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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

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Theater

‘Broken Fantasies’ showcases LGBTQ actors of color

SMYAL-backed production at Atlas Performing Arts Center on Oct. 16

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'Broken Fantasies' cast (Photo courtesy of Breaking Ground)

Broken Fantasies
Oct. 16
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
$5-$10
Atlasarts.com

In “Broken Fantasies” (a new offering from Breaking Ground), young LGBTQAI+ actors of color perform scenes taken from their actual lives. Issues addressed include racism, homelessness, sexual abuse, substance abuse and coming out.

Due to the pandemic, last year Breaking Ground’s annual offering was streamed online, but now a new SMYAL-backed production will be performed live for one night only on Oct. 16 at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Breaking Ground’s out artistic director AJ King, says “Broken Fantasies” uses familiar fairytales (“Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” etc.) to tell powerful, not always easy, stories. In seven to eight vignettes, the tales unfold on a minimal stage, and in addition to dialogue, the seventeen-person cast employs music, poetry and dance to express their experiences.

Founded by King in 2014 in response to the need for expression in the arts as a vehicle for social change, Breaking Ground utilizes theater and performing arts to detail the lives, challenges and journeys of LGBTQAI+ of color in the DMV.

In 2016, SMYAL became the program’s fiscal partner, and the same year, Breaking Ground received an award from the Obama White House for Champions of Change, solidifying their game in the arts community.

King, 32, was drawn to theater during middle and high school in Herndon, Va., and later became involved in programs combining social justice and the arts. He wasn’t a trained director when he founded Breaking Ground but after seven years, King says, he’s found his footing “Still, it remains challenging. Each year there’s a different cast with varied energy, stories and personalities.”

King explains, the cast writes scripts from interviews with other cast members. Sometimes the stories end happily, sometimes not. But without saccharine resolutions, the scenes offer options for audience members who might identify with the problems presented onstage.

“It’s a lot. Cast members have to trust co-actors with their stories and then allow their stories to go onstage,” he adds.

Cast member Eli Barton, 24, says, “The process of sharing your story is surreal at first. It takes courage. But you learn to look at yourself and be gentle about your situation. And when the audience relates to the experience, you understand that your story can really help others.”

Last year, Barton, who is bisexual, played a trans man. But in “Broken Fantasies,” she plays a straight supportive sister who strives to help her gay brother find his voice after the death of their mother. The vignette also involves women empowerment, a history of sexual abuse, and finding a way to navigate growing up a Christian household.

“Acting with other openly LGBTQIA+ is a blessing,” adds Barton. “It’s given me more exposure to the umbrella of the rainbow and allowed me to meet amazing artists. I feel safe and unguarded with them.”

King encourages all stripes of people to attend: “As an audience member, during the performance you put a mirror up to yourself. There may be something relatable, tangible or abstract, or an opportunity for learning and healing. Following a show, it’s not unusual for audience members to say, ‘That’s exactly what I went through and it was the first time I ever saw it portrayed on stage.’”

“And you don’t have to be LGBTQIA+ to relate,” he adds. “The issues covered transcend race, sexuality, gender expression—we deal with things that can be found in every family.”

Theater patrons are required to wear masks and present proof of vaccination.

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Theater

‘Doña Rosita’ marks reunion of three Spaniards at GALA

An excellent cast and dynamic staging elevate stellar production

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Ariel Texidó and Mabel del Pozo in Doña Rosita la soltera. (Photo by Daniel Martínez)

Doña Rosita la soltera
Through Oct. 3
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
$35-$48
galatheatre.org

In the 1930s, Federico García Lorca, 20th century Spain’s greatest poet and dramatist, was writing plays about a woman’s place in the world. In fact, Lorca, who was gay, was exploring women’s souls in an unprecedented way for Spain, or anywhere really. His insight is frequently credited, in part, to his sexuality.  

Now at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Lorca’s “Doña Rosita la soltera (Doña Rosita the Spinster)” tells the story of Rosita, an unmarried woman who subsists on definite hopes of marrying a long-distance fiancé. Whether it’s to keep the populace at bay or to feed a romantic fantasy, isn’t completely clear, but years — decades, in fact — pass, and very little changes. 

Set in the conservative world of middle-class Granada (Lorca’s native province), the 100-minute play, performed in Spanish with English surtitles, spans the 1880s through the early 1900s, constrictive years for women in Spain. When Lorca wrote “Doña Rosita” in 1935, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, he appreciated the recent gains made surrounding women’s rights and foresaw further, imminent progress. Then, just a year later at age 38 and at the top of his game, Lorca was unlawfully arrested and murdered by Franco’s rightwing thugs. All was lost. 

Adapted by out writer Nando López, GALA’s offering strays from Lorca’s original in various ways: there are fewer characters, and the older Rosita serves more as a narrator, interacting with her younger self. Lorca’s glorious poetry remains mostly intact. 

Still, the title character’s tale is clear: Orphaned as a child, Rosita (Mabel del Pozo) goes to live with her devoted aunt (Luz Nicolás) and uncle (Ariel Texidó), an avid gardener. As a young woman, she falls in love with her first cousin (also played by Texidó), and they’re engaged. Despite the fiancé leaving Spain to join his aging parents on their sizeable farm in Tucumán, Argentina, the young lovers remain betrothed. 

Domestic life goes on. With the support of relations, and the family’s devoted but skeptical housekeeper (Laura Alemán), Rosita assembles a first-rate trousseau, and the affianced pair continue to exchange heartfelt letters. At one point, there’s talk of marriage by proxy – an idea scoffed at by some of the household and neighbors. 

The sameness of the unchanging household is offset by out director José Luis Arellano’s dynamic staging, an excellent cast, actors nimbly changing characters onstage with the help of a hat or cravat fished out of a chest of drawers, Jesús Díaz Cortés’ vibrant lighting, and incidental music from David Peralto and Alberto Granados. Alemán, so good as the shrewd housekeeper from the country (a place Lorca respected) also assays a spinster who comes to tea. And Catherine Nunez characterizes feminine youth, scornful of Rosita’s unattached status. Delbis Cardona is versatile as the worker and Don Martin, a teacher charged with educating the ungrateful offspring of Granada’s rich. 

After a rare outdoor excursion to the circus, Rosita wrongly claims to have seen her would-be groom working with the troupe, but the housekeeper is quick to point out that the well-built puppeteer is by no means her stoop-shouldered barefoot fiancé, adding that more and more Rosita is seeing her faraway love in the face of the men about Granada. Swiftly, the aunt reminds the housekeeper to know her place – she’s allowed to speak, but not bark.

Visually, the passage of time is indicated by the hemline and cut of Rosita’s dresses (designed by Silvia de Marta), and the mid-play dismantling of the set (also de Marta), opening the family’s rooms and garden to what lies beyond. 

After intermission, six more years have passed and the narrative is more straightforward and patently compelling. Rosita’s aunt, now a pissed-off, generally miserable widow in reduced circumstances, is packing up to move. It’s been hard running a house, she says. And it’s harder scrubbing the floors, replies the faithful housekeeper. 

And it’s here that del Pozo shines with Rosita’s revelatory monologue, a searingly true, passionately delivered speech worth the price of a ticket. 

“Doña Rosita” marks a collaborative reunion of three Spaniards – writer López, director Arellano, and actor del Pozo – who all worked on GALA’s 2015, multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Lorca’s politically controversial “Yerma,” the story of another complicated Spanish woman. 

GALA Hispanic Theatre safety policy

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