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Tale of two Washingtons

Gay theater director opens ‘Race’

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Race, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams, Crashonda Edwards, gay news, Washington Blade, theater
Race, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams, Crashonda Edwards, gay news, Washington Blade, theater

The cast of ‘Race,’ director John Vreeke’s latest project. From left, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams and Crashonda Edwards.

‘Race’
Through March 17
Theater J
1529 16th Street NW
$15-$60
202-518-9400
washingtondcjcc.org

Maybe six will be a charm. John Vreeke recently received his sixth Helen Hayes Award nomination for outstanding direction. This time it’s for Woolly Mammoth’s critically well-received production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” If Vreeke’s name is ultimately called at the awards ceremony celebrating D.C.-area theater in early April, it will be his first win.

Chatting via phone from his home in Seattle (a little house with a big view of Puget Sound that he shares with his partner of 36 years), Vreeke says he definitely keeps awards in perspective. But despite his philosophical tone, he gives the sense that ending this ongoing non-winning streak wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As a gay director in his 60s known for tackling intellectually complex plays, Vreeke might have seemed an odd match for “Chad Deity,” an action packed, hip-hop-influenced morality tale set in the world of professional wrestling. But Vreeke was so impressed with playwright Kristoffer Diaz’s distinctive language that he knew it was the right project for him and Woolly’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz agreed.

Vreeke’s prior effort, ‘Chad Deity:’

“I was lucky from the start,” he says. “I worked with a great cast, particularly JJ Perez who’d been waiting to do this play for four years, and an equally good design team.”

Vreeke describes his directorial style as invasive. He understands but doesn’t ascribe to the idea of directors getting out of the way and letting actors do their work.

“Some directors are cheerleaders: They put together the right people and stand back and let them do their thing. That’s not me,” he says. “Early on, I’ll step in with some very strong ideas about concept, scene, character and what play is saying about the world. But I’m not inflexible. Throughout the three-to-five week rehearsal process there is constant evolution and redefinition with lots of discussion. I try to stay very open to who the actors are themselves. After all, that’s primarily how they got the role — I see something in them that connects to the role. Some call it type casting. I call it smart casting.”

Born in the Netherlands, Vreeke (pronounced Vrā-key) was 8 when his family immigrated to the U.S. They settled near an uncle in Salt Lake City and quickly became immersed in a tightly knit, religiously austere Dutch Reformed community. Vreeke knew he was gay from a young age, but understandably kept it to himself. As a teenager, he was a standout actor in his high school’s drama club. “Theater,” he says, “quickly became a form of expression that put issues of sexuality, religion and growing up poor on the back burner.”

After earning his master’s in directing from the University of Utah, Vreeke began his career at Houston’s Alley Theater. Next, he and his partner (a radio executive) moved to Seattle where Vreeke spent five years in television production. From 2000-2009, they lived in D.C. During this time Vreeke returned to theater, mostly directing at Theatre J, MetroStage and Woolly Mammoth (where he’s a company member). And though they are once again based in Seattle, the bulk of Vreeke’s directing projects continue to be here in Washington.

“I can’t seem to give it away in Seattle,” Vreeke says, “but fortunately D.C. keeps asking me back and I’m grateful for that.”

His most recent work — a production of David Mamet’s “Race” currently running at D.C.’s Theater J — examines “guilt, betrayal and racial posturing” in a racially diverse law firm. Written after the formerly liberal playwright’s conversion to neo-conservatism, it’s not quite as nuanced as his earlier works, Vreeke says. “But Mamet’s wonderful economy of writing is there, allowing a director to play the four-person cast as if it were a string quartet. It’s extraordinary.”

This spring Vreeke is staging Michael Hollinger’s otherworldly love story “Ghost-Writer” for MetroStage in Alexandria. In the fall, he’s slated to stage the area premiere of “The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s comic exploration of family dysfunction at Bethesda’s Roundhouse Theatre, and in 2014 he’s remounting his production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.

“I think the Washington theater scene is extraordinary, particularly in terms of growth for medium-sized theater and the germination of small theatres like Forum,” Vreeke says. “And I think the best is yet to come. Theater communities go in cycles, and I think D.C. has yet to hit its peak, especially with its new crop of young and talented artistic directors. I hope I can continue to be a part of it.”

