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America’s Bard

Legendary gay playwright Tennessee Williams honored in centennial festival

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Tennessee Williams' homosexuality widely informed his work, often in coded ways. (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Williams Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

He is the poet laureate of the American theater.

He pursued young men and boys with sexual voracity, especially hustlers, often rough trade, and those obsessively so in his latter years, but he also delighted greatly in the company of women.

His greatest creations on stage were in fact women, though some argue they were really coded figures who were actually gay males in drag. Certainly most of his heroines — especially perhaps Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar named Desire” — were extensions of himself, valorous but doomed, haunted by desire, shadowed by failure, driven to despair and sometimes even to madness or to death.

He is Thomas Lanier Williams, born 100 years ago this weekend on Palm Sunday, March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss., to Edwina and Cornelius Williams. He was reared in an Episcopal rectory there, where his grandfather, Rev. Walter Dakin, was the local Episcopal priest, and later changed his name to “Tennessee” in honor of that same grandfather, who was born in that state.

Williams’ sense of sin and salvation in sexuality was central to his inner drives, says Derek Goldman, artistic director of this weekend’s Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival, a raft of plays and staged readings and panel discussions featuring appearances by among others Edward Albee and John Waters (Visit performingarts.georgetown.edu/tenncentfest/festival/ for details). For a long time, Williams was closeted about being gay, though he let it be known to his friends. Goldman says that though Williams had a long-time love relationship with his life partner Frankie Merlo, he was also “very promiscuous, and slept around a lot,” when “his need was for several boys a day at times, and the younger and prettier the better.”

Georgetown University's production of 'Glass Menagerie,' one of Tennessee Williams' most famous works. From left are recent alumni Rachel Caywood and Clark Young with Prof. Sarah Marshall. (Photo by Sue Kessler, courtesy of Georgetown University)

In his writing, however, Goldman says, the thirst to slake his need for for constant sexual consummation, took a different form through sublimation, because in his writing, he “explores not so much the sex but how those desires have a place in society” — or do not. Goldman is also associate professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University, where the Williams Festival — known for short as “Tenn Cent Fest” — is housed, and he directs the university’s Davis Performing Arts Center. Goldman says the festival, most of which runs from today through Sunday, has “certainly been a labor of love,” including being able to teach a seminar on Williams work and “for this past year” he says he has been “steeped in all things Williams.”

Goldman’s own first encounter with Williams came on cable TV, however, when he was about 13 and saw the film adaptations of “Streetcar Named Desire” (1951,)  and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958). In each case, of course, Hollywood producers insisted in excisions, and Goldman admits that “I now blush at the fact that they were so sanitized, taking much of the sexuality out.”

For example, Goldman points out that in the original version of “Cat” (which was on Broadway in 1955 when it was directed by Elia Kazan and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), it’s clear that Brick (first played by the actor Ben Gazzara) is actually bisexual, or even gay, as he admits to his feelings for his pro football buddy Skipper who has committed suicide. Goldman says that “the back story for Brick is his relationship with Skipper,” and that while Brick’s “sexuality is pretty complicated,” he has certainly “lost interest in Maggie sexually,” and “we understand that he definitely has homosexual desires.”

We, of course, mainly know Williams from his work. That is the only reason he rates such a “Tenn Cent Fest” weekend, more than a quarter century after his death, as Goldman is now curating. But behind and beneath that work was always his beating heart. Reading his private writing shows him “so emotionally naked, as he was working out his own stuff,” Goldman says.

“It shows the undulation between guilt and shame (at being gay), not being accepted for who he really was, and also being able to claim it with pride,” Goldman says. “It was not just one thing. It was a stew of contradictions pulsing back and forth in private.”

In one of Williams’ one-act plays, “Suddenly, Last Summer,” that opened off-Broadway in 1958 as part of a double-bill titled “In The Garden District,” the play is basically two long monologues, considered one of his starkest and most poetic works. Best known from the 1959 film adaptation, it is a mystery melodrama about why Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor in the film) has been institutionalized for severe emotional disturbance, the result of the violent death of her cousin Sebastian by dismemberment and cannibalism by local boys, the objects of his predatory sexual desire, she had witnessed during their trip to Spain. Sebastian’s wealthy mother, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is determined to hide the exact circumstances of her son’s death and the fact that he was gay.

