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Standouts from the stage

Gay-fueled creativity abounds on local theater scene

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Gay actress Delia Taylor as Winnie in WSC’s ‘Happy Days’ featuring the imaginative set design work of Tony Cisek, also gay. (Photo courtesy WSC Avant Bard)

The fall theater season is here. With that comes a deluge of new productions and for one longstanding local company, a new name. What was the Washington Shakespeare Company is now WSC Avant Bard, a clever adjustment better fitting the troupe’s mission to boldly interpret the classics.

WSC’s season opens with Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” (through Sept. 25). Mostly a monologue, the 1961 absurdist work spotlights Winnie, an upbeat, chirpy woman who passes her days chatting endlessly while becoming increasingly immobilized in the hot sun in the middle of nowhere. And yet she remains cheery, unfazed by her situation. As Winnie, Delia Taylor, who’s gay, brings intelligence, sensitivity and a lot of humor to the tough role.

Beckett calls for his heroine to be stuck in a mound and most productions comply with some sort of sandy or rocky pile, but not here. Set designer Tony Cisek, also gay, takes another tack ingeniously locking Winnie into endless yards of fabric. Trapped in her dress like a little doll in a giant doll cake, she sits atop her sartorial prison talking, arranging her cocktail hat and rummaging through a capacious satchel in search of necessities ranging from a toothbrush to a long barreled pistol. Her confined world is backed by an endless curve of beautiful blue sky.

Splendidly staged by director Jose Carrasquillo (gay too), the surprisingly poignant production comments on optimism and the fleeting nature of life. Carrasquillo also displays terrific timing as Winnie’s uncommunicative, slug-like husband Willie who makes his home in a hole behind his wife’s skirts. (wscavantbard.org)

Up-and-coming No Rules Theatre Company kicks off its season with Diane Son’s “Stop Kiss” (through Oct. 2) at the H Street Playhouse. It’s the story of two young women who are brutally assaulted after kissing in public. Acclaimed local actor Holly Twyford (who’s gay) makes her directorial debut. (norulestheatre.org)

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s gay artistic director Michael Kahn begins his season with a world premiere production of Jean-François Regnard’s 1708 farce  “The Heir Apparent” (through Oct. 23) adapted by the brilliant David Ives. (shakespearetheatre.org)

Venus Theatre opens with the world premiere of “The Stenographer” (through Sept. 25) by Greek playwright Zoe Mavroudi. The two-hander featuring local bi actor Frank Britton and Amy Rhodes is essentially a tale about writing and what happens when writing implicates the writer. Housed in an intimate storefront venue in Laurel, Md., Venus’ mission is to foster the voices of women and children in the theater. (venustheatre.org)

Ganymede Arts may have closed its doors, but the LGBT-centric company’s former artistic director Jeffrey Johnson remains active. In October, Johnson and singer/songwriter Tom Goss (both gay) are joining forces for two nights of music titled “Under the Covers” (Oct. 21-22) at the Black Fox Lounge. The show offers a rare chance to see Johnson perform as himself and not his pink-haired alter ego. (pinkhairedone.com).

The Studio Theatre starts off with “The Habit of Art” (through Oct. 16) by Alan Bennett, the gay playwright who wrote “The History Boys.” Based on a fictional meeting between poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (both Brits, both gay), the 2009 work is described as “wistful and filthily funny.” The strong cast includes a talented trio: Ted van Griethuysen, Patxon Whitehead and gay actor Cameron Folmar.

In November, Studio’s gay artistic producing director Serge Seiden stages German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s “The Golden Dragon” (Nov. 2- Dec. 11), a comic look at people whose lives are interconnected by a Chinese restaurant. The five- person cast (including the terrific Sarah Marshall, who’s — you guessed it — gay) cross age, race, and gender to play 15 characters. (studiotheatre.org)

At Gala Hispanic Theatre, Spain-based gay director José Luis Arellano-García is staging “¡Ay, Carmela!” (Sept. 15-Oct. 9), the story of a vaudeville team forced to perform for Franco’s fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. According to Gala’s associate producing director Abel Lopez, “The playwright [José Sanchis Sinisterra] pays homage to gay Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca by referring to him in a scene when Carmela speaks about meeting Lorca in the afterlife. The similarities surrounding Lorca’s assassination by the fascists and Carmela’s execution are striking. Both stood up for their beliefs and paid dearly for it.” (galatheatre.org)

The green-eyed monster is poised to stride the boards at Folger Theatre. Staged by Robert Richmond, the company’s “Othello” (Oct. 16–Nov. 27) features Owiso Odera in the title role, and reunites members of the creative team behind last season’s “Henry VIII” including celebrated gay designers William Ivey Long (costumes) and busy Tony Cisek (sets). Zehra Fazal who’s best known for her one woman tour de force “Headscarf and the Angry Bitch” plays Bianca. (folger.edu)

Signature Theatre’s fall season begins with two musical premieres: “The Boy Detective Fails” (through Oct. 16), the story of a kid sleuth who grows up to investigate the mystery surrounding his own sister’s death. It’s staged by Joe Calarco and composed by Adam Gwon (both gay). “The Hollow” — based on Washington Irving’s classic tale — is staged by Matthew Gardiner and composed by Matt Conner (also both gay).

Next up at Signature, E. Patrick Johnson performs his one-man play “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South” (Sept. 13-Oct .9). In this new work based on his acclaimed book, Johnson, chair of the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, relays his own story and those of a dozen other men he’s interviewed and come to know.

And later in the season, Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer stages the musical “Hairspray” (Nov. 21-Jan. 29) adapted from John Waters’ 1988 Baltimore-set flick about big girls, big hair and racial segregation. In what might prove a stroke of casting genius, Schaeffer has tapped radio personality Robert Aubry Davis to play Edna, everyone’s favorite plus size house frau. We’ll just have to wait and see. (signature-theatre.org)

 

 

 

 

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Photos

PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Revue

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Revue at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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