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Melissa Etheridge on Wolf Trap and why drastic health steps should be weighed carefully

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Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade

Melissa Etheridge (Photo by James Minchin III)

Melissa Etheridge
With guest Eric Hutchinson
Tuesday
8 p.m.
Wolf Trap
Filene Center
1551 Trap Road
Vienna, VA
$35 (lawn)-$65
wolftrap.org

When we talked to Melissa Etheridge last year the conversation turned — as one might expect in an election year — to politics. So this time we focused on music. The lesbian rocker plays Wolf Trap Tuesday night. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Last time you were here you played the Strathmore, which is kind of stately, whereas Wolf Trap is outside and more earthy. Does the venue affect the kind of show you play?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: Yes, totally. One of the things I do before I even write out a set list is I go stand on stage and look out and really get a feel for what the venue is like. Is it indoors, outdoors, is the first row up close, will people be able to stand, are they soft seats, hard seats? I’ve been touring for 25 years so I’m very conscious of what kind of show can be produced at each place and it does make a difference in what songs I play. This will definitely be different from the Strathmore show. I love playing Wolf Trap and I don’t think I’ve ever sweated as much on stage as when I’ve played Wolf Trap. It was just so humid last time I was there, I was really soaked even before the show. But yeah, it’s gonna be much more rock and roll out there.

BLADE: How do you manage to do those big rock money notes year after year? Rock singing, of course, often doesn’t use proper vocal technique that they teach you in classical singing and some singers get vocal cord nodules while others, like Tina Turner perhaps or many gospel singers, seem to be able to growl and howl for decades on end with no problem. Have you ever strained your voice letting it rip so to speak?

ETHERIDGE: I learned a long time ago playing in bars how to make that growly rock and roll sound but not harm the vocal cords. It’s not really screaming, it’s like a stage scream. That and having a good understanding of how not to tax the voice too much in doing that style of singing, also helps. I usually don’t sing more than three night in a row. I can do four, but it will start to wear down after awhile and the shape of my voice is definitely related to everything. If I’m tired, if I haven’t eaten right, if I’m stressed, all those things affect it. But as long as I can eat right and sleep well, I can be on the road and do the rock and roll stuff out there every night.

 

BLADE: How have you found the right balance throughout your career of knowing when to play up the all-out rock stuff versus having enough of a commercial, pop/AC vibe on your various projects to get some radio and mainstream exposure? Have you given much thought to those sorts of things as you’ve been writing and recording various records?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s been a big part of understanding radio and the music business in general and then just when you kind of have a handle on it, of course it changes much like it did in the mid-‘90s when I was really at the pinnacle of it. As it should — young kids grow up and they have their own stuff and I get that. I stopped, I guess around the turn of the century, trying to make my music for radio because I think that would just have been selling myself out and I realized I had a strong live audience that was not going away and would still come see me play, so I really dedicated myself to making the music that I love and not trying to be so much pop. Which is fine — I mean, I love a good pop song like everybody else does, but I don’t limit myself to that anymore. The most important thing in my mind when I’m writing and recording is how is this going to translate to the live stage. That’s more the guideline.

 


BLADE: And yet many veteran acts who have that loyal fan base have great numbers the first week out with a new album and like you said, do fine filling decent-size venues, yet without any radio traction, the albums can come and go so quickly it seems. Has there been any frustration with that at various times? Any sense of a diminishing return for all the hard work?

ETHERIDGE: Well yeah, of course you always hope there’s maybe something there radio can hold on to a little and you would always like to make your record company a little money, that’s always nice. Yet I really have learned to let it go because I think the music does sort of manage to find its own way. I just stumbled on some online music site where these two rock critics were saying my last album “4th Street Falling,” that if it had been released by some up-and-coming singer, it would have really represented kind of the future of rock and roll or something so yes, there is sometimes an advantage to being not as established but I wouldn’t trade where I am at all to be up and coming. I’m very happy with where I am overall and I feel I have a great deal of industry respect and I’m fine with that.