Maya Roth, Georgetown’s director of theater and performance studies, is directing “Suddenly, Last Summer” at the Davis Performing Arts Center April 7-16. “It is a play about violence against homosexual men,” she says. “It’s about Sebastian,” who is never seen, except at a distance in memory, “and his queerness that can’t be mentioned, the love that dare not speak its name, that’s what ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ is about.” Though sanitized in the film version, it was written as one of his early plays but for a long time remained unproduced. When it was finally presented on stage, it was a kind of “coming out” for Williams, she says, “and it was really radical, and the reason why Hollywood had to airbrush it out.”

Asked about the legacy of Williams — his many plays as well as novels and short stories and occasional screenplays — Goldman says, “it’s more than a legacy, it’s the urgency still in his work, because it’s still very fresh,” in what he calls its “incredible lyricism and heat, the poetry of its fierce and ferocious imagery, in its language as windows into the soul.”

“He’s the poet of the vulnerable, whose compassion is in the size of his tenderness and faith in the beauty of the broken, those who have suffered the collateral damages of a world that doesn’t celebrate individuality, that doesn’t make allowances for the beauty of the broken,” Goldman says. “He’s the one who pierces the heart and the intellect, but it’s the heart, the emotional connection that we have to his work, that is most indelible.”

“He’s our American Shakespeare,” Goldman says, “combining the elevation of lyricism and magician-ship of language with the power of great story-telling,” and for Goldman, of all of Williams’ work there stands what he calls “the holy trinity,” his own “personal pantheon” of Williams’ three greatest creations: “The Glass Menagerie” (1944), “Streetcar Named Desire” (1948) and “Camino Real” (1953). The latter is being performed in a staged reading directed by Goldman tonight at 7:45 p.m.

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Theater

D.C. theaters offer something for every holiday taste

From ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ to plenty of Scrooge productions

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The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents ‘The Holiday Show.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For many Washington area theatergoers, it wouldn’t be the holidays without seeing an old chestnut or two. At the same time, newer productions are rapidly becoming yuletide traditions in their own right, and with every unfolding holiday season, the DMV scene is additionally gifted with fresh and exciting works. 

It’s a lot. Here’s a sampling. 

National Theatre presents “A Magical Cirque Christmas” (Dec. 16-18), an evening of varied performers and spectacular double-jointed cirque artists accompanied by your favorite holiday music performed live. Mistress of Magic Lucy Darling hosts this exciting and enchanting holiday entertainment for the entire family (well, almost, children under four are strictly verboten). Broadwayatthenational.com

At Synetic Theater in Crystal City, it’s “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 1 – 23) based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely man who creates a woman out of snow and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron is conjuring magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 2-18). Married collaborators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith’s musical is based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown about a lonely woman who finds happiness through a box of old toys. Creativecauldron.org

The season now upon us offers myriad opportunities to experience Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the redemptive tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps the most celebrated Christmas character after Santa, Rudolph, and the baby Jesus.

Historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31) has been a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. The beautifully produced and consistently well-acted take on the Dickens’ classic (originally conceived by Michael Baron), features Craig Wallace reprising Scrooge, who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org 

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello lovingly revisits his celebrated take on the “A Christmas Carol” (through Jan. 1). In his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story (created and performed by Morello), he brings to life more than 40 different characters including Scrooge, the entire Cratchit family, the specters, and numerous celebrants.

Olney is also reviving its holiday musical success “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 1, and reprising roles in the tale as old time terrific are out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast. Out actor Bobby Smith plays Lumiere. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs. Olneytheatre.org

In various books and interviews, movie star Bette Davis recounts how as a young girl, she most looked forward to finding theater tickets under the tree (a Davis family Christmas tradition). Perhaps you know a youth or adult, who’d like receive tickets this holiday season? The Kennedy Center Opera House is tempting audiences with a traveling production of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked” (Dec. 8-Jan. 22), the much-loved prequel of the “Wizard of Oz.” Kennedy-center.org 

Signature Theatre adds to the holiday fun with “Into the Woods” (through Jan. 29), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s unique musical spin on treasured fairytales and “happily-ever-after.” The large, uber-talented cast features — among other big names — Nova Y. Payton, out actor David Merino, and Maria Rizzo. Matthew Gardiner directs. Sig-theatre.org

Then there’s always “The Nutcracker.” Here are four from scores of local productions. 

The Washington Ballet presents its charming version at the gilded Warner Theatre through Dec. 30. With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Washingtonballet.org

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore presents “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). Strathmore.org  

And Kansas City Ballet’s celebrated seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 27, so you’ll need to move fast. 

