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Gays behind the scenes

Personnel trumps thematic content in fall theatrical season

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MaryBeth Wise (left) and Susan Lynskey in Theatre J’s ‘Body Awareness.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Theatre J)

The new theater season is upon us. And while there’s not a whole lot of LGBT content among the offerings, there is — as always — a wealth of gay talent making it happen.

After a hiatus from the D.C. theater scene, MaryBeth Wise has returned to the stage.  Wise, a talented and well-liked local actor who is gay, is currently playing half of a same-sex couple in Theatre J’s production of Annie Baker’s comic drama “Body Awareness” (through Sept. 23). Set in Vermont, the comic drama explores the reaction of Joyce (Wise) and her more uptight partner Phyllis to a visiting photographer and his “male gaze.”

During Wise’s several years off the boards, she concentrated on her other job (network consultant at Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped). She also picked up a degree in library science. “But I missed acting,” says Wise. “In ‘Body Awareness’ my character is going through a journey of self-discovery. Learning about what she wants. It’s a wonderful part. Hopefully it will lead to more opportunities.” (washingtondcjcc.org)

Also this fall, Wise’s real life partner Sarah Marshall is playing several parts in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season-opener, Gogol’s satire of provincial Russian bureaucracy “The Government Inspector” (Sept. 13-Oct. 28). (shakespearetheatre.org)

At Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Shirlington, the season has already begun with a production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (through Oct. 7). Staged by the company’s gay artistic direction Eric Schaeffer, the rollicking musical stars Sherri L. Edelen (as brothel madam Miss Mona). The big cast features reliably excellent Signature vets Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (both gay).

Also at Signature, the company’s talented and versatile associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner directs gay playwright Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City” (Oct. 2-Nov. 25). It’s the story of young man grappling with his identical twin’s suspicious death in Iraq. Incidentally, Gardiner, who is gay, is also a twin.

Following “Dying City,” Gardiner directs Signature’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Dreamgirls” (opens Nov. 13). (signature-theatre.org)

At Synetic Theater, up-and-coming actor Alex Mills plays the challenging title role in the company’s season opener, “Jeckyll and Hyde” (Sept. 20-Oct. 21). Synetic is a movement-based company renowned for innovative and athletic choreography and hard-bodied casts. (synetictheater.org).

“One Night With Janis Joplin” opens at Arena Stage Sept. 28 with Mary Bridget Davies in the title role. Staged like a Joplin concert, the piece was written and will be directed by Randy Johnson, who’s gay. Kathleen Turner continues her run there as Molly Ivins in “Red Hot Patriot” through Oct. 28. (arenastage.org)

Alexandria’s MetroStage opens its season with “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” (through Oct. 21), a musical revue celebrating the work of the late Belgian singer/songwriter. Respectively directed and choreographed by the talented team of Serge Seiden and Matthew Gardiner (both gay), the production features a top-notch cast including the talented Natascia Diaz (who appeared in the 2006 Off-Broadway production), Bayla Whitten, Sam Ludwig and local favorite Bobby Smith (who is gay) singing a score comprised of plaintive ballads, rousing anthems, tango and rock. (metrostage.org)

After “Jacques Brel,” Bobby Smith directs the Olney Theatre Center’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical “Cinderella” (Nov. 14-Dec. 30). (olneytheatre.org)

In October, the Studio Theatre presents the world premiere of “Dirt” (opens Oct. 17). Penned by Byron Lavery (the author of “Frozen”), the play is described by Studio as an “exploration of the mess people make of themselves and their relationships.”  Part of the company’s Lab Series, the production is staged by Studio’s artistic director David Muse and reunites talented actors Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo (both gay). The talented duo has been successfully paired before in Vassily Sigarev’s “Black Milk” at Studio and Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy “The Little Dog Laughed” at Signature Theatre. (studiotheatre.org)

Fledgling company force/collision is premiering Erik Ehn’s “Shape” (Sept. 20-Oct. 6). Part of a series of 17 plays exploring themes of genocide and reconciliation, “Shape” centers on the lives of the two African-American vaudevillians Billy and Cordelia McClain as they negotiate their identity as artists while struggling with conditions of social and political marginalization. The production has been cast cross gendered, says director John Moletress (who is gay), as both a performance device for our ensemble and also a homage to black vaudevillians of the early 20th century who played cross gendered roles. (force/collision.org)

Forum Theatre kicks off the season with the world premiere comedy “Holly Down in Heaven” (Sept. 27-Oct. 20), written by young playwright Kara Lee Corthron. Forum’s website described the title character as “a brilliant 15-year-old born-again Christian, [who after becoming pregnant] banishes herself to the basement and confides only in her dolls, particularly a life-size psychiatrist doll that closely resembles Carol Channing.”