 

BLADE: You’ve been on Island your whole career, which is almost unheard of in this day and age. I’m sure the whole staff has changed since you started …

ETHERIDGE: Not a single person is still there from then.

 

BLADE: How have you navigated all the changeover?

ETHERIDGE: It’s funny, there was a joke a few years ago there that everytime I had a new album out, “Oh, watch out, Melissa’s got a new one, there’s going to be a complete regime change.” Different times my options have been up we’ve looked around and, you know, Island and Def Jam and Universal — it’s one of the biggest labels there is. I always felt I had good relationships there so why not? The whole business has changed so much, it’s nice to stay someplace if you can.

 

BLADE: Last time you played here, the album was just out. Do you feel freer to sing more of it live now that it’s been out awhile and people have had time to let it sink in or do you skew more hit-heavy for the summer shows?

ETHERIDGE: Last fall I did kind of the “4th Street Falling” tour and I did a lot of new stuff but at that stage, I’m still listening to the new stuff, experimenting a bit and finding out which songs seem to pop more live. So I kind of play the new stuff and see which cuts were really fun for the audience and they tend to stay in the show. But yeah, it’s a summer show — we’re going to be doing all the hits too. We’ll be singing “Come To My Window” at the top of our lungs.

 

BLADE: You had so many great TV duet shows over the years in terms of collaborations with other artists — Joan Osborne, Sophie B. Hawkins, Jewel, Dolly Parton. Any of those especially stand out in your mind?

ETHERIDGE: Well singing with Bruce Springsteen was a dream come true. It was like, “Oh, please let time stop.” That one and singing with Dolly was just one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I felt like our entertainment ethics were the same. She’s such a great entertainer and we kind of threw things back and forth. It felt like a good game of one on one.

 

BLADE: One that I really remember was when you sang “You Can Sleep While I Drive” as a duet with Amy Grant. Here she was this gospel singer singing a sweet duet with you, which sort of gave it a lesbian undercurrent. It seemed kind of shocking at the time. Do you remember how that came about or if there was any hesitation in her camp to do it?

ETHERIDGE: Trisha Yearwood had covered that song sometime in the ‘90s, so it had kind of been in the country world, then when Amy came in and we were talking about songs we could do, she said, “Well, I want to sing ‘You Can Sleep While I Drive.’” I’ve sang that with more people than any other song. It just kind of lends itself to that harmony duet feeling. I’ve known her for a long time. I met her in Europe back in ’88 and have been friends with Vince too. You know she kind of went through her own tabloid-y thing but she’s just so open and very very easygoing so that wasn’t even part of it. It was just like, “Let’s sing together and just enjoy it.”

 

BLADE: How prolific have you been in the studio over the years? Did you overcut tracks for very many of your albums? Is there going to be a killer Melissa Etheridge box set of outtakes and rareties someday?

ETHERIDGE: I can’t believe you asked that because yes, I’m working on that right now. The record company came to me and said, “You know, it’s been 25 years, let’s put out a box set.” But I didn’t want to just say, “OK, here’s my songs again.” I think my fans will enjoy some of these other things so I started going back into the vaults and into my storage space and found some tapes I hadn’t even remembered. So it’s going to be eight CDs and there’s live tracks, covers, solo demo tracks, a recording of me made when I was 14, everything that didn’t make it onto an album, pictures and videos. I even found a TV show I did back in 1982 in L.A.

 

BLADE: ETA?

ETHERIDGE: I don’t know the exact date right off, but it will be in November.

 

BLADE: Where do you keep your Grammys, platinum albums and Oscar?

ETHERIDGE: I have a lovely office I share with my gal, Linda.

 

BLADE: You and Linda (Wallem) are still together?

ETHERIDGE: Oh yes, yes, yes. I finally got it right. It’s a bunch of things. It’s a grown-up relationship.

 

BLADE: As a breast cancer survivor yourself, what did you think of Angelina Jolie’s announcement?

