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Black and gay in D.C.

Theater festival features two playwrights tackling sexuality, AIDS on stage

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DC Black Theatre Festival
June 23-July 1
‘Moments of Truth,’ June 30
9 p.m., Navy Memorial Theater
701 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

‘11 x 8 ½ inches,’ June 29
9 p.m., Howard University Blackburn Center
2400 Sixth St., N.W.

Ticket prices vary.
dcblacktheatrefestival.com

A scene from ‘Moments of Truth’ (Photo courtesy D.C. Black Theatre Festival)

In the upcoming DC Black Theatre Festival, a commemoration of African-American culture and works, two playwrights seek to shine a spotlight on the black LGBT community.

Monte Wolfe and Alan Sharpe, both black D.C. playwrights, have focused their pieces on sexuality, love and dealing with the complications of HIV/AIDS. Their plays are being featured in the festival, which starts June 23 and runs through July 1 at various locations in the D.C. area.

“A problem is a lack in visibility,” says Sharpe. “Representations of black gays have been very limited, and in the past those characters were used as something to ridicule.”

Sharpe’s piece, “11 x 8 ½ inches,” is a series of short scenes that explores the lives of black gay men living in D.C. Each scene explores ideas of sex and sexuality, sometimes entering into the erotic, raunchy and romantic. The piece is being featured in the New Works Reading Series, a part of the festival that showcases new works by upcoming and established playwrights in the area.

Reginald Richards, a gay actor in Sharpe’s play, says the piece works to break stereotypes of the “typical gay man.”

“People expect us to be very flamboyant and really sexual,” he says. “It is important for people to see we come with all different personalities and different ethnic backgrounds.”

Wolfe’s play, “Moments of Truth,” is also a series of short scenes that show a variety of people dealing with the complications of HIV/AIDS and how it affects love and relationships. With a less than $1,000 budget, the minimalist style keeps the focus on the short but charged interactions between the characters.

“There is something for everybody in the show, whether you are black, white, gay or straight,” he says. “It is about connecting AIDS to sexuality and working through those problems.”

Wolfe was diagnosed with AIDS in late 2004. This helped trigger his interest in HIV/AIDS outreach, in which he created the Brave Soul Collective, a theater company, in 2006. The company focuses on plays with LGBT themes.

Sharpe has been writing plays with LGBT themes since 1992. Coincidentally, he was also diagnosed with AIDS the same year. He and Wolfe have collaborated on several works, and Wolfe is an actor in one of the scenes of Sharpe’s piece.

“Alan has always been a mentor to me,” says Wolfe. “He makes it clear to me the character I want to perform and what I want to write about in my plays.”

Sharpe says that the festival is a good opportunity to shed light on talent that might otherwise be overlooked.

“It is amazing to see artists travel from all over the country to join together for a few days,” he says. “It allows artists to reach a broader range of audience.”

Barbara Asare-Bediako, an actor in Wolfe’s piece, identifies as, “a woman who just loves a woman.”

“My ultimate goal is to make black theater and gay theater a normal thing,” she says. “I want it so we can turn on the TV and it would just be part of society.”

However she says it is still important to focus on talent coming from the African-American community, and doing HIV/AIDS outreach. Asare-Bediako has been involved with several outreach programs, including HIPS, to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“I had a cousin who passed,” she says. “I found out months after it happened. My uncle, his father, acts like he never had a son.”

Asare-Bediako also cites the high HIV/AIDS rate in the District as an important factor to consider when selecting themes for the festival. The newly infected HIV/AIDS rate among African-American women has nearly doubled in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods in the past two years, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Despite their focus on LGBT themes, Sharpe and Wolfe work to keep all kinds of audience members involved.

“We focus on the universal elements and not on division,” says Wolfe. “We cry, we laugh, we dream just like everybody else.”

Jared Shamberger, an actor in Wolfe’s piece who also wrote some of the scenes, says the piece includes a little bit of everything and expresses that everyone experiences powerful moments of truth.

