Fourth annual Chefs for Equality
Human Rights Campaign
Tuesday, Oct. 20
‘ReFRAin from Discrimination’
The Inn at Little Washington
309 Middle St.
The Inn at Little Washington is a bit like the Meryl Streep of its domain: not wholly impervious to the occasional ranking slippage or so-so review, yet possessing so many across-the-board top awards and five-star raves, its reputation is beyond impeccable.
Top rankings from the 2015 Forbes Travel Guide, the American Automobile Association, Travel+Leisure and Le Chef Magazine, rave reviews from the Washington Post and D.C. Modern Luxury and a grand award from Wine Spectator (for the 21st consecutive year) are just the recent accolades. The coffee table book “The Inn at Little Washington: a Magnificent Obsession” made the New York Times bestseller list for “fashion, manners and customs” in May and offers sumptuous photos of the Inn’s lavish and gilded interiors.
Owned by chef/proprietor Patrick O’Connell, unofficially dubbed the “pope of American cuisine,” the Inn is in Washington, Va., located 67 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has 24 guest rooms, an 80-seat restaurant that has earned many top reviews from the most prestigious publications and a 13,000-bottle wine cellar. The Inn is open year round every night except Tuesday.
This year O’Connell is again participating in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Chefs for Equality event on Tuesday, Oct. 20. But this year, for the first time, he’s offering an auction item in which attendees can win an all-inclusive wedding package including dinner for 14 at the Inn with O’Connell himself officiating.
Over tea one sunny and quite warm afternoon in early September, O’Connell spent an hour reflecting on his career, the price of being out and how he has maintained the Inn’s reputation over the decades. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You became ordained just to offer this wedding package?
PATRICK O’CONNELL: I am not officially ordained at this time but my idea was that we could create a singular one-of-a-kind opportunity and offer it for the benefit of HRC that would be very hard to put a dollar value on. We thought it would be kind of fun and novel at the same time. We had begun to do some same-gender weddings — I always say same-gender rather than same-s-e-x weddings because I think for the public at large, that’s a far more appropriate term. I think if we had used that language rather than using s-e-x, we would have come along much further, much faster.
O’CONNELL: It’s a loaded word. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of sex? The act, right? I think it was referred to as such by our detractors knowing that it would have charged, negative significance. But gender is gender. It’s uncharged. So I guess we had the first same-gender wedding in Rappahannock County at the Inn and we managed to discover that there was a judge who was not only open to do it, but was also a tribal member and it was delightful in every way. That was about two years ago. Then we had a few others. … I realized it was not a complex matter to be an officiant — I never intended to enter the ministry, although I do a lot of ministering just in my role as an employer. But in general I shy away from labels because I think they are limiting and work against people and can be very damaging. They always reduce an idea or a concept into one word and that’s kind of silly.
BLADE: But don’t we need them on some practical level?
O’CONNELL: Well, no question. It helps. But I think we’re all more than one word and capable of being many things. … I rather like the term healer, which encompasses nourishing and nurturing people. Looking after their well being. Ministering to them, et cetera.
BLADE: Did being out (O’Connell founded the Inn with his former partner whom he eventually bought out) ever hurt you?
O’CONNELL: Oh, it almost had me murdered on numerous occasions. Yes, the hostility was venomous. There was a small contingent of locals who were feeling very much that something extremely foreign was happening in their midst when we started. They were unable to understand what we were about and then the fact that the business took off immediately and became successful started bringing in what were to them outsiders. There are people who felt they belonged here because they were born here and then there are outsiders who are an unproven entity. And of course you have to think the worst because they’re untested. When you have a track record, when you’ve been some place for three generations, then you’re predictable.
BLADE: Isn’t it funny, though, when one of their own comes out?
O’CONNELL: Isn’t that the truth? Or you see how they try to integrate it or reconcile it. Or overlook it.
BLADE: How did the Chefs for Equality package come about?
O’CONNELL: We’ve always tried to be supportive (of HRC) and we wanted people of all genders to know that it was possible to have a marriage celebration here and that it is possible to be married here so we thought it would be wonderful to create a fantasy wedding and take care of all the details leaving the couple no worries of a financial sort or whether it would come off. A lot of the stress of a wedding is budget. How much up front? How much will this or that cost? … This takes all that away so all you have to do is come here and get married.