ETHERIDGE: I have to say I feel a little differently. I have that gene mutation too and it’s not something I would believe in for myself. I wouldn’t call it the brave choice. I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer. My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels. I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer. There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.

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Theater

Frenchie Davis wows as Sofia in ‘The Color Purple’

D.C. native on healing power of playing the iconic role

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Frenchie Davis plays Sofia in ‘The Color Purple’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre)

‘The Color Purple’
Through Oct. 9
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA
$70-$108
Sigtheatre.org

D.C. likes to claim singer Frenchie Davis as its own. And now we can, again.

Davis has returned to the DMV to head the theater arts program at a new charter school as well as wow audiences in Signature Theatre’s production of “The Color Purple” directed by Timothy Douglas. Adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, coming-of-age novel about Celie (Nova Y. Payton), a victimized teen in deep Jim Crow South who through grit and courage grows up to find redemption. 

Davis plays Celie’s sometime champion, ballsy Sofia, a Black woman loath to buckle under (a part memorably portrayed by Oprah Winfrey on the screen). 

“I grew up in California but was born in D.C. when my parents were students as Howard University. And years later I came back to attend Howard, so artistically speaking I started my career here,” explains Davis, 43. “I began singing in old school gay clubs like Edge and Wet – that’s how I made extra money when I was in college. I owe a lot of who I am to D.C.” 

She made national headlines when — despite a big voice and vivacious personality — she was booted off the second season of “American Idol” in 2003 after some topless photos surfaced online, a “scandal” that reads quaint today. But that’s old news. Since then, Davis has performed on Broadway in “Rent,” done national tours of “Dreamgirls” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and played Henri in “The View Upstairs,” an off-Broadway musical about the UpStairs Lounge arson attack that killed 32 patrons of a gay bar in New Orleans. Additionally, she performed at the Blade’s 50th anniversary gala in 2019 and numerous other LGBTQ events. 

“‘The Color Purple’ is a show I’ve long wanted to do, and performing with my old friend Nova, a beautiful soul and a real talent, makes it that much better,” she says. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Sofia is incredibly strong. Do you relate? 

FRENCHIE DAVIS: There’s a beauty and vulnerability that the other characters miss at first glance because Sofia is so very strong. And I think that’s mirrored in my own life [she laughs]. Recently, I’ve had to stop being ‘the strong friend’ offstage – sometimes it’s too much to be just one thing. 

But strength is important. I like how Alice Walker created with this book — and it continues in the musical version — a beautiful story of sisterhood and the power women have to change their lives and world around them when they come together in support and love.  

BLADE: Walker is also an activist — civil rights, women’s rights, Palestinian self-determination to name but a few. Your coming out as bisexual could be described as political. Are you an activist?

DAVIS: I am an activist. Not a lot of Black women performers were out of the closet when I came out. I think it was just me, Tracy Chapman, and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Now, people are kicking the door open. I have a lot of pride. I was young. I was in love with my “ex-hersband” and wanted to honor that love and not be afraid about holding hands in public.  

My dad, a human rights activist, was terrified for my safety. I told him that if I have to lie then I’m not safe. Ultimately, he really surprised me. He treated my ex as another daughter. They went on hiking trips and all kinds of stuff without me. It kind of got on my nerves. [Laughs.] 

BLADE: Walker portrays so many relationships between women: sister, friend, lover. 

DAVIS: It’s very inclusive. For me, reading the book as a young person before it was dramatized was my first time seeing two black women in love. It was very impactful, especially because I identify as bi. 

Also, Walker draws a beautiful contrast between shy, plain Celie and glamorous blues singer Shug Avery [played here by Danielle J. Summons], showing both ends of the spectrum of women who survive sexual trauma. In their love for each other, both Celie and Shug find a healing middle ground. As a rape survivor, I didn’t miss that part of the story.

BLADE: Is doing the show all that you’d hoped for? 