The beloved Puppet Co. located within Glen Echo Park presents its 34th annual “The Nutcracker” through Jan. 1. The delightful puppet show includes Tchaikovsky’s familiar music and the story of Clara and her prince, with some Puppet Co. nursery rhyme spin. (Recommended for ages 4+. Run time approximately 50 minutes.)

Running nearly concurrently at the Puppet Co. is “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Dec. 1-30). “Hershel just wants to celebrate Hanukkah with the community, but the Queen and King of the Goblins have forbidden the lighting of the candles. Can Hershel save the day and lift the curse for this shtetl (village)?” (Recommended ages 5+. Run time approximately 60 minutes.) Thepuppetco.org 

And for those who might find themselves all Nutcracker-ed out, Ballet Hispánico returns to the Kennedy Center with internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Doña Perón” (Nov. 30-Dec. 3), a truly exciting portrait of Eva “Evita” Perón. Kennedy-center.org 

And for something festive, edifying, and relaxed, try the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert” at The Anthem on Dec. 6. Go ahead, why not don something hideous and enjoy your favorite holiday songs? 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 3-11), an annual extravaganza that promises sparkly snow, tap dancers, and over-the-top costumes at their usual venue, the historic Lincoln Theatre in the U Street Corridor. Slated for the program are songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Underneath the Tree,” “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hard Candy Christmas” performed by the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. Gmcw.org 

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Theater

Poignant ‘Sanctuary City’ depicts two immigrants struggling to get ahead in America

Undocumented friends navigate post-9/11 New Jersey

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Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez in Sanctuary City at Arena Stage.  (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘Sanctuary City’
Through Nov. 27
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W. 
$41-$95
Arenastage.org

As a kid growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, María Victoria Martínez was obsessed with musicals, Broadway shows like “West Side Story” and Disney movies were on nonstop rotation. She knew the scores by heart and longed to play not the ingenues or princesses, but rather character roles like “The Little Mermaid’s” villainous Ursula and Miss Hannigan, the comically bitter lush in “Annie.”

“Imitating the singers is how I learned English,” says Martínez, 30. It also ignited a passion for theater that ultimately lured her into show biz (though she doesn’t do musicals).

 After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico followed by a master’s degree from A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University), she kicked off a career as a multifaceted actor. Martínez follows the work, but splits most her time between San Juan and New York City: “It’s my idea of a bicoastal existence,” she says. 

Currently Martínez, who identifies as queer, is at Arena Stage starring in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” an Arena/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production directed by David Mendizábal with associate direction and transfer direction by Cara Hinh.

Set in Newark, N.J., not long after 9/11, a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, the new work is a timely and poignant piece. Martínez and out actor Hernán Angulo play longtime undocumented friends (simply called G and B, respectively), struggling to get ahead in America, the only home they’ve ever known. 

Without giving too much away, adds Martínez, G’s position in the U.S. is more stable than B’s. Still, she’s willing to fight to help secure his fate. He is arguably her only friend. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Would you describe your character, G, as the fierier of the two? 

MARĺA VICTORIA MARTĺNEZ: Yes. As I read the play, I definitely saw this ardent fire in G. When she feels safe the fire burns but she feels in danger, her fire is combustible and liable to burn everything down. G is the engine that tries to keep B going, to uplift him, to find ways for him to stay in the country. 

They share moments when they seem like brother and sister, sometimes friends, and even lovers. It’s left open for audience to interpret as they watch the play. It’s messy. And that’s what makes it good.

BLADE: Was it tough moving the production across country?

MARTĺNEZ: Transferring theaters was tricky – they’re very different spaces. In Berkeley we were in a black box almost in full round. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is proscenium, so we’ve had to flatten out our blocking. But in doing so we found new moments in the show. 

Audiences are different in every city. In California, there were certain moments in the show where audiences were really cracking up and here, we don’t hear a peep. But after all, theater is a living organism and moving gives new and different life.

BLADE: In “Sanctuary City,” you and Hernán Angulo play such incredibly close friends. How is that relationship offstage? 

MARTĺNEZ: We were so fortunate to have been cast together. We got along right off the bat and now we’re very close. I identify as queer and he identifies as a gay man. But it’s really our Latinidad (Latinness) that brought us together. And we both love to laugh a lot. When apart we Facetime and share Tik Toks and serious articles too. 

I’m Puerto Rican and he’s Mexican American from the Bay Area. I’m interested in Mexican culture. Spanish is my first language; and Hernán speaks Spanish, so there’s that too. 