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Photos

PHOTOS: DCGFFL 25th Anniversary Party

Gay flag football league marks milestone at Penn Social

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The D.C. Gay Flag Football league held a party celebrating their 25th season at Penn Social on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) held a 25th season anniversary party at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. Proceeds from the event benefited the LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL as well as the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Theater

Rupert Murdoch’s powers on full display in ‘Ink’

Media baron helped pave the way for Brexit, Prime Minister Thatcher

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Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Ink’
Through Sept. 24
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814
$46-$94
Roundhousetheatre.org

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s loathsome traits are many, but his skills to succeed are undeniably numerous. 

In the first scenes of John Graham’s West End and Broadway hit drama “Ink,” an exciting year-long detail from the life of a burgeoning media baron, Murdoch’s powers of persuasion are on full display.

It’s 1969 London. Over dinner with editor Larry Lamb, a young Murdoch shares his plan to buy the Sun and rebrand the dying broadsheet, replacing the Daily Mirror as Britain’s best-selling tabloid. What’s more, he wants to do it in just one year with Lamb at the helm. 

Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes seduced by the idea of running a paper, something that’s always eluded him throughout his career, and something Murdoch, the outsider Australian, understands. Murdoch taunts him, “Not you. Not Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born son of a blacksmith, not the guy who didn’t get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, who didn’t get a degree from anywhere. Not you.”

Still, Lamb, played convincingly by Cody Nickell in Round House Theatre’s stellar season-opener, a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, remains unsure. But Murdoch (a delightfully brash Andrew Rein) is undeterred, and seals the deal with a generous salary. 

Superbly staged by director Jason Loweth, “Ink” is riveting. Its exchanges between Lamb and Murdoch are a strikingly intimate glimpse into ambition involving an ostensibly average editor and a striving money man who doesn’t like people.  

Once on board, Lamb is trolling Fleet Street in search of his launch team, played marvelously by some mostly familiar actors. He makes his most important hire — news editor Brian McConnell (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) — in a steam bath. The remainder of the Sun’s new masthead falls handily into place: Joyce Hopkirk (Kate Eastwood Norris) the women’s page editor whose forward thinking is marred by her casual racism; Zion Jang plays Beverley Goodway, an awkwardly amusing young photographer; persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Michael Glenn) who learns to love ugly things; and an old school sports editor who proves surprisingly versatile, played by Ryan Rillette, Round House’s artistic director. 

At Lamb’s suggestion, the team brainstorms about what interests Sun readers. They decide on celebrities, pets, sports, free stuff, and —rather revolutionarily for the time —TV.  Murdoch is happy to let readers’ taste dictate content and the “Why” of the sacred “five Ws” of journalism is out the window. 

Murdoch is portrayed as a not wholly unlikable misanthrope. He dislikes his editors and pressman alike. He particularly hates unions. His advice to Lamb is not to get too chummy with his subordinates. Regarding the competition, Murdoch doesn’t just want to outperform them, he wants to grind them to dust. 

Loewith leads an inspired design team. Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s imposing, inky grey edifice made from modular walls is ideally suited for Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines, printed pages, and Rein’s outsized face as Murdoch. Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson ably supplies bar noises and the nonstop, pre-digital newspaper clatter of presses, linotypes, and typewriters.

From a convenient second tiered balcony, the Daily Mirror’s establishment power trio Hugh Cudlipp (Craig Wallace), Chris Lee Howard (Chris Geneback) and Sir Percy (Walter Riddle) overlook all that lies below, discussing new tactics and (mostly failed) strategies to remain on top.   

Increasingly comfortable in the role of ruthless, sleazy editor, Lamb is unstoppable.

Obsessed with overtaking the Daily Mirror’s circulation, he opts for some sketchy reportage surrounding the kidnapping and presumed murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick (Todd Scofield). The kidnappers mistook Muriel for Murdoch’s then-wife Anna (Sophia Early). Next, in a move beyond the pale, Lamb introduces “Page 3,” a feature spotlighting a topless female model. Awesta Zarif plays Stephanie, a smart young model. She asks Lamb if he would run a semi-nude pic of his similarly aged daughter? His reaction is uncomfortable but undaunted. 

For Murdoch’s purposes, history proves he chose well in Lamb. By year’s end, the Sun is Britain’s most widely read tabloid. Together they give the people what they didn’t know they wanted, proving the pro-Labour Daily Mirror’s hold on the working class is baseless and paving the way for things like Brexit and a Prime Minister Thatcher. 

“Ink” at Round House closes soon. See it if you can.

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