DAVIS: That and more. I’m dreaming lyrics at night. I love singing composer Brenda Russell’s music. Sofia’s song, “Hell No,” morphs from anger to a plea for Celie to leave an abusive marriage with Mister.

It’s intense in different ways. After rehearsing the scene where Sofia gets beat up, I needed a session with my therapist. Signature is taking such good care of us, supplying intimacy coaches and advocating for selfcare. It’s a special production. 

There are parts of me as Frenchie that are healing by playing Sofia.

BLADE: Is there a happy ending for Sofia? 

DAVIS: In a way, but not necessarily the one I’d choose. In my mind the happy ending would be that she ends up with Harpo [played by out actor Solomon Parker III] and his girlfriend Squeak [played by nonbinary actor Tẹmídayọ Amay]. That’s my own personal bisexual happy ending.

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Arts & Entertainment

Team Rayceen Productions celebrates 8th anniversary

Group members, supporters reflect on the past and look to future

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Rayceen Pendarvis is the self-described ‘Queen of The Shameless Plug, the Empress of Pride and The Goddess of D.C.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Team Rayceen Productions — which helps facilitate an array of local LGBTQ-centered programming, including live events, performances and partnerships from collaborators and Pride celebrations — is commemorating its eighth anniversary this month. Rayceen Pendarvis, the self-described “Queen of The Shameless Plug, the Empress of Pride and The Goddess of DC,” is a veteran emcee and lifelong Washingtonian. The team’s other members are Zar, creative director, producer and founder, Niqui, booking agent and brand manager, and Krylios, event host and co-emcee. 

In honor of the group’s August anniversary, the Blade sat down with Team Rayceen Productions and some of its frequent collaborators to discuss the group’s history, significance, and future.

The central members of Team Rayceen Productions met its namesake at different times and places, and the group’s members have shifted over time before the current “core four” assembled. According to Pendarvis, the team’s mission arose from the queer spaces where its members made their introductions, since “we all met each other in wonderful safe spaces and safe places, and out of that rose that need to uplift, motivate and inspire the community on the next level.”

Niqui, who came to the team from “The Ask Rayceen Show,” said that working on the monthly event “was life changing and empowering for me personally, because seeing Rayceen living not just truthfully, but sharing wholeheartedly what makes her who she is, really helped to free my soul and my spirit.”

Krylios, the youngest member of Team Rayceen Productions, said that while he was not there for the group’s founding, its clear sense of purpose and familial warmth drew him in. 

“One of the greatest core concepts of Team Rayceen is community, is family,” Krylios said. “As someone who was trying to find their way in not only a new space and a new community, but specifically the queer community in D.C., going to ‘The Ask Rayceen Show’ and becoming involved in Team Rayceen Productions was very important to me.”

For GiGi Holliday, a burlesque performer and regular guest on “The Ask Rayceen Show,” appearing at the event was a kind of “rite of passage” that quickly turned into an annual tradition.

“I felt like every year, I had to, in the sense of ‘I need to come home,’” Holliday said. “You have to have a family reunion once a year, right? That’s why I have always done it once a year and will continue to do so.”

Sylver Logan Sharp, a singer and longtime collaborator with Team Rayceen Production, emphasized Rayceen’s unique ability to foster people’s talents.

“The things I’m good at were nurtured, and they were cultivated, and they were honed, and they are still right now. Rayceen [does] that for the community — you and your entire team do the very same thing — you give people a platform. And nothing is more important right now than a safe place,” Sharp said. “You create that, and you also initiate inspiration in people that otherwise might not have it.”

Over and over, collaborators remarked on the group’s blend of familial warmth and comfort with the challenge to grow.

“Our gifts are called upon. When you join the family of Team Rayceen, you’re going to get called on, but whatever your gifts might be — whether people know about them or not — it’s a really great chance to just step up to the plate,” singer-songwriter Desiree Jordan said. “You become a better person as a result of being within this family and within this community.”

According to its members, the future of Team Rayceen Productions is bright. While the pandemic halted live performances and moved content creation online, Niqui shared that it was also an opportunity for the team to plan its next steps. 