Parker Drown plays Yager, the neighbor suspected of getting Holly pregnant. Drown (who is gay) won a Helen Hayes Award for his performance as Angel, the feisty drag queen battling gentrification and AIDS in Keegan Theatre’s production of the rock opera “Rent.” Forum Theatre is in residence at Round House Silver Spring. (forumtheatre.org)

A couple other theaters that always have interesting productions and are worth checking out include 1st Stage Theatre (1524 Spring Hill Road) in McLean, Va. (1ststagespringhill.org), Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (641 D Street N.W.) in D.C. (woollymammoth.net) and Olney Theatre Centre in Olney, Md. (2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Road; olneytheatre.org).

 

 

 

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Photos

PHOTOS: Cupid’s Undie Run

Scantily-clad joggers face freezing temperatures for a cause

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Cupid's Undie Run was held at The Wharf DC on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Cupid’s Undie Run, an annual fundraiser for neurofibromatosis (NF) research, was held at Union Stage and at The Wharf DC on Saturday, Feb. 17.

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PHOTOS: Queen of Hearts

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Katie D. Lite was crowned the Queen of Hearts. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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Theater

Deaf, gay actor on gripping, funny ‘Private Jones’

Musical makes premiere at Signature with Obie winner Dickie Drew Hearts

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Dickie Drew Hearts (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

‘Private Jones’
Through March 10
Signature Theatre 
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Virginia 22206
$40-$99 
Sigtheatre.org

Set against the harsh vicissitudes of the Great War, “Private Jones” a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet, is currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington. 

Touted as gripping, unexpectedly funny, and purportedly true, it’s the story of Gomer Jones, a young Deaf Welshman who after wriggling his way into military service becomes a celebrated sniper only to learn there might be more to life. 

The production features a cast of hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing actors including Dickie Drew Hearts, the Deaf, gay, and affable actor who recently won an Obie Award for “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public in New York, and is probably best known for his performance of Mateo in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” (2019 miniseries).

Gathered around the end of a long conference table in the Sondheim Multipurpose Room at Signature Theatre, Hearts and I along with two top notch interpreters (one to sign my questions and another to voice the actor’s replies) dive into conversation. 

Hearts plays Henry, a Deaf munitions factory worker whose sister Gwenolyn (Leanne Antonio) becomes the love interest of Gomer (played by hard-of-hearing actor Johnny Link). It’s Henry who teaches Gomer sign language and essentially introduces him to Deaf culture, which isn’t unusual, says Hearts. It’s often through other Deaf people that the Deaf themselves get introduced to the Deaf community and signing world.

When the actors met in 2018, says Hearts, “Johnny [Link] was just learning sign language. I assured him that those who are hard-of-hearing are automatically very welcome members of the deaf community. Point blank. There are no qualifications.”

And now, six years later, Hearts is thrilled to be working with Link. “It’s amazing to see Johnny again, and to be having full conversations with him in sign language both on and off stage.” 

Not only is “Private Jones” a physically demanding show, but because it’s performed in spoken English as well as some American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) it presents some extra difficulties.

To play Henry, Hearts – a native ASL user since childhood – has had to learn BSL, tantamount to doing the show in an entirely new and different language. Hearts says, “I hope people recognize that. And signing along musically in BSL adds a layer of challenge beyond signing BSL dialogue.” 

Of course, he remains undaunted. It’s about the job and getting the character right. And for the thirtysomething actor that means going deep.  

“I would like to think Henry is a closeted gay man. Henry has ‘a roommate,’ is how I thought of his backstory.”

Hearts adds, “I know that queer people have always been here and I like to infuse that into the characters I play whether or not it’s stated. I look for those moments of where it might be hinting at sexuality, and ask what was it like at the time, was it safe to be out?”

Born Deaf in Queens, New York, into a hearing family who’d recently immigrated from formerly British Guyana in South America, Hearts grew up in Newport News, Va. 

A childhood spent watching captioned TV shows taught him both English and how to impersonate characters, an obsession that he took out into the neighborhood. “Eventually, somebody said there’s a thing for what I do. It’s called theater,” he signs with a grin. 

While attending Gallaudet University here in D.C., Hearts focused on film until his senior year when he randomly auditioned for the musical comedy “Urinetown” and landed the lead role of dashing Bobby Strong. A love for acting resurfaced and took hold. 

After graduating, Hearts came out and promptly moved to L.A. where he spent the next six years skirmishing over a dearth of Deaf parts. When a gig led him to New York in 2018, his luck changed. 

“Being a Deaf, gay, BIPOC actor was amazing for finding stage and film work in New York. But just when a lot of doors were opening for me, the pandemic hit and everything stopped.” 

Slowly things picked up. And in 2021 he became part of a new project. He was soon reporting to a nondescript high rise in midtown Manhattan workshopping what would become “Private Jones.” 

Now at Signature, Hearts is busy bringing Henry to life. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’m really fortunate to have witnessed its evolution from the beginning. It’s become grander, more elevated, and the characters more complex. It’s a wonderful thing” 

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