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Baltimore lesbian playwright has ‘fresh sensibility’

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‘A Peppermint Patty Christmas’

Through Dec. 18

Strand Theater Company

1823 N. Charles Street, Baltimore

$10-$15

443-874-4917

Budding lesbian playwright Kate Bishop hit a nerve with her debut with lesbian Baltimore residents. (Photo courtesy of Bishop)

By titling her new play “A Peppermint Patty Christmas,” Kate Bishop puts a queer spin on a holiday classic. Like the beloved Peanuts TV special of everyone’s youth (“A Charlie Brown Christmas”), Bishop’s piece in some ways explores the deeper meanings of the season.

And though inspired by the animated favorite’s freckle-faced Tomboy whose female sidekick addresses her as “sir,” Bishop has written a grownup work about a lesbian striving to strengthen relationships with partner and family.

In Bishop’s play (commissioned by Baltimore’s Strand Theater Company), girlfriends Patricia and Marcie live in Brooklyn where the former is a gym-owning jock and the latter, a brainy graduate student writing her dissertation on Christmas. Not a big fan of the yuletide, Patricia has vowed to change things up this year. When she takes her girlfriend to spend Christmas with her less-than-functional family in Dundalk (a working class Baltimore suburb), Patricia is intent on foregoing small talk for total honesty. It’s time to be completely above board about her life.

Bishop came out to her family long before she ever brought a girlfriend home for the holidays. Still, a lot of her play is autobiographical: Like Patricia and Marcie, Bishop and her partner of nine years are an interracial couple. But perhaps most importantly, Bishop’s real life experiences with family and her career as a social worker (her clients are primarily Baltimore teens who’ve recently been diagnosed with HIV) prompts her to write – often humorously — about real life. Few of us, she says, truly recognize the idealized holidays we see depicted on greeting cards and commercials.

Last June, Bishop began her association with the Strand when her first play, a one act titled “How I learned to Eat Pussy,” was produced as part of their 2010 Friends and Neighbors Festival. Jayme Kilburn, the company’s artistic director, was initially attracted to the playwright’s unapologetic and mature voice. She explains,

“I have read too many plays where the central character is a lesbian in high school and falls in love with a pretty girl, experiments, is tortured by her feelings of inadequacy, etc., etc.,” Kilburn says. “Although those plays have their place … this was very different from that. It celebrated the discovery of her sexual orientation and was a very positive and detailed account of her first experience with a woman.”

Not surprising given the title, Bishop’s play struck a chord with Baltimore’s lesbian, theater-going community. The show ran for only a weekend, but each of the performances was sold out. Lesbians were letting the Strand know that they wanted to see more work about lesbian women, so when the company decided to commission an original holiday piece (to add to its season comprised of plays all written by women), they went to Bishop.

A resident of Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood, the city’s cultural epicenter, for almost five years, Bishop, 37, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs and lived in Cleveland for a decade. She has a Bachelor of Arts in gender studies from Hiram College and a master’s in social work from Case Western Reserve University.

“This theater stuff is still pretty new to me, but I now feel a future in it,” Bishop says. “While I still need to work on some of the basics, I think I have a fresh sensibility and a lot to say. More and more I’m writing for a broader audience.”

Kilburn concurs.

“Kate has said that she wants to see more butch women on stage, and is not entirely satisfied with the current portrayals of lesbian women,” she says. “I think Kate could be instrumental in pushing lesbian characters into the spotlight. Anybody can watch her plays and relate to her characters. The Strand’s mission is to promote women’s voices, and Kate’s work fits into the mission perfectly.”

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. theatergirl

    December 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I don’t understand why the author needs to see more “butch” women on stage in lesbian roles. Not all lesbians are “butch” and, as someone with a number of lesbian friends, I am offended on behalf of the ones who are very pretty and very feminine. I agree that lesbian characters need more of a voice in the theater, but there is a pre-conceived notion of what a lesbian looks like that both The Strand and the author of the show are playing into when they say that lesbian characters need to be more “butch”. Just a thought.

    • Kate Bishop

      December 14, 2010 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks so much for writing this piece, Patrick! Loved it, I’m a fan of you.

      Hi theatergirl, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate someone who stands up for her friends.

      Perhaps you think I’m saying “butch” as shorthand for “lesbian” or “more credibly lesbian”. I see an absence of lesbian-generated images of women who proudly claim a more masculine identity. Maybe it’s an effort to avoid the mannish-woman stereotype, or to make lesbian lives translate more easily for the straight world, but lesbian representations I see on screen and stage too often just erase the existence of butch women altogether. While it’s important to be free of the notion that all lesbians look any certain way, I’d like to imagine (or pretend, maybe) that we’re beyond that assumption now.

      When I was coming out (hello, 1993, how ya doin’?), there was a gay guy with a weekly radio show who chronicled ANY mention of LGBT in mainstream media. Every gay character was celebrated, no matter how offensive or buffoonish, because there were just so few images of queer people anywhere. A generation later, we are treated to more and more queer characters every year (though cisgender gay men still far outnumber women and transfolks). In seeing more numerous images of lesbians, I am disappointed that the whole spectrum of our community is still not represented.

