican presidential candidates during the campaign to appease their bigoted voters.  
A little less division within our own community would be helpful.  When one part of our community succeeds, we all succeed.  When one part fails, we all fail together.  Strong leadership is required to help galvanize our communities the way it once was in those early post-Stonewall Pride celebrations.

Pride should be an opportunity to reflect upon these challenges.  But it’s a party now, so having some fun is not all that bad either. 
Happy Pride!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Higher Praise for 'Altar Boyz' at Spotlighters


It might be seen as a miracle, but the cozy Spotlighters Theatre has been transformed into a spacious Baltimore concert hall where screaming fans of the 5-member Christian boy band Altar Boyz stomp, clap and cheer at the band’s final concert of their Raise the Praise tour.  Well, maybe not exactly, but the performances from the band themselves spew enough energy and talent to fill any venue, and it clearly works well at Spotlighters.  #hocoarts
Photo: Chris Aldridge/CMAldridgePhotography
Altar Boyz, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Kevin Del Aguila, spoofs Christian dogma and its Christian-themed music as well as boy bands’ popularity without a heavy touch and keeps you laughing with the satirical, clever lyrics contained in the songs.  Altar Boyz, which ran from 2005-10, became the 9th longest running off-Broadway show and received several awards including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

The fictional concert customizes its material to relate to Baltimore (or wherever the musical runs) whereby the boyz from Ohio passionately deliver the messages of Christianity, try to save the burdened souls of the audience, and confront (or confess) their own vulnerabilities.  Though gimmicky, a device called the Soul Sensor (monitors above the stage) is used to count down the number of burdened souls remaining in the audience with the expressed goal of reducing the number to zero.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Are We Victims of Our Own Success?


When we first learned that the Hippo planned to close later this year, many in the community attributed that development to a cultural transformation.  Gay bars, according to these folks, aren’t as important as they once were, and with the growing acceptance of LGBT people by society as a whole, more gay people are finding their entertainment and social networking at straight establishments or online. 
This acceptance, although far from universal, has always been a goal of LGBT advocates who do not want to be considered second class citizens by the larger straight community.  In effect, one could point to this shift as a success, and if the trend continues, we could be seeing the end of gay bars and similar businesses—the results of this success—though I maintain they are still needed and have a place in our society.   

One such achievement that is causing financial problems for LGBT organizations is marriage equality.  For over a decade, same-sex marriage proponents have made the quest for marriage equality the centerpiece of the movement, which would bestow the over 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are conferred upon heterosexual married couples. 
While not every gay and lesbian considered marriage to a same-sex partner something they personally coveted, they still had that option should such nuptials become legal. It was a worthy goal, to be sure, and those organizations at the forefront of the battles in the state legislatures and governors’ offices reaped the benefits of this movement that gathered steam after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2003.

Whether or not gay or lesbian individuals were partnered, many bought into the marriage equality movement, and combined with supportive allies, wrote out checks to those organizations leading the way.  Locally, that organization had been Equality Maryland, which fought hard to push a bill through an overwhelmingly Democratic but politically timid legislature and an unyielding Governor Ehrlich followed by a vacillating Governor O’Malley who finally threw his support for the measure in 2011 after advocating for civil unions.
Despite the uphill climb, Equality Maryland prevailed, and along with others, succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass the bill, which O’Malley signed into law in 2012.  Equality Maryland joined other groups under the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality to defeat a referendum put forth by marriage equality opponents including Maryland’s Catholic Archdiocese.

Just four days after the June 26 historic Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the chairs of Equality Maryland’s two boards released a statement warning of the organization’s potential demise. 
“Funding from individuals and major donor sources dropped significantly after securing marriage equality,” the statement read.  “The Board believes passionately that Equality Maryland ought to continue to play a critical, central role in the coming years for our community, but is facing one of two possibilities for the future: drastically scaling down operations, with a reduced capacity to serve its many constituencies across the state, or suspending operations entirely.

“Unless and until we secure adequate revenue to sustain the organization, the important services, oversight and advocacy it has consistently provided to the Maryland LGBT community will cease to be.”  
Carrie Evans, its executive director, had been let go because of the financial crisis.

It was always my impression that Equality Maryland was never awash in cash.  The organization nearly imploded a few years ago over financial matters and a lack of oversight by their board.  Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the executive director at the time, was fired in an ugly controversial mess. 
Equality Maryland’s finances had historically been held close to the vest.  Indeed, when the Washington Blade recently conducted a survey of national and local LGBT organizations concerning their financial status and the salaries of the respective executive directors, Equality Maryland did not respond to multiple requests to provide such information.  I always believed that organizations that raise money from the community ought to be more transparent regarding how the funds are being spent, but that was not the case with this one.

Clearly, the success of marriage equality here and nationally has removed the largest and most appealing magnet from which to raise money, and organizations like Equality Maryland could fall victim.  It would be a shame if that comes to pass. 
There is so much work ahead especially efforts to address bullying in schools, suicides among LGBT youth, homelessness whereby LGBT youth are disproportionately at risk, LGBT youth in the foster care and the juvenile justice system, the continuing fight to address discrimination and violence directed towards transgender individuals, banning conversion therapy, combating an increase in HIV infections in the African-American community in addition to the seemingly endless fight nationally to secure a Federal all-inclusive non-discrimination law.