“Even though we do primarily focus on LGBT themes, LGBT people have heterosexual friends and vice versa,” he says. “I don’t think you could present the LGBT story without including the heterosexual experience as well.”

One of his scenes is about a heterosexual couple that just had unprotected sex for the first time before they even went on a first date. They talk about where they are as a couple and about getting tested.

Shamberger agrees that including themes that deal with the HIV/AIDS rate is important.

“The HIV infection is not making headlines anymore,” he says. “People are getting infected everyday still, and I think it is something that people should be made aware of.”

Both pieces develop their themes through short scenes rather than a longer narrative arc. Wolfe says this makes the piece more powerful.

“I think it keeps people on their toes,” he says. “I don’t think I want the audience to get married to one particular character. I want them to see some bits of themselves in all the characters.”

Sharpe and Wolfe say that including LGBT themes in the theater is a great way to make people aware of the LGBT community by drawing them into characters’ lives.

“Gay people go through the same thing, they fall in love and they get heartbroken,” says Bediako. “People need to see these stories, see that gay people live normal lives, whatever normal is.”

Shamberger says it is impossible to write a play about the African-American community without including the LGBT community.

“I think if we are trying to present the landscape of black experience we have to include LGBT people as well,” he says.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Monte J. Wolfe

    June 29, 2012 at 9:44 am

    First I’d like to publicly thank Erin Durkin for writing this story. I’m sure I speak for Alan, & all others involved when I say that we sincerely appreciate the coverage. One VERY IMPORTANT CORRECTION I feel I need to make about something said in this article however, is that I was not diagnosed with AIDS in 2004. I was diagnosed as HIV positive. There IS a distinction. It’s something that’s very important for people to understand about an HIV positive diagnosis, versus an AIDS diagnosis. I’m looking forward to interjecting more about the specifics and the difference between the two into future works that we present with Brave Soul Collective, in an attempt to educate people and if possible, help to eradicate the stigma oftentimes associated with living with HIV or AIDS.

  2. Scott G. Brown

    June 29, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Great Idea for a Play. The LGBT Community and Gay Rights Movement have advanced to legalized “Gay Marriage.” The Sky is the limit!! Much Success!!

  3. Greg

    June 29, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I went to the film festival web site and these plays are in the schedule. What gives?

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Galleries

Have to pee? Check out new John Waters Restrooms

BMA introduces gender-neutral facilities

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Actress Elizabeth Coffey and filmmaker John Waters outside the BMA’s new gender-neutral restrooms. (Blade staff photo)

The Baltimore Museum of Art unveiled its latest addition on Wednesday: the John Waters Restrooms, named for the iconic filmmaker who is a trustee of the museum. 

There were plenty of snickers and jokes about who would be the No. 1 and No. 2 patrons of the new facilities, but beneath the potty humor was an important message about access to the most fundamental spaces in society.

Joining Waters at a BMA event Wednesday to officially dedicate the gender-neutral restrooms was Elizabeth Coffey, a transgender actress and longtime friend and collaborator of Waters’. Coffey noted the importance of access to public spaces to the trans community. Preceding her at the lectern was Christopher Bedford, the Dorothy Wagner Wallis director of the BMA, who noted that adding the gender-neutral restrooms was the right thing to do.

After brief remarks, Coffey and Waters led a group of museum supporters and reporters downstairs to see the new space and Coffey cheekily took the inaugural trip into one of four private stalls. The stalls and adjoining communal washroom were designed by Quinn Evans Architects and feature white tile with bright red tile in the stalls. The idea for naming the restrooms came from Waters when he bequeathed his fine art collection to the BMA, according to a museum statement. 

The John Waters Restrooms will open to the public on Sunday, Dec. 12, in conjunction with the adjacent Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies. Waters is about to embark on a national tour of spoken-word performances. 

