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Sympathy for the devil?

Long-but-rich ‘Judas’ is bold, provocative

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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, gay news, Washington Blade
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.’ (Photo by Melissa Blackall; courtesy Round House)

‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’

Through June 14

Forum Theatre

Round House Theatre Silver Spring

8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD

$20-25

1-800-838-3006

Forum-theatre.com

Judas Iscariot: a name synonymous with betrayal.

Judas, of course, was the disciple who sold out Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Whether he did it for the cash or because he wanted to set off a rebellion against the occupying Roman army is debatable. Either way, he’s never been a popular guy.

In Stephen Adly Guirgis’ darkly comic “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (now at Forum Theatre), the follower-turned-traitor’s motives, character and possibilities of redemption are all put on trial. Set in a corner of purgatory called Hope, the proceedings are presided over by bigoted Judge Littlefield (Brian Hemmingsen) assisted by his callow bailiff (Thony Mena). The action pits tough and sexy Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner), a non-believing defense attorney who’s arguing that god’s mercy mandates her client’s release from eternal damnation, against oily prosecuting attorney Yusef El-Fayoumy (Scott McCormick) whom the judge simply addresses as Mr. El Fajita. The colorful litany of witnesses — a veritable who’s who of Biblical and historical types — include Mary Magdalene (Nora Achrati), Saint Peter (Eric Porter), a naughty Mother Teresa (Achrati again), Saint Monica from the hood (Alina Collins Maldonado) and a self-satisfied Sigmund Freud (Jesse Terrill).

Throughout the play, Judas (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) lies catatonic center stage on a raised circular platform. Occasionally he rouses for flashbacks, showing him as a young and impetuous idealist on the playground and later as an embittered adult at Bathsheba’s Bar & Grill where a remorseful and very drunk Judas runs into Satan: “You wanna play the lute, sing Mary-Chapin Carpenter, that’s what heaven’s for,” warns the Gucci-clad prince of darkness. “You wanna rock? Hell’s the venue.”

At three hours, “Judas Iscariot” is long, but never dull. The script is all over the place moving from corny exchanges to raw humor to darker places. Fortunately the superb and diverse cast of local actors is more than up for it. Boldly staged by Vreeke, who’s gay, this production is a reprise of Forum’s fantastic “Judas Iscariot” from six years ago that was mounted at the now-shuttered H Street Playhouse. This time around, the venue has changed — Forum’s home at Round House Silver Spring’s large and chilly black box space (take a sweater) — but the production remains equally compelling.

Along with talented director Vreeke, many of the production’s original cast returned. Patrick Bussink makes a memorable cameo as a casual and quiet Jesus of Nazareth. Again, Jim Jorgensen plays Satan — happily hung over and deliciously evil. Frank Britton is back too as a badass, street smart Pontius Pilate who refuses to take the blame for just doing his job. (Britton was mugged and badly beaten by four men near the Silver Spring Metro Station after Monday night’s opening. He’s expected to return to the part soon.)

As with Guirgis’ other plays like “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “The Motherfucker with the Hat,” “Judas Iscariot” plumbs meaning from losers’ lives and gives a spot-on portraiture of urban street life. The humor is irreverent and the characters are delightfully foulmouthed. Yet, the work’s deeper meaning is never lost. There are quiet, moving moments too: the show opens with Judas’ sorrowful mother Henrietta (Annie Houston) recounting how she buried her son alone. Later Butch Honeywell (Frank B. Moorman), a Joe Six-pack with a bent for poetry, mourns not having been the husband and father he might have been. Like Judas Iscariot, his sadness comes from not being able to change what’s already been done.

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Television

PBS ‘Disco’ is a Pride party you don’t want to miss

Rich collection of footage highlighting the music and fashion of the time

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Studio 54 in 1977. (Photo by Bill Bernstein; courtesy BBC Studios)

Anyone who was alive and old enough to listen to the radio in the 1970s knows that disco wasn’t just a genre of music. It was an entire lifestyle, centered around dancing in nightclubs to music that meshed R&B with new electronic sounds and an infectiously up-tempo beat – and at the height of its popularity, it had bled into the entire American culture. Every TV theme or movie soundtrack was flavored with a disco vibe, every musician seeking a comeback recorded a disco record, and every would-be dance dandy dreamed of sporting a pair of “angel flight” slacks to the disco every Saturday night.

If you didn’t live through it yourself, most of what you might know about this era is likely gleaned from its popular culture – the hot radio singles, the popular movies like “Saturday Night Fever,” the kitschy crossovers like “Hooked On Classics” and parodies like “Disco Duck” – after the skyrocketing popularity of the phenomenon had made it a golden ticket for anyone who wanted to capitalize on it. They were crossovers into the homogenizing mainstream, intended to commercialize the disco frenzy for consumers beyond the record stores and nightclubs, which became cultural touchstones, for better or for worse; but because their campy shadows still loom so large, anyone whose understanding of the “disco craze” has been gleaned only from TV or the movies is likely to remember it as a little more than a fun-but-silly footnote in late 20th-century American history.

