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McNally pays tribute to Albee, his ex, at Helen Hayes Awards

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It’s not every day that two ex-boyfriends take center stage to sing one another’s praises before a rapt audience. But that’s exactly what happened at the 26th annual Helen Hayes Awards at the Warner Theatre on Monday night.

In what was arguably the high point of an exceedingly lively evening, famed gay playwright Terrence McNally, 70, warmly presented the Helen Hayes Tribute to his “friend, colleague, and ex,” the even more famous gay playwright Edward Albee (the pair were lovers in the 1960s). McNally lauded Albee’s genius as evidenced by a long list of extraordinary works, including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Zoo Story,” and “A Delicate Balance;” as well as the 82-year-old playwright’s serious dedication to bolstering the careers of younger artists.

In return, Albee, whose career will be celebrated in a festival next season at Arena Stage’s revamped Southwest complex, spoke eloquently of McNally’s courage to tackle the difficult issues, citing his controversial “Corpus Christi,” a passion play with gay male characters, as an example. Impishly, Albee slipped in an account of when he first met McNally at a Manhattan cocktail party — “A knockout blonde — he had hair then.” Clearly these great writers share a history, a sense of humor and a mutual respect.

While the theater elders were indeed honored, so too were the up-and-comers. Particularly the wildly enthusiastic young cast of The Keegan Theatre’s hot production of the musical “Rent” who were named outstanding ensemble for a resident musical. Cast member Parker Drown was singled out as outstanding lead actor in a resident musical for his high-energy take on Angel, a feisty drag queen percussionist battling gentrification and HIV/AIDS.

Each year the Helen Hayes Awards are doled out to reward standouts in Washington-area professional theater. The nominees and recipients are painstakingly selected by 63 judges.

Rather than rely on a single emcee, Monday’s show was hosted by an ever-changing pair of presenters comprised of local talent. Livening up the proceedings was a group of talented singers and dancers including John Lescault, Amy McWilliams, Aaron Reeder, Lauren Williams, and Bobby Smith who graced the “In Memoriam” portion of the show with a poignant rendition of “Any Time (I Am There)” from “Elegies”).

Holly Twyford was named outstanding actress in a resident play for her performance as Diane, the Hollywood super agent in Signature Theatre’s production of gay playwright Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy “The Little Dog Laughed.” Impressively, Twyford was also nominated in the same category for work in Folger Theatre’s “Arcadia,” and Theatre J’s “Lost in Yonkers.” Looking chic in a simple black dress and deep red heels, Twyford, who has been out her entire career, thanked her parents for taking her to the theater as a kid and her longtime partner (now fiancée) for her unflagging support.

Cate Blanchett won outstanding actress in a non-resident production for her luminous portrayal of Blanche Dubois in the Kennedy Center’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Karl Miller, who played Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, in Forum Theatre’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” shared outstanding actor in a resident play honors with Stacy Keach who played the title role in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “King Lear.”

Jim Brochu was named outstanding lead actor in a non-resident production for his work in “Zero Hour” at Theatre J. The affable gay actor charmingly thanked everyone connected with the show (currently playing off-Broadway at the DR2 Theater), and gave a special shout out to his partner of 25 years: “He’s the wind beneath my wings, and it takes a lot of wind to lift me.”

The always-entertaining Maurice Hines took choreography honors for a resident musical for MetroStage’s “Cool Papa’s Party,” an original piece based on the life of Sammy Davis Jr. When the trophy fell apart in the gay dancer’s hands, Hines let loose a quick expletive and moved on like the professional he is, thanking colleagues, past teachers, his brother (the late Gregory Hines), and then plugged his next project- Arena Stage’s soon-to-open production of “Sophisticated Ladies” at the Lincoln Theater.

The D.C. love-in continued: Broadway’s Christiane Noll couldn’t say enough about the local theater scene as she picked up her best actress prize for her role in the Kennedy Center’s “Ragtime” (book by Terrence McNally) And presenter John Glover (who is wowing audiences as Mendy the opera queen in Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata” at the Kennedy Center through April 11) stressed that D.C. is “Fab-u-lous!”