Many of these issues require legislation, and Equality Maryland is in the best position to work its political acumen to achieve results.  However, they are not sexy issues as marriage equality was and, therefore, not likely to build their fundraising efforts around them.
Realizing that this was a real possibility, I strongly advocated for Equality Maryland to re-tool its mission and use its expertise to help launch local organizations in various parts of the state.  These “Balkanized” iterations of Equality Maryland would be in the best position to deal with local brush fires in schools, businesses, law enforcement and other areas where neighbors could have more of an impact than a central organization.

It’s something that Equality Maryland should still consider if it’s not too late.  Selling that idea to a public who helped financially to secure marriage equality is do-able.  Unless that happens, Equality Maryland as well as all of us will have been victims of our own success.

Monday, June 29, 2015

'The Producers' is no Flop at Olney


In a turnabout from its previous musical that offered the relatively sober Carousel, the Olney Theatre Center, in the midst of its 77th season, is currently mounting the gregarious, laugh-a-minute production of The Producers.  It is clear from the get-go why this musical captured a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and spawned numerous other productions worldwide as well a successful film in 2005.  The hilarity, high-jinx and gags keep the audience laughing throughout with never a dull moment to be had.  #hocoarts

Michael Kostroff, Jessica Jaros and Michael Di Liberto  Photo: Stan Barouh
Mel Books and Thomas Meehan adapted the musical from the 1968 movie with the same name. The music and lyrics were composed and written by Mr. Brooks who turned 89 the day following the opening night performance at Olney.  His comedic genius along with Mr. Meehan’s assistance on the book is stamped on every line, every lyric, and every movement.

Under the expert direction of Mark Waldrop, who stays true to the original show (and why not?), the company and crew does this iconic show justice in every facet and is among the very best productions that Olney has staged in years.  The Producers is unapologetic in its irreverence towards Nazis, gay people, the elderly, and Broadway folks especially producers.
To read full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Extraordinary 'Pippin' at the Hippodrome


If there is one word that describes the production of Pippin that is currently gracing the Hippodrome Theatre stage is “spectacle.”  And if I add a second word, then it would be “extraordinary.”


Sam Lips as Pippin and Company Photo: Martha Rial
The enchanting musical that captured four Tony Awards in 1973, and 40 years later the 2013 revival added four more including Best Revival of a Musical, has been touring the country for nine months and now Baltimore audiences can enjoy this outstanding theatrical experience. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson, Pippin, is a fanciful tale about a young man, Pippin (played exceptionally by Sam Lips), who is searching for the meaning of life and in the process is seeking fulfillment. 

As the son of Charlemagne (King Charles, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), one would think that Pippin would have all that he needs.  In his mind he doesn’t, and his journey to be “extraordinary” is the central plotline.

Pippin is unique in that it features a traveling theatre troupe of circus-style performers, known as The Players.  Among them are acrobats, clowns, dancers, illusionists and gymnasts who perform a wide array of daring aerial stunts, pole climbing, and a host of other athletic body-contorting feats that are eye-popping. 
Expertly directed by Diane Paulus, this musical has a charm that separates it from the others.  It’s a play within the musical whereby a character named Leading Player (performed superbly by Sasha Allen, a top 5 singer from Season 4 of The Voice) who is, as you’d expect, the lead performer of The Players.  She directs and produces the play as well as acts as a narrator for the audience, and has a definitive interest in Pippin.  In the original production of Pippin, that role was played by Ben Vereen, who came away with a Tony.



This production of Pippin excels in every area

Ms. Allen excels with her dancing and vocal skills, comedic abilities and commanding presence on the stage.  Her rendition of “Glory” and her duet with Mr. Lips, in “On the Right Track” showcases the talents of both.
#hocoarts
Sam Lips, possessing striking good looks and a lithe, athletic physique, demonstrates multiple talents as the lead.  On stage for most of the scenes, Mr. Lips delivers a high-octane performance throughout with his movements on the stage and even in the circus sequences.  His rich tenor voice with a wide range is evident in the moving “Corner of the Sky” as well as “Morning Glow,” and “Extraordinary.”

As Pippin’s father, Charlemagne, John Rubinstein totally enjoys his role.  Mr. Rubinstein, who played Pippin in the original Broadway production, returns as the King who believes war is essential to holding the throne.  After he is killed by Pippin in an effort to seize the throne, The Leading Player resurrects him.  That tells you something about the zany plot.
Another scene stealer is the accomplished Adrienne Barbeau as Pippin’s free-spirited, fun-loving, dirty-minded, trapeze hanging, exiled grandmother Berthe.  Sassy and campy, Ms. Barbeau delivers a mighty theatrical punch in her main scene and scores with her number “No Time at All.”

Other cast members who turn in solid performances include Erik Altemus as Pippin’s half-brother Lewis; Kristine Reese as Catherine, a widow who brings Pippin into her home and soars with her song “Kind of Woman”; Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, Pippin’s conniving stepmother; Stephen Sayegh who works alternatively with Jake Berman as Catherine’s son Theo; and, of course, the skilled and acrobatic Players. 
The set, designed by Scott Pask consists of a whimsical circus tent with all the equipment needed to carry out the amazing stunts.

Larry Hochman and his orchestra ably supports the excellent vocals. Chet Walker’s Bob Fosse-style choreography is superb. Dominique Lemieux fitted the company in dazzling eclectic costumes especially those worn by The Players. Kenneth Posner’s vivid lighting and Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm’s crystal clear sound design contributed to the joyful experience.
This production of Pippin excels in every area and should not be missed.  Its only flaw is that it’s only here for a short time. 

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Pippin runs through June 28 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.