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MCC bids Hughes farewell

Gay church choir joined by GMCW; Chaka Khan and Meshell Ndegeocello also had recent D.C. appearances

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Metropolitan Community Church of Washington (MCC-D.C.) pulled out all the stops for its Christmas concert this year but even with another diva in the house — guest singer Oleta Adams — it was still Shirli Hughes’ night, as it should have been.

Shirli Hughes at Saturday night's MCC Christmas concert. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Hughes, the church’s minister of music (and a lesbian), has resigned and Saturday night’s concert was her swan song after a decade running the church’s music program. It felt as though she decided to go out with a bang — the concert was held at the Lincoln Theater (usually all MCC concerts are held at the church) and there were two big guests: Adams and a healthy fraction of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington which has its own holiday show the weekend of the 16th (go here for details).

That Adams sang beautifully was almost a given. She owned the stage during a three-song mini-set late in the second half during which she accompanied herself on electric piano with her hit “Get Here” and an exquisite cover of Amy Grant’s “Mary’s Song (Breath of Heaven)” that’s also on Adams’ Christmas album. Initially I thought she sounded too muscular for the tender lullaby but she settled into a moving rendition of the song marked by dead-on phrasing and vocal nuance.

And, of course, I know rehearsal time is often either highly limited or non-existent when you bring in a big-name artist, but it was almost tragic to hear the canned backing vocals on her opening number “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” considering the bounty of choral talent that was sitting back stage. Thankfully she joined them on closing song “Joy to the World” (mostly the Three Dog Night version but not entirely), which gave the concert a less compartmentalized feel among its participants which, prior to that, had been totally insular (the MCC choir didn’t sing a note with the GMCW; they’re much different outfits, of course, but some sort of collaboration would have been refreshing).

Natalie Carter, left, accompanied by Shirli Hughes, in red. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

The concert, playing to a packed house, was designed to give the church a chance to show off its abundance of talent. Several soloists — especially Marcia Newbill, Gbenimah Slopadoe, Jeffrey Herrell and Yartumo Gborkorquellie — have pro-caliber voices and could be on Broadway or in Los Angeles recording studios if they wished. Equally good, Natalie Carter’s warm, silky solo on “My Sweet Lawd” was understated yet powerful. And old MCC standbys Lisa Carrol, Tanya Harper and Michelle Lanchester (Hughes’ partner) were each in fine voice. Carrol, who possesses a lovely alto timbre, has excelled under Hughes’ guidance and has found new range in her interpretive abilities. And Lanchester, a soul growler who can ad lib with all the passion and fire of any big-name gospel act, sounded better than ever last night. She has, at times, been hampered by muddy acoustics and ill-tempered mics in the MCC sanctuary but last night the balance was perfect. There were some howling mics here and there, sadly, but they were mostly worked out by the time she came on.

Lisa Carrol (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Hughes opened the second half with two solos — “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night,” both of which she’s performed previously at the church. The latter, especially, was lovely and allowed her to show off her interpretive finesse and range to their fullest. They also exemplified, by contrast, what makes Hughes such a rare talent — she can kick back and throw down with the most sanctifying gospel grooves but on her solo selections she proves she’s got great classical sensibilities as well and is undeniably a trained singer. It’s quite rare to find a musician, whether he or she is singing or directing (or accompanying as Hughes also does), who can pull off both extremes so successfully. Though mercurial at times — and she would likely admit to that — she leaves enormous shoes for the church to fill. Music can totally make or break a worship service.

The Gay Men’s Chorus sounded lovely as usual — their harmonies, tighter and more refined (but also more staid) than MCC’s — are undeniably great. Their overall pitch is as precise as a tuning fork. They continue to excel under Jeff Burhman’s sturdy leadership.

There was only one misstep of the evening but unfortunately, in my estimation anyway, it was a huge one — a medley of Hanukkah songs the GMCW closed its mini-set with. While musically they provided the show with a nice change of pace, thematically it was jarring and completely out of place. I’m all for diversity and respect of other faiths especially during the holidays, but MCC is a Christian church and this was a Christmas concert. A few secular songs that were included — a slightly wobbly “Christmas Song” by the church’s string ensemble and a medley of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Darling” by the GMCW — were fine. And I’m not of the mindset, as are many Christians, that everything performed during a church program has to be explicitly religion in text. Yes, Jesus Christ was Jewish himself, but to include a selection of material that rejects the divinity of Christ at a Christian Christmas concert was offensive. I was probably in the minority on this point though — the number was as heartily applauded as any of the night. It’s a shame, though, as the GMCW has several gorgeous sacred Christmas numbers in its repertoire — much more appropriate would have been selections like the Bass “Gloria,” or the Mendelssohn “Say Where He is Born” or “There Shall a Star” they performed at their own concert last year.

Oleta Adams after the concert. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

But that’s quibbling — overall, it was a great, great night. Kudos to Adams for graciously singing autographs and posing for photos after the show.

I’ve been meaning to blog, too, about two other concerts I caught in recent weeks that are both of considerable queer appeal. Chaka Khan played a tight half jazz/half pop/funk concert during a two-night run at the Birchmere last week. I caught the first show Monday night. And bi bassist Meshell Ndegeocello was also at the Birchmere a couple weeks before (on Nov. 15) for her “Weather Tour,” supporting her brand new album. I interviewed both of them (here and here) prior to their appearances.