BLADE: How many gay weddings have you had here?
O’CONNELL: I think probably four or five. Some quite small. The biggest was probably 50 seated guests. Here it usually involves dinner and this one will as well. Although this is not limited by gender. Opposite-gender couples can bid on this item as well. We’re wide open.
BLADE: Will you continue to officiate at weddings here or is this a one-off?
O’CONNELL: Initially the idea was that I would make it available only once. We have a minister on staff who has done about 170 weddings here over 15 years. … He hasn’t performed same-gender yet but he’s open to that. … I’ve witnessed many of his ceremonies and it’s always charming when you have someone who’s rooted in the place where you are married and is comfortable there, not just somebody who walks in and has never been here before. I think it’s a nice touch to have the chef and owner of the property offer to do this and it would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of situation. So therefore it certainly potentially adds value to the auction item.
BLADE: Has the Inn always had an LGBT clientele?
O’CONNELL: Always, yes yes yes. And probably more and more each year.
BLADE: Are gays harder to please?
O’CONNELL: Certainly not with weddings. Overall I think they’re among our most appreciative audience because they’re knowledgeable and focused on details and very responsive to the ambience. What’s a little strange for them sometimes is to be outside an urban environment altogether and so we take care to be sure that they’re completely comfortable here. We’re part of a European-based association called Relais & Chateaux and we have member properties in 52 nations so through that we see a lot of European guests. It’s a very nice thing to hear different languages being spoken in the dining room on a given night and to have this sense that you’ve escaped Washington (D.C.) in a way. We like to think of ourselves as a little foreign embassy out here. It’s out in nowhere land and sometimes you can lose a little of your baggage out here. … You feel much further from Washington than you actually are. … It has a good healing energy and I think people feel restored when they come here.
BLADE: Nobody can go 100 miles per hour all the time. How do you maintain such a high level over many years and not get burned out?
O’CONNELL: It’s complicated but also in a way very simple. Each day you have to find something that you can do better than you did the day before so you have some tangible sense of improvement and evolution and it becomes ingrained in your culture. The Inn has never stopped. It has continued to evolve since it was a garage. Almost every day we’ve succeeded in making some improvement. If we were to look back at a film of what we were like 10, 15, 20,25, 30 years ago, it would laughable for most people compared to where we are today… It’s performance art and you have to fine-tune it all the time and you have to be incredibly self critical. That’s what’s hard for people. No one likes to be brutally self critical, so we joke about it. We say things like, “We look like we almost know what we’re doing. One day we’ll have this down.” Basically we’re just real people but ordinary people trying collectively to do something extraordinary. As long as everyone subscribes to that theory, then that’s what’s called for and the only thing that’s going to work.
BLADE: How do you convey your vision to the staff?
O’CONNELL: You have to find ways to continue to energize your team, to continue to challenge them and give them something to dream about so you’re inspiring them all the time to not only do their best but, like a trainer might in a gym, if he can succeed in getting his client more than they can do on their own, then he’s providing value. It’s just like with any sport — swimming for instance, you want to shorten your time on a sprint or something like that. … I love hearing them when they come back and they’ve had these breakthroughs. Some of them are quite young but they realize that the progress they’re making here translates into anything else they do in life. I love it when a former staff person will come back and maybe they’re a successful lawyer in Washington or New York and they come back and say the reason my career took off the way it did its what I learned here, how I learned to read people, to intuit people, to think on my feet and be able to do five things at one time. My feeling is there should be a point in every young person’s life when they benefit from working in a restaurant. Not only do you get an appreciation for how hard it is — it is not easy work, it’s extremely taxing mentally and physically — but to be able to subtly control an audience while creating the illusion that the audience is controlling you, is fascinating.
BLADE: How many are on staff?
BLADE: How much of the cooking do you actually do?
O’CONNELL: I’m in the kitchen every night and generally I’m in a position where I can watch from one vantage point what everyone is doing, like an orchestra conductor. They’re facing me and I’m facing them and there are no hiding places. You develop a sixth sense and you can feel when everything is on and when it’s going to be a good night.
BLADE: And when things go wrong?