      Butch women have a revolutionary history, a rich culture, and a sacred place in the dyke world. Those powerful women must not be left out of the literal spotlight because they might confirm a stereotype for those with limited vision. I want to see my friends, all of them! I also want to intentionally create roles that allow masculine women to get work in theater without having to disappear behind a gender identity that feels absolutely foreign. I have the enormous privilege and responsibility of holding an audience’s attention for 90 minutes. Better believe I’m gonna make it count for me and my people. It’s long past time.

    • judith angelo

      December 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

      Theater girl, you seem to know that all lesbians aren’t butch – and after that i am having a lot of trouble understanding how, with all your knowledge of lesbians you have no idea what a ‘butch’ is, or what ‘butch’ represents in the history of sexual self-awareness and happiness. Apparently all your lesbian friends are femmes, but not one of them has ever dated a butch, which makes me hope your sampling is very small, cuz otherwise that would be sad, and very strange.

      The only place that all lesbians are “pretty” and “feminine” and only date other femmes is television. Maybe you are standing up for those fictional femmes. Which brings us full circle to Ms. Bishop’s point. Maybe if there were more roles for butches, you would not be so ignorant.
      Perhaps before you stand up for all the acceptable pretty lesbians, you should talk to some of them & who THEY would like to see on stage.

  2. cathy brennan

    December 14, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    hey, theatergirl. all katy said was she wants to see more butch women. why does this bother you? obviously not all lesbians are butch – in fact, it seems that most depictions of lesbians in media, tv, theater are femme – which is exactly katy’s point. you dig?
    what do you have against us butchies anyway?
    signed, my real name,
    cathy brennan

  3. Leo X

    December 14, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Hey theatregirl,
    As a butch Lesbian, I am excited that Kate Bishop wants to see more of us!!!
    Besides, if you aren’t a lesbian…Why are you weighing in on things you clearly don’t understand? Annoying. Kate Bishop is a lesbian. She knows what she is talking about…I am a Lesbian. I know what I am talking about…you keep figuring out what your boyfriend needs and leave the lesbian politics to the lesbians.

  4. Rahne Alexander

    December 14, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I’d love to see more butch women play butch characters in any medium, because butches are hot and I don’t see enough of them honestly represented, particularly by LGBT-sourced media. Personally, I can’t wait for Kate’s play to be turned into its own annual Christmas special and I hope she’s directly responsible for the casting.

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Theater

‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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Theater

A look back at the best in 2021 D.C. theater

Stages sprung back to life after shutdowns

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Shakespeare Theatre Company reopened in 2021 with ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

When everything was closed, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) took a chance by reopening in the spring of 2021. 

Theater lovers longed for something, and after a year of unquestionably defensible darkness, (STC) opened the doors of the Harman with Donmar Warehouse’s gripping production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones. 

D.C.’s first return to indoor theater involved masks and social distancing, as well as a stage without live actors and an audience seated onstage. It was a resounding success. 

But “Blindness” was a blip on the early summer radar. Most of the year was awash with streamed productions, particularly one-person shows. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre, out actor Ryan J. Haddad doesn’t hold back. In his refreshingly direct autographical one-man play “Hi, Are you Single?” 

In a January interview with the Blade, Haddad said, “The show begins with my shorts around my ankles and I’m rubbing the crotch of my boxer briefs, the audience sees my walker,” Haddad explains matter-of-factly. “I’m telling you from the start that these are the terms here. If you can’t get on board with me being disabled and horny AF then you’ll have a hard time with this play.” 

Other especially memorable streamed productions included Theater Alliance’s production of busy playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle,” a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. Ingeniously directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. 

The innovative work imagines a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

Throughout the summer months, Olney Theatre Center offered myriad, well -attended outdoor performances, including admission-free nights in August titled “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences were asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.”

But the big story of latter 2021 was the citywide reopening of indoor performance venues brought about in large part by vaccinations and audience’s willingness to don masks and present proof of vaccination at the door. In addition to audiences, working theaters have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for performers and theater staff. More theaters are expected to follow suit as they resume operation. 

When autumn rolled around, curtains went up. Arena Stage opened with “Toni Stone” (through Oct. 3). Written by Lydia R. Diamon, it’s the remarkable story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, also making her the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league in the 1950s. Signature Theatre reopened with a newly reimagined interpretation of “Rent” directed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. 

And in no time, national tours of big Broadway musicals busted into town with movies to musicals “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman” (through Jan. 2) at the National and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Kennedy Center.  

While many beloved holiday shows returned to familiar stages in December, some new works have arrived, too, including Studio Theatre’s “Flight” (through February), an immersive installation created by Scottish innovators Vox Motus and designed by Jamie Harrison. It’s described as “an invitation to bear witness to the personal stories of two of the 300,000 displaced children who make unaccompanied journeys every year,” “Flight” is the story orphaned brothers who set off on an arduous journey across Europe in search of freedom and safety. 

There are no live actors in this production. Audience members experience the play from individual booths wearing headphones and viewing a handcrafted diorama in which the story unfolds in intimate miniature. 

Despite herculean efforts, things aren’t entirely back to normal – far from it. Currently in New York, newly reopened Broadway shows are cancelling performances citing backstage outbreaks of coronavirus and variants as the culprit. How things play out in our town in the coming year, remains to be seen.

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