Chaka Khan at the Birchmere last week. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Khan’s was far tighter and more generous. Playing an hour-and-45-minute set, she opened with standards like “I’ll Be Around,” “To Sir With Love” and “My Funny Valentine” before putting her own stamp on a four-song set of Joni Mitchell covers, only one of which (“Ladies Man”) she’s recorded herself. The standouts were the moody — it’s perhaps the darkest song in Mitchell’s entire canon — “Two Grey Rooms” and a highly unusual take on “Man From Mars” that gave her kick-ass band time to solo and jam. You wouldn’t think they’d pick that kind of a song on which to solo — Mitchell’s version is slow and atmospheric — but somehow it worked.

Khan closed her show with several hits — “Everlasting Love,” “Tell Me Something Good” and “What Cha Gonna Do 4 Me” (but not “I’m Every Woman”). She gamely sang an a cappella verse and chorus of “Fool’s Paradise” at a request, and gave her testimony of getting clean during an emotional reading of “Through the Fire.” She was in dazzlingly fine voice — her extraordinary pipes are as bright and strong as they’ve ever sounded. Her voice is a feat of nature — she could blow Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Gladys Knight away with a sneeze and I’m not exaggerating.

Meshell Ndegeocello at the Birchmere in November. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Meshell, conversely, is almost an anti-singer, an anti-entertainer. She’s much more a funky groove chef than a great singer. Her vocals are wispy and non-committal, but armed with her bass and a tight band, there were smoldering sonic stews being conjured throughout her hour-and-20-minute set. She also does exactly as she pleases. There were no hits (unless you count the one “Plantation Lullabies” song she performed, “Outside Your Door”) and 11 of the 17 songs she did are from the new album. I’m all for artistic license and unpredictability — you don’t go to a Meshell show expecting hits — but even that was, admittedly a bit self indulgent on her part. But she doesn’t care and that’s part of her charm. She did make some small talk and said she was enjoying herself — but she’s so laid back and “chill” it can be a bit polarizing. Nobody expects her to be Wayne Newton, of course, but I mean c’mon — isn’t there some middle ground she could stomach without feeling like a human juke box?

MCC’s set:
1. Andaluza (piano solo)
2. The Christmas Song (strings)
3. Gloria We Sing
4. Hallelujah
5. Amen
6. My Sweet Lawd
7. Emmanuel Medley
8. Jesus Brings Joy
9. Perfect Praise
10. Wonderful Child Medley
11. Ave Maria
12. O Holy Night
13. In the Bleak Midwinter (GMCW)
14. I’ll Be Home For Christmas/Merry Christmas Darling (GMCW)
15. Music of Hanukkah (GMCW)
16. Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard on High (Oleta Adams)
17. Breath of Heaven (Oleta Adams)
18. Get Here (Oleta Adams)
19. Carols from around the world — a cappella (various soloists)
20. Joy to the World (MCC w/ Oleta Adams)

Chaka Khan’s set
1. High Wire
2. I’ll Be Around
3. To Sir With Love
4. My Funny Valentine
5. Hissing of Summer Lawns
6. Two Grey Rooms
7. Man From Mars
8. Ladies Man
9. Angel
10. Everlasting Love
11. Through the Fire
12. Tell Me Something Good
13. Fool’s Paradise
14. What Cha Gonna Do 4 Me
15. Ain’t Nobody (encore)

Meshell Ndegeocello’s set
1. Grace
2. Faithful
3. Dirty World
4. A Bitter Mule
5. Bright Shiny Morning
6. Lady Cab Driver (Prince)
7. Outside Your Door
8. Blood on the Curb
9. Feeling for the Wall
10. Chance
11. Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
12. Oyster
13. Crazy and Wild
14. Weather
15. Rapid Fire
16. Don’t Take My Kindness for Weakness
17. Dead End (encore)

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mona Sallie

    December 7, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    I wished I could have attended this concert for the Chaka Khan performance alone. I have and always will love Chaks Khan. She has an incredible voice. Their is no one like her.Her voice has touched my life and helped to make me the singer I am today. God Bless You Chaka, you have touched people in ways that you can’t began to imagine!

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Arts & Entertainment

After COVID hiatus, John Waters resumes touring schedule

‘Every single thing is different after COVID’

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John Watersis on the road again. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time in nearly two years, writer and filmmaker John Waters will be appearing on stage this fall before live audiences in the Baltimore-Washington area, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Waters, who lives in Baltimore, is scheduled to bring his spoken-word holiday show, “A John Waters Christmas,” to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Dec. 15, and Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 21. He’ll also be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Nov. 29 and The Vermont Hollywood on Dec. 2.

Waters’ holiday shows were cancelled in 2020 due to the theater closings and travel restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some book signings for fans were converted to Zoom sessions. He last toured the country in November and December of 2019.

This year, with vaccinations on the rise, Waters has made a few in-person appearances, including a concert with gay country crooner Orville Peck in Colorado in July, where he was “special guest host”; a Q&A session with fans in Provincetown in August and a music festival last weekend in Oakland, Calif. He’s scheduled to visit another 18 cities between now and the end of the year, including a weekend in Wroclaw, Poland, where he’ll be honored during the American Film Festival there in November.

Waters said he has completely rewritten his spoken-word shows to reflect changes brought about by the COVID pandemic. “I haven’t done it in a year and a half,” he said in an interview with Town & Country magazine. “Every single thing is different after COVID. You cannot do the same show. Nothing’s the same.”

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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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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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