O’CONNELL: With 140 people, there’s some sort of a personal crisis every day so you have to be sure they’re OK and see how it’s affecting the entire team. … You have to get all that out of the way or it’s going to have a negative impact. … Humor is my greatest tool and weapon. In the kitchen we can be as naughty and outrageous as we want to be. … It’s about not taking ourselves overly seriously. We can have a little fun but not lose focus.
BLADE: If you’re Robert De Niro, you can go back and watch “Raging Bull” if you want, or whatever. Food, though, is ephemeral. What kind of legacy can you build in an ephemeral medium?
O’CONNELL: I think sometimes the most beautiful things are the ephemeral ones. Those that can’t really be put into words or saved with a snapshot. I stopped taking pictures ages ago simply because they were never as good as reality. And there was never time to look at them. Rarely did I find one that did justice to the moment. Very often you’ll be reminded of an important occasion. You’ll hear that an experience was very important to a guest and maybe they’ll be on their deathbed reminiscing and they’ll have had an occasion here that was unforgettable. That’s very sweet, really, really nice. What more do you need? It’s why live theater has greater value than film. You can watch a concert on television but why is it that people when they sit there in an auditorium and listen to an entertainer sing, they feel ripped off when they’re lip syncing? Because it’s just not the same, it’s not in the moment. That’s what we offer and I really do believe that you reach people either consciously or unconsciously. Even if they don’t get all the details, they can feel them.
BLADE: Do the accolades bring with them a burden as well? The public comes with much higher expectations when they hear of all the accolades and ratings.
O’CONNELL: The staff always joked that I made the lies true. Early on I got a call from Craig Claiborne, he was the New York Times food writer, and he said, “Did you hear the news, the Zagat survey came out and you’re number one in America.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “the number one resort.” This was shortly after we converted the garage. We never thought of ourselves as a resort. We had no amenities whatsoever. My first thought was that it must have been an error. Then I thought, “God, what am I gonna do?” So the next day I went out and bought two bicycles and that’s where that little slogan came from. You make the lies true. The next year they changed the category for inns and we were number one for inns so it was a little more appropriate. But yes, each of them heightens expectations and it’s hard to get that across to the staff. One food writer once said she would hate it if she were running a place and it was called the best in the world because then the simplest flaw that would not even be noticed or observed in a lesser restaurant would stand out in neon and that’s all anybody would remember. So in that regard, the clientele is less forgiving than they would be almost anywhere else and the expectations are greater, but in the end it’s always about how we make them feel. If we focus on that, on knowing each person is different and has to be reached, then it’s not overwhelming.
BLADE: Has it benefitted you in the long run being rather isolated out here?
O’CONNELL: I think you see from studying other restaurants you do see chefs and proprietors buckle under the pressure of being held up on this incredible pedestal. Because of course the media typically plays the game of putting them up there and then shooting them off. So we’ve been fortunate in that we’re like an old tree that grew year by year by year. We didn’t just open the doors and skyrocket because what happens very often in those situations is they get locked in and they’re so busy that all they can do is maintain. Being here in the country, we usually have a quiet few weeks in the winter, weekends are the same, but we have some very quiet weeknights that can be these wonderful opportunities to regroup and plan and strategize and reinvent ourselves. Also living out here has created a balance. We don’t go discoing after work like we might if we were in the city. You take a walk, you walk the dog if you have one, you look at the moon. You take a few deep breaths. You might read a little. You learn to hate television. Then you have a pretty good night’s sleep listening to the crickets. I think it helps create longevity and it’s a fabulous antidote to the incredible intensity that goes on here. On a Saturday night when you might have two critics and a head of state and the pressure is just sort of throbbing, you can step out and it feels like it was just an illusion. I used to step out sometimes, my head would be spinning, and I’d look across at the neighbors and they’re porch sitting and you think, “Who has the better life?” But then you remind yourself not to get unbalanced by the intensity. It comes in a wave, then it dissipates.
BLADE: Do you get millennials here?
O’CONNELL: Yes. They come in the kitchen and say hi. And I say, “First time?” They say, “Yes, how’d you know?” “Because you’re so young!” They say their parents have been coming for a long time and that’s very sweet to hear. Not long ago a man came to propose and said he’d been coming here since he was 5. That was really sweet.
BLADE: Society overall has gotten so informal. People go everywhere looking like slobs. Do you see it here?
