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With ‘Laramie,’ ‘Torch’ and ‘Gypsy,’ season rife with gay themes

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The Laramie Project, Ford's Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade
The Laramie Project, Ford's Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

The Laramie Project’ runs through Oct. 27 at Ford’s Theatre, part of a robust fall theater season in Washington. (Photo courtesy Ford’s)

This fall’s local theater offerings are a particularly promising blend of old and new, several of which have LGBT appeal. Here’s an overview.

Fifteen years after Matthew Shepard’s death, Ford’s Theatre (fordstheatre.org) is presenting an anniversary production of gay playwright Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (Sept. 27-Oct. 27). Kaufman’ powerfully affecting ensemble piece gives insight into the community’s response to the 1998 brutal murder of Shepard, a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyo. Matthew Gardiner (who is gay) directs. Local stalwart Holly Twyford (also gay) is in the cast.

Studio Theatre (studiotheatre.org) opens its season with the bittersweet comedy “Torch Song Trilogy” staged by Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company’s gay artistic director) and starring the sensational Brandon Uranowitz as Arnold, a caustically funny drag queen who refuses to give up on his longings for love and commitment. Penned by gravelly voiced gay icon Harvey Fierstein (who created the show’s lead character Arnold on Broadway in 1981), “Torch Song” can feel a little dated around the edges, but its central issues of relationships, authenticity and family never go stale. The cast includes local actor Alex Mills, who is gay, as Arnold’s younger love interest.

At Rep Stage (repstage.org) in Columbia, Md., the season opens with Horton Foote’s “A Young Lady of Property” (Sept. 11-29), directed by Michael Stebbins, who’s gay. Set in a small Texas town, it deals with a young woman struggling to hold on to the house that her late mother left her. Following Foote’s sentimental drama is gay playwright Doug Wright’s powerful Pulitzer Prize winning “I am My Own Wife” (Oct. 30-Nov. 17), a compelling solo show about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transsexual who survives the Nazis and the East German secret police. Stebbins will swap out his director’s hat for an actor’s to play the demanding part of Charlotte.

Olney Theatre Center (olneytheatre.org) is presenting New York’s critically acclaimed BEDLAM Theatre in rotating repertory. Productions include Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (through Oct. 20) and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” (also through Oct. 20). Both directed by Eric Tucker.

After BEDLAM’s take on the classics, Olney’s gay artistic director Jason Loewith is staging Steven Dietz’s “Rancho Mirage” (Sept. 26-Oct. 20), a tale of three seemingly well-adjusted couples who at a dinner party decide to stop fronting and get honest. Dietz is best known for “Lonely Planet,” an intriguing exploration of the AIDS crisis as experienced by two gay men from within the confines of a quiet map shop set in an unnamed big city.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company (taffetypunk.com) presents the Riot Grrrls’ all-woman version of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” (Sept. 27-Oct. 26), featuring Isabelle Anderson in the title role.  Lisa Bruneau directs. In the past, the Riot Grrrls have successfully pulled off testosterone free takes on “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” and more from the Bard’s canon. It’s the Grrrls’ credo that “a great actress can play a great role, regardless if it’s male or female.”

Longtime Washington favorite director John Vreeke is staging Round House Theatre’s (roundhousetheatre.org) area premiere production of “The Lyons” (Nov. 27-Dec. 22), a savagely funny family comedy by gay playwright Nicky Silver. At Woolly Mammoth (woollymammoth.net), Vreeke (who is gay) is also directing Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” (through Oct. 6), a comic takedown of the suburban dream. The cast of local favorites includes Emily Townley, Michael Willis, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman and Danny Gavigan.

Arena Stage (arenastage.org) opens its season with Eric Coble’s two-hander “Velocity of Autumn” (through Oct. 20) starring the great Estelle Parsons (“Bonnie and Clyde; she played gay on “Roseanne”) and gay actor Stephen Spinella who created the part of Prior Walter, a gay character with AIDS, in Tony Kushner’s seminal “Angels in America.” An intense 90 minutes, Coble’s play focuses on the relationship of a middle-aged son who returns to his mother’s home after a 20-year estrangement to help her deal with some potentially explosive old age issues.

Exciting things are happening at the National Theatre (thenationaldc.com). The season opens with the world premiere of “If/Then” (Nov. 11-Dec. 8), a romantic musical about a woman on the cusp of middle age, who returns to New York City where she deals with love and the unexpected. It stars Idina Menzel who famously created the part of the green witch Elphaba in Broadway’s “Wicked.”

“If/Then” reunites Menzel with Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), and Michael Greif (director), the same creative team behind the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical “Next to Normal.”

Oscar winning Christine Lahti comes to Signature Theatre (signature-theatre.org) to star in “Pride in the Falls of Autry Mills” (Oct. 15-Dec. 8), young playwright Paul Downs Collaizo’s new play about what lurks behind the pristine façade of a seemingly perfect suburban existence. Michael Kahn directs.

Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer is staging Matt Conner’s new musical “Crossing” (Oct. 29-Nov. 24) in which characters from different decades throughout the last century come together and share their experiences in song. Conner, who is gay, is both an actor (he’s performed in many Signature musicals) as well as composer. In the past, Signature produced his musical “Nevermore,” a dreamy tribute to the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  In December, Signature is taking a crack at the legendary musical “Gypsy” (opens Dec. 17). Joe Calarco (who is gay) directs and Signature veteran Sherri L. Edelen plays the title character’s indomitable stage mother, Mama Rose.

Synetic Theater (synetic.org) kicks off its season in Crystal City with “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” (Sept. 26-Nov. 3), promising to put its inimitable movement-based stamp on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel. Included in the cast is Helen Hayes Award-winning gay actor Philip Fletcher who plays Gray’s actual portrait. Synetic’s celebrated adaptions are consistently innovative, accomplished and sexy.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Revue

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Revue at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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