The John Aniello Award for outstanding emerging company was presented to 1st Stage of Tysons Corner. A well-loved patron of the D.C. arts scene, the late Aniello was the longtime partner of Helen Hayes Chairman Victor Shargai.

Prior to naming Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “King Lear” outstanding resident play, Shargai expressed a heartfelt thanks to the members of the Washington theater community for the joy they bring to his life. By measure of the explosive applause, those in attendance on Monday night couldn’t have agreed more.

For a complete list of Helen Hayes Awards winners and nominees visit helenhayes.org.

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Local theaters come to life to celebrate Pride

Kennedy Center, GALA, Olney and more offer live and virtual events

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Solomon Parker is Echinacea Monroe in ‘Olney in Drag,’ coming to Olney Theatre Center in August. (Photo courtesy Parker)

With reopening comes opportunities to celebrate Pride with live performances.

For the first time in more than a year, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Potomac Fever Ensemble will be performing together live. The small, close-knit harmony a cappella group is presenting a fun mix of contemporary pop, crowd favorites, and Broadway songs at National Christian City Church at 5 Thomas Circle, N.W., on Saturday, June 12 at 3 p.m. Admission is free. Gmcw.org

And if you move fast, there’s still time to catch an outdoor performance of Solas Nua’s production of “In the Middle of the Fields.” Penned by Deirdre Kinahan (“Wild Sky,” “The Frederick Douglass Project”), the new work “centers on Eithne, who is undergoing chemo-therapy for breast cancer. Stepping out of her house and into the nearby fields, she wonders what her life will be like on the other side of recovery from a deadly disease.”

Directed by Laley Lippard and featuring talented local actors Jessica Lefkow, Caroline Dubberly, and Ryan Sellers, the aptly titled play is staged outdoors at P Street Beach in Dupont Circle. Audiences are seated at a distance; blankets and chairs are available for seating options. Solasnua.org

GALA Hispanic Theatre continues its return to live performances with “Ella es tango” (“She is tango”) through the end of June. An original musical revue conceived by GALA artistic director Hugo Medrano with texts by Patricia Suárez and featuring artists from Argentina and the U.S., it highlights the contribution of women composers and singers to sexy but traditionally male dominated genre.

“Ella es tango” is performed indoors at GALA’s bijou space in Columbia Heights, and starting June 11, 2021, the theatre capacity increases and seats will be assigned three feet apart (every third seat) instead of six feet apart (every fifth seat). Galatheatre.org

The Olney Theatre Center (OTC) boasts an impressive lineup of summer offerings for its outdoor, open air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage.

Beginning late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series featuring some of the DMV’s top musical talents featured in some exciting combinations.

The pairs include Awa Sal Secka and out actor Bobby Smith (July 23); Ines Nassara and Tracy Lynn Olivera (July 30); Donna Migliaccio, and Nova Payton (August 6); Rayanne Gonzales and local gay performer Rayshun Lamarr who appeared as a contestant on TV’s “The Voice” (August 13); Greg Maheu and Vishal Vaidya (August 20); and finally, Malinda Kathleen Reese and Alan Wiggins (August 27).

And for two free performances on consecutive Wednesday nights in August, OTC presents “Olney in Drag” where audiences are asked to “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.” The first show (August 18) features Brooklyn Heights, Betty O’Hellno, Ariel Von Quinn, and Evon Michelle.

Queens taking the stage for the second show (August 25) include Kristina Kelly, Vagenesis, Tiara Missou (David Singleton who appeared in “Elf the Musical” at OTC), and Echinacea Monroe (terrific out actor Solomon Parker). Olneytheatre.org

Also this summer, the Kennedy Center has big outdoor plans for its wide-open, riverside REACH campus.

The Millennium Stage is scheduled to present free outdoor experiences ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, arts markets, and more.