John Waters Restrooms, gay news, Washington Blade
John Waters speaks to a crowd at Wednesday’s dedication event. (Blade staff photo)
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a&e features

Sharon Gless on new memoir and connection to LGBTQ community

Beloved TV icon’s book was seven years in the making

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Sharon Gless’s new memoir ‘Apparently There Were Complaints’ addresses her deep connection to the queer community. (Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Have you ever read a memoir that is so intimate, so revealing, so honest, that as you were turning the pages it felt like the writer was sitting next to you, speaking directly to you? 

Kudos to multiple Emmy Award-winning actress Sharon Gless for making that a part of the experience of reading her new memoir “Apparently There Were Complaints” (Simon & Schuster, 2021). The Los Angeles native with Hollywood in her veins (her maternal grandfather was a hotshot entertainment lawyer), Gless rose to prominence via her portrayal of New York police detective Christine Cagney in the popular and groundbreaking 1980s TV series “Cagney & Lacey”(alongside Tyne Daly). As if she hadn’t already established an LGBTQ following through that show, she went on to play Debbie Novotny, the smart and sassy mother of Michael on Showtime’s equally groundbreaking “Queer As Folk”in the early 2000s. Gless sat down for an interview in advance of the publication of her book.

BLADE: Your new memoir, “Apparently There Were Complaints” opens on a serious note with your 2015 pancreatitis diagnosis. So, I’d like to begin by saying that, from one Gemini to another, I hope you are in good health. 

SHARON GLESS: Thank you, honey, I’m in very good health. Thank you, my fellow Gemini.

BLADE: Why was now the time to write your memoir?

GLESS: Well, it’s taken seven years. It’s not like it was yesterday. I never actually intended to write a memoir, Gregg. I was called in to a meeting by CBS for what I thought was a conversation to offer me a new series. We talked for an hour and, apparently, I was so entertaining that at the end of the hour meeting, the president of CBS said, “You know we own Simon & Schuster.” I said, “I didn’t know that.” She said, “We do, and I think you’ve got a book in you.” I said, “I don’t usually write.” She said, “That doesn’t matter. You’re a storyteller, Sharon.” So I walked out with a book deal [laughs] with Simon & Schuster and not the series I was hoping for. Actually, I didn’t meet (with) Simon & Schuster for another year. I sort of let it go. The next day there was a text from the president of Simon & Schuster. I sort of ignored it because I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to act! A year went by, and I wasn’t so busy, and I was in New York, and I said, “What the hell!” I went to meet him. I read one chapter to him, one chapter that I had written in case he asked for anything. He signed me that day [laughs].

BLADE: Were you a journal or diary keeper or did you rely on your memory for the details?

GLESS: Never. No. My very best friend Dawn (LaFreeda), who’s been my best friend forever and …  I’m a talker, a storyteller, and I would tell her stories about my life throughout our relationship. She kept them! She said, “You have a book in you.” So, there’s another person saying so. She kept the stories. When Simon & Schuster made me the offer, Dawn dragged out all my stories. A couple of times I had gatherings at my house where I had four people over, and I said, “Ask me some questions,” and put a recorder down. I’d just start talking. Then as more of my life coming out on the page, which is hard to do, I started remembering more and more. It took a form that I had always intended. I came up with the title, “Apparently There Were Complaints,” very early on. I made the book about all the complaints people had about me throughout my life. It helped that Dawn had kept records of all the stories I’ve told. Some of those I used in the book. It’s funny, as you write, as you keep going, you start remembering more and more and more because one emotion leads to the next emotion or the next time someone hurts your feelings or the next complaint.

BLADE: I’m glad you mentioned the emotional part of it, because writing a memoir means revisiting the past, including your complicated relationship with your grandmother, whom you called Grimmy, as well as your parents. Did you find it to be painful, freeing or both?

GLESS: Sometimes because some of the memories were painful. There were times when I was reading some of it that I would go back to that place. I just finished recording [the audio book] a couple of weeks ago. What surprised me is when I’d get to certain places, especially about Grimmy, you can hear on the recording, my voice breaks. I left it in. They asked me if I wanted to rerecord it and I said, “No. Leave it in.” She was really the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s that she was tough.