BLADE: Have you witnessed the courage and pain of undocumented people firsthand?

MARTĺNEZ: In Puerto Rico most of the immigrants are Dominicans. We’re generally welcoming to them. But I have seen some bad things, and when I witness that aggression, it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t understand blocking someone from seeking refuge. 

BLADE: Anything directed at you personally?

MARTĺNEZ: Yes, I experienced some unsettling xenophobia when Trump was first elected. I was still at A.R.T. and traveling home to San Juan. At the airport, I was speaking Spanish and a lady purposely bumped into me and told me to go back to my country. I hold a U.S. passport, so you can only imagine what happens to people who are more vulnerable. 

These things are really important to talk about. And I’m happy and proud to be doing the show in D.C. I think it gives it even more meaning. 

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Theater

‘Ballad of Emmett Till’ recounts last two weeks of a life cut short

A deftly staged and well-acted look at seminal American tragedy

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Stars of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ (l-r): Jaysen Wright, Antonio Michael Woodard as Till, and Vaughn Ryan Midder. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘The Till Trilogy: The Ballad of Emmett Till’
Through Nov. 20
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the first part of playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (now playing at Mosaic Theater Company), recounts the last two weeks of the title character’s short life.

There are bursts of joy and laughter during those days, but always lurking is the knowledge that the Black 14-year-old’s infectious vitality will soon be horrifically snuffed out for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The piece, deftly staged by Talvin Wilks, opens with the cast gathering on a dimly lit stage, hauntingly chanting the boy’s name, a sound that’s both foreboding and alluring, an invitation to hear his story, a seminal tragedy that drew the attention of a nation.

It’s the summer of 1955 and young Emmett, affectionately nicknamed Bobo, convinces his protective mother to grant him a little independence. Wearing a summer suit, new bucks, and that jaunty straw hat (made so familiar from the real life Till’s iconic photograph), he boards a train headed from Chicago to Money, Miss., where he’ll spend time with family in the Jim Crow South.

The road from the rural station to the humble home of Emmett’s Great Uncle Mose, a tenant farmer and lay preacher, narrows from two lanes to one to a dirt lane. It’s a happy place where everyone is expected to work. And despite being warned to defer to racist whites without question, Emmett and his cousin experience a freedom they don’t know on Chicago’s Southside. In the South, the city boys are free to drive and party at the boozy juke joint on Saturday nights. And while Emmett doesn’t take to picking the cotton or wringing a chicken’s neck, he adapts to other aspects of country life like fishing and going barefoot.

Antonio Michael Woodard nails Emmett as an energetic, smart-alecky, endearing youth, a child on the threshold of young manhood.

The stellar cast’s remaining five members play multiple roles: Billie Krishawn plays Emmett’s mother Mary Till-Bradley whose brave decision to display her son’s grossly disfigured corpse in an open casket for the world to see is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement, as well as young boy cousin and Caroline Bryant, the white woman who set off the chain of events that led to Emmett’s death; out actors Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder convincingly double as both Emmett’s pals and the vicious white men who killed him; and the stalwartly versatile Jason Bowen plays Mose and other various Mississippians important to the story.

As the piece’s two older women, Rolanda Watts (of TV talk show fame) is excellent, instantly delineating between the two with a slight intonation or change of posture. She exudes warmth as Emmett’s great aunt, a kind woman who knew nothing about cotton but followed her heart and ended up the wife of a poor planter.

Bayeza sets the story in the past and present. At times, Emmett tells his own story, insisting he isn’t going to die, that he’s the chatty Chicago kid who will never stop talking, he’ll always be heard. The piece is also laced with sympathetic songs, ranging from hummable doowop to plaintive ballad, sung unaccompanied by some of the cast.

With roughly hewn planks and beams, set designer Andrew Cohen creates a barnlike atmosphere, evoking the scene of the crime. Sound designer Kwamina “Binnie” Biney adds atmosphere with the sounds of wild water fowls, and chickens clucking in the coop.

The playwright did her homework. In addition to describing his love for nice clothes and budding interest in girls, Bayeza details Emmett’s stammer and the bout with polio that left him with a withered leg. She touches on Mary’s jobs, relationships, intelligence, and ambition.
After a long, drawn-out death scene, the story’s painful ending is delivered as implicitly assured, but not without some promise of hope.

Running concurrently through Nov. 20 are the other parts of the trilogy: “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.”

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