Slated programming promises to celebrate varied cultures and styles, and work in partnership with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, National Theater for the Deaf, Smithsonian Asian American Center, Creative Nomads, SAMASAMA, D.C. Legendary Musicians, Step Afrika, and members of the Drag community, as well as internal collaborations with the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus. Kennedy-center.org

And while the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) isn’t venturing outdoors yet, they are continuing to present “Blindness,” a brilliant piece about pandemic and societal breakdown featuring the voice of Juliet Stevenson, at Sidney Harman Hall through July 3. The unforgettable experience remains an in-person theatrical installation with socially distanced seating; 40 audience members per event; and masks required indoors).

And “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain starring Patrick Page” continues to stream until July 28.

Looking forward to September, STC’s first full production will be a two-week limited engagement of gay writer James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” from Sept. 14-26 in Sidney Harman Hall, completing its glorious run that was cut short by COVID in March 2020. Shakespearetheatre.org

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Theater

‘Will Power’s Flow’ a hip-hop tour de force

Justin Weaks on playing multiple parts, theater scene after COVID

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Justin Weaks (foreground) and DJ Nick ‘Tha 1da’ Hernandez in ‘Flow.’ (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

‘Will Power’s Flow’
Studio Theatre
Streaming through June 27
$37
Studiotheatre.org

Out actor Justin Weaks really digs hip-hop. So, when Studio Theatre asked him to take on the title role in a filmed remount of “Will Power’s Flow,” an early 2000s hip-hop theatrical piece about music and the storytelling of contemporary urban denizens in the West African griot tradition, it wasn’t an impossible stretch.

Growing up in Concord, N.C., a suburb outside of Charlotte, Weaks’ household was strictly into soul and R&B. But since living in D.C., he says, it feels like hip-hop music has deeply dug its claws into him.

In “Flow,” Weaks, 30, is backed by the hip-hop beats of DJ/composer/sound designer Nick “Tha 1da” Hernandez. “But you’ll hear me on some beats too. I have a good time with it.”

But the most challenging aspect of tackling “Flow” is playing multiple parts, he adds. In addition to his lead role as performer Will Power (the 7th storyteller), he plays six other storytellers, and about another dozen characters. But this sort of tour de force isn’t entirely new to the actor who triumphantly played multiple roles in “Long Way Down” at the Kennedy Center as well as in “Gloria” at Woolly Mammoth, the work that garnered him a Helen Hayes Award nomination.

The D.C.-based actor who describes himself as “happily single,” ranks as one of Washington’s most gifted talents.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Was it challenging to assay Will Power, a part so associated with a real-life artist?

JUSTIN WEAKS: Actually, this production was my introduction to Will Power. My friend and director Psalmayene 24 reached out to me – he said Studio wanted to remount “Flow” with a new actor, and asked if I was interested. I was blown away by the script. It’s a behemoth of a piece. Any yes, any time you’re dealing with a piece that was originally performed by its writer, there is an extra responsibility to the work and the words.

BLADE: And how was returning to the stage after a long absence?

WEAKS: The return to Studio felt right. I love the programming at Studio. Like how intimate their spaces are. As a performer you’re held by the audience.

BLADE: But because of COVID restrictions, this production was filmed over two days. How was that?

WEAKS: I’ve had very little film experience. This was my first major rodeo in front of the camera. Everything about it was new. I learned so much while doing it. It’s something that’s foreign. You have to think of it as a great opportunity to learn, to grow, and see what you need to work on.

I’ll admit that I feel incredibly vulnerable with this filmed play being out there. That’s new for me. I’ve experienced vulnerability in real time when I’m on stage but to have the work be done a month ago, edited, and out there, it makes me feel exposed in a way I’ve never felt.

BLADE: I’m sure you’ll get used to that.

WEAKS: After I’ve done a few feature films, I’ll probably feel differently.

BLADE: Was it difficult returning to work after such an odd year?

WEAKS: Returning to work as an artist isn’t easy. I consider our return process to be like boot camp. We’re different people now. My body sits differently. My voice and breath are different. After isolation and not working much, I had to relearn my instrument again.

BLADE: Is it different?

WEAKS: There is so much that is changing in terms of the industry — theater and film industry. How they hire and pay artists. So many of us made more on unemployment than when we were busy working full-time pre-COVID.