“Oddly enough, the pandemic caused us to really focus and think. When you’re doing, doing, doing, you don’t really have an opportunity to future-cast, and so those two years were a turbo boost for us because they forced us to have to say ‘Okay, how do we want to focus our energy, what changes do we want to see in the world?’ And the world was changing at the exact same time.”

Although “The Ask Rayceen Show” recently wrapped its 10th and final season, Zar said that the team’s horizons have always been broader than that monthly event.

“What we have done and continue to do is create safe spaces. We create spaces for healing and celebration… we create spaces for voter registration, for community organizations and entrepreneurs; we create intergenerational spaces,” Zar said. “We create diverse spaces which honor and respect Black LGBTQ people who have been centered in so much of what we’ve done from the beginning — so I think we’ve done a good job of both expanding our base and not forgetting how we got here.”

In the future, Team Rayceen Productions is looking to increase the scale and ambition of its creative projects and to reach a wider international audience. However, as they ramp up operations, Rayceen re-emphasized the team’s commitment to its community, even when that means taking a pay cut.

“In my 40 plus years getting here, I have done so much stuff free I should be a millionaire,” Pendarvis said. “But my riches come from the community, come from people when they say thank you, when people hug me … those things that are priceless, that money can’t buy.”

“We know that, yes, we should be paid a lot more money than what we get. But when people come to us with a small budget or large budget, we take those lemons and make lemonade … creating an experience that you will never forget. When you see or hear Team Rayceen mentioned, whispered or read about, you will know that experience is unforgettable.”

For Team Rayceen Productions, this ambition for growth comes from the desire for representation. As a platform and safe space for LGBTQ people — especially Black LGBTQ people — the group reiterated the importance of telling these stories in the face of an increasingly regressive political climate.

“You know how important representation is — being able to see oneself represented, to see similar stories represented in different, unique ways that have not been done before. Because as things continue to change and things continue to evolve, sometimes things also regress,” Krylios said. “It’s important to have certain stories still being represented and being put to the front, and new stories, different stories, being done in that way, so that we keep the importance and we keep the visibility of how certain decisions being made affect people in real life.”

Rayceen Pendarvis (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Notables

Gay journalist Chuck Colbert dies

Long-time reporter covered Catholic clergy sexual abuse

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National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna, left, with Chuck Colbert (Photo courtesy of Cathy Renna)

Chuck Colbert had a touch of old Cary Grant in him — dashing and debonair in his tuxedo at swank LGBTQ events. But he was also deeply humble and bursting with joy from his lifelong devotion to the core beliefs of the Catholic Church.

His journalistic discipline controlling his personal anguish over the proclamations about homosexuality enabled him as an out gay man to report professionally on the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.

As a regular freelance contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and other media outlets, Chuck debunked tirades against gays and often underscored how girls and young women had been raped and abused by priests and church officials, too. 

I thought about this a lot when I heard that Chuck had died on June 30. He was 67. 

I was shocked by his sudden passing and how long it took to find out he had died. I met him decades ago through the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Why did it take a month and a half for news of his passing to spread? 

Chuck’s friend Karen Allshouse posted news on his Facebook page:  “I’ve learned that while visiting in Johnstown [Pa.] he developed a serious medical issue (involving his esophagus reportedly) and he needed to be transferred to a higher level of medical care and was transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital. Respiratory complications developed and he died. For those who are concerned about his mom — a former high school teacher of his (English) accompanied his mom to the cemetery for the committal service.”

I considered Chuck a loving friend and a journalistic colleague but I realized I actually knew little about him. Our friendship ranged from email exchanges to quick chats at events to deep conversations about religion, including the influence of Thomas à Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ.”

If anyone sought to imitate Christ, it was Chuck Colbert. He was kind without thinking about it. He walked the walk and scolded those who didn’t but claimed to have created the path. 

