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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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Theater

‘Midnight at the Never Get’ captures gay 1960s NYC

Virtual play from Signature tells story of young musical couple

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Christian Douglas and Sam Bolen in ‘Midnight at the Never Get.’ (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

‘Midnight at the Never Get’
Streaming through June 21
Signature Theatre
$35
sigtheatre.org

Signature Theatre’s latest virtual offering, “Midnight at the Never Get,” a terrific backstage musical romance set against 1960s New York City, tells the story of a young gay couple struggling to succeed personally and professionally in a world where being who they are isn’t always easy.

It’s relayed in mostly sung flashbacks by Trevor Copeland (Sam Bolen), a sassy, campy singer who goes to New York to be gay and pursue a career in music. He finds happiness – for a while – with reserved pianist and aspiring composer Arthur Brightman (Christian Douglas).

As an Iowa farm boy, Trevor repeatedly listened to the soundtrack of Judy Garland’s “A Star Is Born” in the barn. Little did he know then that “The Man That Got Away” would prove a major theme of his adult life.

Staged by out director Matthew Gardiner, the 90-minute show presents like a cabaret with two actors in black tie and baby grand on a small stage moodily lit by Adam Honoré and surrounded by small cafe tables topped with fringe shaded lamps. Filmed by Justin Chietb and produced and edited by James Gardiner, the story unfolds. There is no visible audience.

The guys meet cute. Trevor has left the Midwest for New York. After a string of hookups, he eventually cozies up to Arthur at the Checkerboard Lounge, a gay-friendly downtown bar where Arthur plays standards from the Great American Songbook as well as some of his own compositions.

From the start, Trevor and Arthur share clever banter and a frisson, but perhaps most importantly, they both love music.

The pair quickly becomes pretty much inseparable, though they don’t live together. At second rate nightclubs, Trevor sings Arthur’s songs, striving to make a name for themselves; and despite money being short, occasionally the couple splashes out on an evening at top notch cabarets like the Blue Angel or the Bon Soir to see headliners do their thing.

On a particular night at Café Wha? (a night spot best known as an emerging folk music space – not really Trevor and Arthur’s scene), the pair decide that Trevor will sing one of Arthur’s same-sex love songs without changing any pronouns.

Despite a few heckles, the song is mostly well received, and the evening leads to a standing gig at the Never Get, “a grimy gorgeous little nightclub” where gays happily gather to meet and drink. There, the guys introduce their act, Midnight at the Never Get, a sensibly named event that specifies time and place. At the Get, they’re given the freedom to explore their relationship and the current day politics through music.

In the mid-60s gay clubs were illegal. A place like the Never Get was technically “a bottle club” – essentially a members’ only spot run by the mafia. Typically, queer meeting places were raided twice a month, but usually paid-off cops would warn bartenders in advance who in turn would give a heads up to gay patrons who’d beat a hasty exit out the side door and find somewhere else to party.

As their act grows increasingly popular, the couple becomes more and more different. Arthur isn’t into rock music or protests. His fierce ambition takes him on frequent trips to L.A. where he writes jingles and later songs for singers like Connie Francis, Eydie Gormé, and Peggy Lee. Trevor remains in New York and befriends activists.

Scored and written by the tremendously talented Mark Sonnenblick, “Midnight at the Never Get” opened off-Broadway in 2018. With its torchy tunes, ballads, and upbeat numbers, there’s nothing farcical about the show. It vividly reflects an era.

At the end of the show, out actor Bobby Smith joins the cast as the older Trevor. In one beautifully sung song he captures the character’s life and longings.

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Travel

LGBTQ travelers to the rescue!

Queers leading the way to tourism recovery

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Gay cruises have been on pause during the pandemic but organizers are reporting robust interest in the near future. (Photo courtesy of David Halpern)

Since the tragic events of 9/11 and the abrupt halt to travel that followed, about every 10 years, the tourism industry is knocked back on its heels. The economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 was even worse on the travel industry than 2001. And the pandemic is a once-a-century calamity exacerbated by the very things that make travel so enriching: large in-person events, meeting new friends at a hotel lounge, slaloming through a crowded bar in a far-flung city.

The travel industry rebooted before, and it will bounce back again soon. And if history is any guide, LGBTQ travelers will lead the way.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing all segments of travel in America, says, “Gays lead, and the rest follow. They’re adventurous and like new experiences. They have a penchant for travel far greater than their heterosexual counterparts. They travel more and spend more when they travel. They’re the darlings of the travel industry when it comes to spending and dollars.”