O’CONNELL: It is changing very perceptively. We used to have a sort of image of our client in our minds because that was the majority. A very well-coiffed woman in a Chanel suit who was extremely well traveled and mentored and schooled in social etiquette by somebody and it’s very different now. Then we had the computer generation and we had people showing up wearing tennis shoes without laces and you thought, “Well maybe they’ve had a foot operation,” but no. It was the idea of, “I’m a success in the computer world, in the IT world, why would I make any effort.” So that was all fine. We’ve always joked when asked if we had a dress code, we say, “Yes — no wet bikinis.” Sometimes you see Armani out in the finest restaurants in Europe and he wears just a black T-shirt. And he’s probably the richest man ever to walk in the place. The Italian and French idea is that you shouldn’t have anything imposed on you. It’s your personality and who you are and that’s acceptable. If you’re here, then you’re supposed to be here. You might be eccentric, you might be odd as hell, you might look like a banshee, but if you’re here then you’re somebody. … But it is a shame that so much of the culture is being lost as it’s being relaxed and supplanted by something else.
BLADE: What’s the last great meal you had in D.C.?
O’CONNELL: It isn’t quite that simple. It’s about what fit my mood perfectly at that moment and who I might have been with. It’s hard when you’re in the biz to turn off your critical faculty. It’s nice to take a poor friend or a 9-year-old child or someone for whom anything is going to be, “Wow, this is really fun,” because then you see it through their eyes. I dine out alone a lot and am quite comfortable doing that.
BLADE: Are you often recognized?
O’CONNELL: Often and that can be delightful except that you often end up eating more than you wanted to eat because you’re sent a little taste of this and that as a courtesy so it becomes a diplomatic occasion and something that has another element to it. It’s fine if you’re in the mood for it like if it’s your birthday or something it’s OK, but if you just stopped in because you had low blood sugar and you couldn’t make it any further, then you have to be on and it’s your night off, so it can be tricky. But I’m very appreciative of the effort anyone makes who’s in this business because I know how hard it is.
BLADE: There’s a lot of back and forth about following one’s passions versus pursuing more practical career paths. As someone who’s done the former, what are your thoughts?
O’CONNELL: Culturally we have a very simple problem. America has led the way in attempting to convince people that there is only one goal and only one game and that is money. The minute you can free yourself of that and realize that that can greatly limit you and that there are many other sources of measuring achievement and success, then you’re open to pursue more of something from within and a direction that’s more true to yourself. My feeling has always been if you do what you love and find out what you love and work toward mastery, everything else will fall into place. You’re not going to have to worry about money, but mastery is something that requires a great deal of sacrifice and commitment and most people simply aren’t willing to make the sacrifice and the degree of commitment required. … There are ways to turn your liabilities into assets.
BLADE: Such as?
O’CONNELL: You look at a gay person who grows up and the first thing they have to do in my generation is disguise so they don’t get beaten or killed. Or at least hated and scorned and whatever. It was automatic. So that terrible adaptation is also a tremendous strength. You want me to play this? OK, I can play this. You master acting right off the bat. You had lemons and you made lemonade and you did what you could but you ultimately benefitted from it.
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective
Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals
GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.
“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”
Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.
Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”
“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.
The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.
Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.
Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.
Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).
Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.
Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.
“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”
Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”
The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.
“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”
She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.
Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.
“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”
COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.
The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.
“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”
With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.
“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.
But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?
As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.
“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”
Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.
“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.
Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.
“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”
Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”
“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.
There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.
The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.
Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.
“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”
Billy Porter talks about his HIV diagnosis and keeping secrets
The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years in the Hollywood Reporter Wednesday
NEW YORK – Daytime talk show host Tamron Hall welcomed Broadway icon and star of the hit tv show “Pose,” Billy Porter on her show that aired Wednesday. The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years that was made public in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.
Porter discusses his HIV diagnosis from over a decade ago which the actor said he felt a sense of shame that compelled him to hide his condition from his castmates, collaborators and even his mother, and the responsibility that now has him speaking out. “The truth is the healing,” Porter said.
“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive,” he wrote. “The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” the actor wrote.
Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters
Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark
When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.
The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.
So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.
As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.
The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.
Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.
Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.
In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.
Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:
“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”
Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:
“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.
“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”
Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:
“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.
“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”
Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:
“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”
When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:
“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.
“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”
Porter concurred, adding:
“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”
If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.
Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:
“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.
And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.
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