Fortunately, PBS and BBC Studios have unveiled a new docuseries that sets the record straight – or perhaps we should say it “queers” the record, because it offers a detailed and savvy chronicle that illuminates the ties that bind the story of disco inextricably with an essential chapter of modern queer history, revealing its link to the liberation movement that blossomed in the ‘70s and continues to weave its thread through American society today.

Produced and directed by Louise Lockwood and Shianne Brown, “Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution” – which broadcast its first episode on June 18, and is available for streaming in its entirety for subscribers via the PBS website – charts disco’s origins, success, and demise across a trio of episodes for a comprehensive look at the whirlwind of forces that surrounded and catapulted it into American consciousness. It explores the phenomenon as a vibrant and thrillingly inclusive cultural wave that originated within a blended underground of marginalized communities in New York City, at private loft parties and underground dance clubs, and grew until it had saturated the world – carrying with it a sense of empowerment, tangible in the opportunity and elevation it offered to artists who were queer, female or people of color, yet welcoming anybody who wanted to join the dance with open arms. It was a chance to celebrate, to feel good and have fun after an intense period of social strife in America, which meant it went hand-in-hand with the sexual liberation that was also exploding across society, and it came with a laid-back vibe that gave you permission to let loose in ways that would have shocked your parents; in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could resist.

Yet of course, there were people who did; and when the juggernaut that was disco inevitably began to lose steam as a result of its ubiquity in pop culture and the perceived decadence of its hedonistic lifestyle, it was their voices that emerged to tell us all that “Disco Sucks” – a catch phrase that is perhaps almost as much a cultural touchstone as some of the genre’s biggest hit records.

That’s the broad overview that most people who remember the disco era already know, but “Soundtrack of a Revolution” gets much more granular than that. Much of the enlightening detail is provided, as one might expect, through a rich collection of contemporary footage highlighting the sights and sounds – the people, the parties, the music, the clubs, the fashion – of the time. Counterpoint to that material, however, comes through modern day interviews with key figures who were present for it all, whose memories help connect the dots between the evolution of disco and the societal environment in which it took place.

Of course, most audiences who are drawn to a documentary about disco will likely be coming – at least partly – for the music, and fortunately, this one gives us plenty of that, too. Better still, it gives us deep dives into some of the most iconic tracks of the seventies, not just spotlighting the artists who recorded them, but the DJs and tastemakers whose ideas and innovations built the very sound that fueled it all. Some of these pioneers may be gone, but they are represented via archival footage, and many who are still among us offer up their insider perspectives through candid filmed interviews that are woven throughout the series. There’s a first-person reliability that comes from allowing these participants in the history to tell their own part of it for themselves, and it gives the series an atmosphere of authenticity – not to mention an influx of free-wheeling, colorful personality – that can’t be achieved through the observations and analysis of expert “talking head” commentators. 

It’s these voices that also help to impress upon us the feeling of freedom and acceptance that developed in those early disco clubs, where people from minority cultures could come together and feel safe as they danced to music that came from others like them, and the frustration of watching as it was co-opted by a (mostly white and heterosexual) mainstream and watered down into a pale mockery of itself – something that “killed” disco long before hate-fueled backlash from a racist, misogynistic, homophobic culminated in the infamous anti-disco rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, as documented in the series’ final episode.

Yet although it stops short of blaming homophobia and bigotry for the genre’s collapse, “Soundtrack of a Revolution” leaves no doubt of its influence over the environment that surrounded it, nor of the impact of the subsequent AIDS crisis on stopping the advance of queer liberation that was at the heart of the disco movement in its tracks – and in an election year that might make the difference between preserving or dismantling the ideal of Equality in America, the story of disco’s audacious rise and ignoble fall feels like a particularly apt warning message from the past.

Even so, one of the many gifts of the series is that it reveals a continuing creative lineage that, far from being cut off with the “death” of disco, has gone on to evolve and expand into new genres of dance and musical expression. Disco, it seems, never really died; it just went undercover and continued to develop, reinventing itself to meet the taste and match the needs of new generations along the way.

We could all take a lesson from that.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Baltimore Pride Parade

Thousands attend annual LGBTQ march and block party

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A scene from the 2024 Baltimore Pride Parade. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Baltimore Pride Parade and Block Party was held on Charles Street in Baltimore, Md. on Saturday, June 15. 

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Sports

Washington Mystics to hold annual Pride game

Team to play Dallas Wings on Saturday

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Mystics will be having their upcoming Pride game on Saturday against the Dallas Wings.

The Mystics Pride game is one of the team’s theme nights they host every year, with Pride night being a recurring event. The team faced off against the Phoenix Mercury last June. Brittney Griner, who Russia released from a penal colony in December 2022 after a court convicted her of importing illegal drugs after customs officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, attended the game. 

Unlike the NBA, where there are currently no openly LGBTQ players, there are multiple WNBA players who are out. Mystics players Emily Englster, Brittney Sykes, and Stefanie Dolson are all queer.

The Mystics on June 1 acknowledged Pride Month in a post to its X account.

“Celebrating Pride this month and every month,” reads the message.

The game is on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (1100 Oak Drive, S.E.). Fans can purchase special Pride tickets that come with exclusive Mystics Pride-themed jerseys. 

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