Recent history has demonstrated that LGBTQ travelers — especially those in dual-income-no-child households — are always among the first to travel after social and economic crises. Following 9/11 and again after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, destinations, hospitality companies and travel brands noticed that LGBTQ travelers were prioritizing tourism over other purchase decisions, helping fill airplanes, hotels and, restaurants and animating destinations. So, they began to market to this segment in earnest.

Smart travel marketers will note that this is happening again now. We see — anecdotally and with the support of research by Community Marketing, Inc., Harris Interactive and IGLTA — that this segment travels in higher proportions and intends to book and execute travel in greater proportions than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.

Queer travelers tend to have more disposable income and time to spend it, helping fill destinations and hotels, especially during the quieter periods when kids are in school. Being among the first to travel safely, this resilient segment grants permission to others that they can return to travel safely. The LGBTQ segment has always been disproportionately present in online platforms, which provide a safer way to meet and interact with others in an otherwise potentially anti-LGBTQ world.

They also help achieve travel marketers’ goals by experiencing more, creating social media content and generating buzz.

The segment displays intense loyalty to brands that welcome and include them. There are also surprising halo effects: By signaling welcome to this group, marketers send a sign of inclusiveness to other overlooked and marginalized segments, like Black and LatinX travelers, and the family and friends of queer people are also positively motivated by outreach to LGBTQ people. Finally, these messages resonate strongly with millennial and Gen Z audiences who plan their travel — as well as plot their careers — to destinations and at hospitality brands whose missions align with their more inclusive values.

The segment has also demonstrated a strong affinity for cruises of all sorts, including all-gay or all-lesbian cruises, LGBTQ groups on mainstream cruises, and simply joining mainstream cruises as a same-sex couple or in small friend groups. While cruise vacations are still on a pandemic-induced pause in the U.S., cruise companies — including Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Uniworld and the brand-new Virgin Voyages — have all firmly established LGBTQ travelers as a core segment.

“National Travel and Tourism Week takes on special significance this year as we look ahead to recovery following the most challenging year this industry has experienced,” says Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association. “Across the country, we are recognizing travel’s value, and the long-standing support of the LGBTQ community will help accelerate our rebound. I know that for Carnival, we pride ourselves on an inclusive atmosphere where every guest is appreciated, and we look forward to welcoming them back as soon as possible.”

One reason queer travelers are uniquely suited to help power the return of travel during this crisis has to do with their decades of experience living under the ever-looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, during which they learned the importance of risk mitigation for the good of all. Wearing masks to protect yourself and others resonates with a community that understands the importance of condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

According to Randle Roper, co-founder and CEO of VACAYA Full-Ship and Full-Resort LGBT+Vacations, “[Our] guests showed incredible resilience by traveling safely during the pandemic, and they proved they could adapt to live with health protocols that would keep each other and their loved ones back home safe.”

Travel safety is organically entwined with the LGBTQ community’s DNA. In 70+ countries, many popular with LGBTQ travelers, homosexuality is criminalized. That includes 11 countries in which death is the punishment meted out for those convicted of homosexuality and other “crimes” of sexual and gender non-conformity.

While travelers would be spared the harsh treatments locals may suffer, they nonetheless have a great deal to consider when traveling. Same-sex couples still receive awkward and uncomfortable service when checking into hotels with a single bed on the reservation or even simply existing in places where everyone’s assumed to be heterosexual. When a lesbian boards a plane with her legally married wife and their legally adopted children, they could land in a destination where their marriage license is void and their legal guardianship of their kids is in question. Trans and non-binary travelers, especially those oF color, may encounter challenges including lack of safe bathroom access, awkward encounters at TSA security and even outright hostility and worse in any public setting. In the face of all this, queer people still explore and have a lot to teach the rest of the world about how to travel with intent and joy while
maintaining their own safety and that of the community around them.

LGBTQ travelers can also show the world how best to support the tourism and hospitality industries in ways that also strengthen their own communities. “LGBTQ consumers have the power to make change and support LGBTQ-friendly companies and destinations by choosing to spend their travel dollars with those that support our community,” says Jeff Guaracino, co-author of the “Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality.” “LGBTQ-owned hotels, bed and breakfasts, tour companies, bars and restaurants, festivals and destinations have been especially hard hit by COVID, and as a community, we can support LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses and their employees by spending our travel dollars with them first.”

LGBTQ tour companies and travel agents have a direct connection to queer travelers and report strong interest in and bookings of travel. According to Robert Sharp, co-founder and CEO of Out Adventures, “After [releasing] our entire tour schedule through the end of 2022, we saw our largest month of sales in our 12-year history.”