On March 17, 2002, two months after the Boston Globe exposed the sexual child abuse by priests rotting the foundation of the Boston archdiocese (depicted in the movie “Spotlight,”) Chuck wrote an op-ed in the Boston Herald entitled Leaders of Catholic Church Must Listen to All the Faithful.”  

“Clearly, the Catholic Church in Boston is in crisis. Some blame ‘militant homosexuals’ among the clergy, branding them ‘a true plague on the priesthood.’ Is the crisis, in fact, rooted there? Let me offer another perspective — one based on more than 25 years of faith life as a convert. First, I have failed, somehow, to encounter any Catholic Church culture characterized by ‘priestly homosexuals run amok with no fear of condemnation.’ The reality is significantly more boring,” Chuck wrote. 

He went on to describe his scholarly and theological journey from the University of Notre Dame to Georgetown University, Harvard University and Weston Jesuit School of Theology, receiving degrees at each stop. 

“Still, it was not until I arrived in Cambridge 15 years ago that my spiritual desolation over the conflict between my sexual identity and my religious conviction found its positive counterpart: consolation,” Chuck wrote in the Boston Herald. “The catalyst for that life-saving, personal transformation began when a bright and theologically astute Jesuit priest became my spiritual director.

“He listened,” Chuck continued. “Over time, I broke the silence of my anguished pilgrim journey and its struggle with homosexuality. He understood that I carried with me the heavy baggage of church teaching, those deeply wounding, soul-shaming words from the Catechism, ‘objective disorder’ and ‘intrinsic evil,’ that pathologize (and objectify) same-gender love and its sexual expression. Through the respectful, nonjudgmental listening and guidance of spiritual direction and through richer encounters of God’s grace in the sacraments, therapy, and prayer, I came to experience God’s unconditional love. I now feel, to the core of my being, that God loves me (I suspect you) along with all my quirky postmodern, American, but very human, strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Chuck became an expert reporter covering the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. During a May 7, 2002, appearance on CNN, Chuck responded to a question about the culpability of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston. 

“I think the question raises a very interesting question, or point,” Chuck said. “And it is not just the personality of the cardinal. Other bishops who were auxiliary bishops at the time [of  Fr. John Geoghan’s arrest for child molestation and release] and are now bishops in other places, as the [Father Paul] Shanley documents have been revealed, these show higher levels of involvement of knowledge. And so it is systemic — but it is also the leadership, the broad leadership that Cardinal Law mustered to either handle or mishandle this scandal, and I think that we will see more of that come out in court.”

Chuck’s expertise was invaluable to the LGBTQ community, as National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna told the Windy City Times.

“Chuck was a friend and colleague — one who was extraordinarily principled and helpful, especially when addressing issues related to the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church. He was instrumental in helping us frame and address the abuse scandal when church leaders scapegoated gay priests, as a person of faith and an intellectual,” Renna said. “[W]orking with him was a vital part of my work taking on the Catholic Church hierarchy while at GLAAD, along with other queer and allied groups. But he was also a pleasure to be friends with, who found joy in life and our community, and was one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at the NLGJA convention and other events. He will be greatly missed.”

Chuck caused some ripples in my life after an interview we did for the online LGBTQ press trade newsletter Press Pass Q in 2016 about my being laid off as news editor by my longtime publisher Frontiers Newsmagazine.

Chuck had interviewed Bobby Blair, chief executive officer of Multimedia Platforms Worldwide, and the new publisher of Frontiers.

“Unfortunately, Karen fell where we realized we were moving toward a digital and Millennial audience, and we wanted to give the generation of Millennials a real shot at creating our content,” Blair told Chuck. “Did you get that on tape?” I asked him. 

Chuck Colbert summed up his philosophy via a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace:”

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”  

********************

Karen Ocamb an award winning veteran journalist and the former editor of the Los Angeles Blade, has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

She is currently the Director of Media Relations for Public Justice.

She lives in West Hollywood with her two beloved furry ‘kids’ and writes occasional commentary on issues of concern for the greater LGBTQ+ community.

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