Theaters will be in for a surprise when they reopen doors and find that artists don’t want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. We’re in a different time now and we’ll rise to the new time rather than shrinking back into what was. Clearly it wasn’t serving many of us.

BLADE: And is there anything about Flow that’s especially appealing to LGBTQ audiences?

WEAKS: Oh, yes. If you’re someone who has struggled at all this past year, then this piece will interest you. If you’re figuring out what the future looks like, how to move on, how to cope, how to have faith, or hang on to something real, then this play is for you.

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Theater

A mix of laughs and sadness in ‘2.5 Minute Ride’

Studio virtual production penned by Tony-winning Lisa Kron

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Dina Thomas in ‘2.5 Minute Ride.’ (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

‘2.5 Minute Ride’
Streaming through June 6
Studio Theatre
$37
Studiotheatre.org

Tony Award-winning lesbian playwright Lisa Kron writes about families. Sometimes her own, and sometimes other people’s.

With her autobiographical solo show “2.5 Minute Ride,” now streaming at Studio Theatre, the focus is on her relationship with her father, a nearly blind Holocaust survivor with a mad passion for roller coasters.

The 75-minute piece opens with Lisa (engagingly played by Dina Thomas) alone in an empty theater. Casually dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, she arranges a couple of chairs and a slide projector. She’s about to open the family album – usually a dreaded experience for strangers, but not so here.

Rather than an endless cavalcade of unknown faces and places, these projected slides are blank pictures, allowing the audience to imagine people and locations of their own conjuring.

From the start, it’s clear that this anecdote-jammed monologue will be a mix of laughs and sadness. As Lisa, Thomas pokes fun at her oddball relatives. There’s the brother who finds a bride on the Internet, a grandmother who left behind countless unopened packages of cosmetics bought because she felt bad for the Avon Lady, and Lisa’s closeted uncle whose hoard of gay porn was uncovered after his death.

Though not in the least bit sugarcoated, Kron’s descriptions are never cruel.

But the foremost eccentric here, is Lisa’s thrill-addicted father Walter. A German Jewish immigrant, he escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager by Kindertransport. His parents weren’t so fortunate — unable to get out, they met tragic fates in the camps.

Over the years Walter establishes an upper-middle class life in Lansing, Mich. Almost annually, the family makes trips to Cedar Point amusement park, the roller coaster capital of the world, in Sandusky, Ohio, where Walter, a bona fide coaster junkie, indulges in his favorite pastime, a habit that he’s loath to give up even as he ages. So, at 74, despite failing vision, diabetes, and a bad heart, Walter continues to ride the coasters (the play’s title is a salute to this passion)

Lisa marvels at her family’s bad health. Most of the extended family is dead or crippled, she says.

They’re so different from her girlfriend Peg’s physically vital, outdoorsy clan.

There’s another journey whose details Lisa generously shares. It’s the one-time trip she and her dad take to Auschwitz, the death camp where Walter believes his parents to have perished. As traveling companions, the pair do pretty well. She supplies sight while he brings the languages. During their time alone together, Lisa learns a lot about Walter, the ways in which he processes joy and grief, for instance, along with some larger lessons about how great tragedy exists alongside the mundanity of life.

Streamed solo shows have become staple theatrical fare throughout the pandemic. If they’re not your thing, then “2.5 Minute Ride” may not be for you. That said, Thomas gives a compelling, layered performance as Lisa. Ably directed by Joanie Shultz, Thomas convincingly talks about family with compassion but not sentiment. Through Kron’s prose, she vividly recreates relations and locales ranging from her maternal grandmother’s home, the brother’s rented wedding venue, a rental car, the Auschwitz parking lot.

Kron, who is married to fellow celebrated playwright Madeleine George, is probably best known for writing the book and lyrics for “Fun Home,” the award-winning Broadway musical, a queer coming-of-age story adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. Kron also wrote the biographical “Well,” a family memoir centered on the relationship of mothers and daughters, and wellness.

“2.5 Minute Ride” offers a funny, poignant entry into Kron’s family. It’s an invitation worth accepting.

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