BLADE: One of the things that stood out to me about “Apparently There Were Complaints”is the way that not only does it sound like you — I’ve interviewed you before so in reading the book, it sounded like you…

GLESS: Thank you! It’s very important to me that you hear my voice in that.

BLADE: It totally comes through. The other thing that shines through is your sense of humor and comic timing.

GLESS: Thank you!

BLADE: How important was it for you to make that aspect of your personality a part of the book?

GLESS: Very important. I do have a sarcastic, not a mean sarcastic, a funny sarcastic side. Some of the complaints and some of my addictions and some of the things I talk about…you’ve got to take some of it lightly or who’s going to want to read that? Clearly, I survived. It’s not all bad news. When I came up with the title, [laughs] which was perfect because there were so many complaints about me in my life, sometimes you just have to laugh, even at the sadder stuff. I’m still standing, Gregg!

BLADE: Yes, you are! Memoirs, like TV shows such as “Finding Your Roots,” are a way for both the subject and the audience to uncover fascinating details that might not otherwise have been public knowledge. The story about your boarding school classmate Gibbie, also known as the late Abigail Folger, in chapter seven feels like an example of that. Would you ever consider being on one of those genealogy tracing shows?

GLESS: I didn’t know a show like that existed. I would never do something like “This Is Your Life”[laughs], remember that? I didn’t know about a show that traces your genealogy. I’m always fascinated in my background. I’m certainly not opposed to anybody scraping up my genealogy.

BLADE: You write about your interactions with LGBTQ+ people in your life, personally and professionally, and Chapter 43, titled “I’ll Be There,” which is about your experience playing Debbie Novotny in Showtime’s “Queer As Folk”made me weep, it was so beautiful. This is less a question than it is an expression of gratitude for, well, being there.

GLESS: Thank you! The pleasure, for lack of a better word, is all mine. You have all changed my life. I became so much more educated. I thought, “Oh, I know it all. All my best friends are gay.” Right? But I learned so much on “Queer As Folk. Thestories that they wrote and the performances. I didn’t realize the real plight, the behind-the-scenes pain that went on in the gay community. Because ofQueer As Folk” I became quite educated and impassioned. I meant it when I said, “I’ll be there.”

BLADE: The Peacock streaming service is doing a “Queer As Folk” reboot. What do you think about that?

GLESS: Yes, I’m aware they’re doing a reboot of it. What I think about it is I’m so sorry they’re not using the original cast. It’s never going to be better. But good luck to them, and I hope they have even close to the hit we were. I think the biggest star of that show right now is going to be the city of New Orleans. We’ll see how the stories go.

BLADE: Because the entertainment industry is a central component to your memoir, if “Apparently There Were Complaints”was to be made into a theatrical movie or TV miniseries, who would you want to play you?

GLESS: It would take several actresses because there’s a lot of years. If there was somebody who could span it. I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence. She has a husky voice, too. And there’s also an irreverence and a sensitivity to her. If anybody ever wanted to do that, I think she’d be great.

BLADE: Finally, in addition to us both being Geminis, we also share South Florida as our home. What do you like best about living here?

GLESS: The happiness on my husband’s (TV producer Barney Rosenzweig) face. When he retired he moved us here. I’m married to a man who if he’s happy, everybody’s happy [laughs]. He adores Florida. Los Angeles was always my home. I was born there, raised there. I’m an Angeleno, through and through. I’ve been to Los Angeles over the last year and I don’t like what’s happened to it. Now I’m grateful to be returning to an island as beautiful as the one I live on. Los Angeles needs a total reboot, rebuild, re-everything. It’s fallen on hard times, L.A. I remember it when I lived there. It was a magical city.

Sharon Gless (Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
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Photos

PHOTOS: High Heel Race

Spectators cheered along drag queen contestants for the 24th annual event

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@dragqueenathena and Dan won the 24th annual High Heel Race. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 34th annual High Heel Race was held along 17th Street on Oct. 26. The winners this year were @dragqueenathena and “Dan.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee and members of the D.C. Council joined drag queen contestants and hundreds of spectators for the event.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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