Kelli Carpenter, co-founder of R Family Vacations, adds, “Our highest sales have come from our river cruise products and international tour business, showing that travelers are ready to explore the world again.”

VACAYA’s Roper has seen extremely robust sales over the past several months — including selling out their Antarctica Cruise. “With a starting price of around $25,000 per room, that was our best sign yet that our community members are ready to break free from their cages and return to travel,” he says.

Robert Geller, founder of FabStayz, agrees: “Pent-up demand is visible, palpable and quantifiable.”

 

NYC-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, instructor at NYU and the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center, and an LGBTQ tourism marketing consultant.

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Out & About

Calendar: May 15-20

Events in the week to come

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All About Trans, gay news, Washington Blade
SaVanna Wanzer is the activist behind May Is: All About Trans. (Photo courtesy Wanzer)

Saturday, May 15

May Is Trans DC will host a free virtual event, “May Is: Trans Pride” at 10 a.m. The event, curated by SaVanna Wanzer, will focus on addressing the critical gaps in information, services, and visibility of the transgender, gender non-conforming and gender expansive communities in the DMV. For more information, visit: mayistransdc.com/event-details/may-is-transpride.

The DC Center will host online support for LGBTQ+ people of color via Zoom at 1 p.m. This peer support group is an outlet for LGBTQ People of Color to come together and talk about anything affecting them in a space that strives to be safe and judgement free. For more information, visit thedccenter.org/poc or facebook.com/centerpoc.

Sunday, May 16

The DC Center and the Beta Kappa Chapter of the Beta Phi Omega Sorority will host a peer-led support group devoted to the joys and challenges of being a Black lesbian via Zoom at 1 p.m. You do not need to be a member of the Beta Kappa Chapter or the Beta Phi Omega Sorority in order to join, but they do ask that you either identify as a lesbian or are questioning that aspect of your identity. For more information, email [email protected].

May Is Trans DC will host a movie night over Zoom at 5 p.m. The movie will focus on stories about the transgender community. Grab your PJ’s, a blanket and pillow and cozy up for a relaxing night of fun. To RSVP, visit: . mayistransdc.com/event-details/movie-night.

Monday, May 17

Join GenderQueer DC for their monthly support group for people who identify outside of the gender binary. Whether you’re bigender, agender, gender fluid, or just know that you’re not 100% cis – this is your group. The event will be on Zoom and will begin at 7 p.m. For more information, visit genderqueerdc.org or their Facebook page.

Join May Is Trans DC for “Trans Led Organizations via Zoom at 7 p.m. The event will feature panelists Queen Victoria Ortaga, Jevon Martin, Kayla Gore, and Lee Blinder who will discuss how to observe the unique needs of transgender communities to create non-profit organizations. To RSVP, visit: mayistransdc.com/event-details/trans-led-organizations.

Tuesday, May 18

The DC Center will host “Bi Roundtable Discussion” via Zoom at 7 p.m. This monthly event will be an opportunity for people to gather to discuss issues related to bisexuality or as bi individuals in a private setting. For more information visit Center Bi’s Facebook page: facebook.com/centerbiplus.

“Ask Me About My Pronouns” will be on Zoom at 7 p.m. Join Will Wanzer III, Grayson Baker, and Marian Cooper for an educational conversation about how to use pronouns and best practices if you do not know someone’s pronouns. To RSVP, visit: mayistransdc.com/event-details/ask-me-about-my-pronouns-1.

Wednesday, May 19

“Allies of the Transgender Community” is an online panel that will be hosted on Zoom at 7 p.m. This event, organized by May Is Trans DC, will discuss the ins and outs of transgender allyship. The featured panelists are Justin Woods, Stephania Mahdi, and Jewel Addy. For more information, visit: mayistransdc.com/event-details/allies-of-the-transgender-community.

Join BookMen DC as they discuss gay literature over Zoom at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit: bookmendc.blogspot.com.

Thursday, May 20

The DC Center will host an online Poly Discussion group starting at 7 p.m. on Zoom. This group is designed to be a forum for people at all different stages to discuss polyamory and other consensual non-monogamous relationships. Newcomers will be given a basic introduction into what polyamory is and what some of the advantages and disadvantages are. Attendees who are already in relationships will also be given the opportunity to discuss their situations and get advice from the group if they feel that would be helpful. This group is open to people of all sexual orientations and people who are interested in non-monogamy in both kinky and non-kinky relationships. For more information, visit: thedccenter.org/events/poly-group-discussion-2021-05-20.

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