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Sophie B. Hawkins goes deep in advance of D.C.-area concert

‘90s hitmaker known for ‘Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover’ is on fall mini-tour

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Sophie Hawkins, gay news, Washington Blade

Sophie B. Hawkins will sing hits and new songs at her Saturday evening concert in Vienna, Va. (Photo by Shervin Lainez; courtesy No Big Deal PR)

Ellis Paul and Sophie B. Hawkins

 

Saturday, Oct. 28

 

6:30 p.m. (doors, 5:30)

 

Jammin Java

 

227 Maple Ave. E

 

Vienna, Va.

 

$25

 

ticketfly.com

 

sophiebhawkins.com

Singer/songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins is at a place in her life where she’s being highly deliberate about what she does.

She’s sitting on a finished album but wants to figure out a way to release it strategically for maximum impact. A recurring theme in our lengthy phone chat last week is that there are lots of great ideas, but several are just not high on her priority list right now.

Newly single after nearly two decades in a same-sex relationship, the 52-year-old singer known for ‘90s radio staples “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down” is back in New York focusing on her art and raising her two young children, Dashiell, 8, and Esther, 2.

She makes a rare D.C.-area appearance this weekend at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on her fall mini-tour. Her comments have been edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How does it feel to be back in New York again after so many years in Los Angeles?

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS: Well I was born and raised in Manhattan so when I get home to New York or anywhere near, I feel a certain accessibility to my soul. I feel like this is where I came into the world, where I’m coming back to and where I’m allowed to be me. I can be my age here, I can be a single woman, so exotic and excited to be alive, just in the day, and it’s not weird. I don’t have to drive a fancy car, I don’t have to wear makeup, I can just live and enjoy everyone’s energy and creativity. That’s the difference between L.A. and New York. In California, it’s harder to connect with people and harder to connect with people’s creativity. In New York, it’s very much coming up from the ground.

BLADE: What can we expect at your show this weekend and why are you doing a mini-tour now?

HAWKINS: This mini-tour came about for a very specific reason. I wanted to go out and do solo shows without one single musician, just me because I’d never done that before until weekend before last. I did it in Massachusetts and Maine and I really felt like this was the time for me to just go on stage and really see if I’m a good-enough musician and good-enough artist and good-enough storyteller to get out there and be the person that I am (in my home studio) working and writing songs. … I loved the last two shows. They were my favorites in a very long time because I just got up there with my instruments, my banjo, my drums, my guitar and my piano, and I sang the songs and it was so relaxed and emotional and, of course, intimate, but it was something more. Sort of a heightened experience. … I wouldn’t say it’s me being me because I’m always me, but it’s really one on one. It’s scary but that’s where I really like it the best.

BLADE: How was it received?

HAWKINS: Both audiences, and not that this should ever happen again, but they both gave me standing ovations and they all came back and it was a different conversation after the show. … It really could have gone terribly — that’s why I didn’t do it in New York. I could have walked off the stage and said, “I’m never doing that again,” and called my guitar player. But I’m actually excited to do it more.

BLADE: You’re working on a musical, you have a new album in the can, you did the Janis Joplin play a few years ago and said you even wrote some songs as Janis. What all will you be singing? Stuff from your albums or some of that stuff as well?

HAWKINS: Well, OK, first of all, I’m always going to do my hits. They’re beautiful and I just want people to know they won’t get deprived of that. The second thing is I’m definitely doing some new songs. People seem to really love the new songs and I’m doing one I just wrote a couple weeks ago that’s a brand new original Christmas song so it’s going to be exciting to do one that I just wrote. As for the album, I’m going to be totally candid because I always am, I don’t quite know how to get it out. I don’t want it to just be the same old process of putting all this effort into something and then making no money from it. I’m trying to find a new way and really taking my time. I really love it, I put a ton of energy into it and the songs are, in my opinion, phenomenal so I don’t want to just throw it out and have it go nowhere. The musical is still a work in progress. … I may put the Christmas song out just to have a little something but … I can’t just throw things out there anymore.

BLADE: You did some shows in New York back in June that you said you were going to record to try to capture something elusive you said doesn’t always show up on your studio work. Did you?

HAWKINS: Yes, well, I don’t know if I captured that elusive whatever but I did record all three shows and they were filmed. I don’t know if the filming was good because I haven’t seen it yet. … I’m not sure if I’m going to edit them and put anything out because that takes so much work. I wish I had another me to do that kind of work. And sometimes you’re just too close to it. I thought it sounded terrible when I listened to it in June but then I heard it again in September by accident and I was like, “No, that sounds pretty good, I should get to editing that.” … But again, it goes back to not wanting to just put stuff out just to do it. I’m looking for a right connection. I’m not dying for people to say, “Oh she’s great, listen to this,” and then move on to the next thing. There’s no reason for that. Maybe once I figure out when the album is coming out, the live stuff could be like the thank you for being part of my life and here is this gift.

BLADE: What has it been like rebuilding after going through the break-up of a 17-year relationship?

HAWKINS: Oh, it was awful. Just so incredibly sad, I can’t even tell you. … It’s still so difficult to understand how that could have happened. … I felt like I was saved when I got back to New York … by the skin of my teeth. There’s this amazing other part of yourself that says, “I’ve got to move before the tsunami hits, I gotta get out of my bed and start running” and that’s what happened. The tsunami was coming down on me and my son and I actually got out of bed and said, “We’re getting up now, move, move, move, get the dogs,” and we got to New York and boom, we would have been dead if we’d stayed a moment longer. And I mean completely dead emotionally, psychologically, financially, everything. It’s scary to think about. That’s one aspect of it. But thank God I landed and … could begin again. … There is still a reckoning I’m dealing with in my art and in conversations with close friends, you know, walking around going, “I can’t believe this is part of my story now.” … I never thought it would happen — a betrayal on that level.

BLADE: One song of yours that’s always haunted me is “I Need Nothing Else.” I know songwriters hate to explain what songs are about but can you illuminate us at all on that one?

HAWKINS: I love that song too because of the combination of the visceral and the spiritual and accepting it all as one and knowing that all things go together with no boundaries. All these things need each other and pull each other and tug each other and there’s that feeling of passion that I really love and then the phrase, “I need nothing else,” is what you do — you go through your life and you eliminate, you start to realize what you need and what you don’t need and you come back to this very essential quality. … You bring the drama on when you don’t know what you need and you do so many things to mask and then you find it and it’s unmasked — that’s that song, it’s unmasked, here it is.

BLADE: It’s taboo to say you wanna have sex with Jesus but pop music is kind of this nice place where you can entertain both the spiritual and the carnal, which is forbidden in gospel music. Is that a fair interpretation or am I off base?

HAWKINS: No, you’re so on base and I love that you said have sex with Jesus. Yes, it’s so true and in a way, that’s sort of what we’re doing. … And yes, that is the great thing about pop music and great poetry, it connects all these things. … There’s actually a movie out now that’s about all this called “The Novitiate.” Have you heard of it?

BLADE: No.

HAWKINS: It’s not out yet but I saw a screening and it’s really a brilliant movie but it’s not with men, it’s with nuns. Oh my God.

BLADE: How long did it take to make “Tongues and Tales” (1992) and “Whaler” (1994)? How long did you spend recording vocals and how long were the whole projects?

HAWKINS: OK, well, “Whaler” took shorter than “Tongues and Tales” because I worked with Stephen Lipson and he was — well, for both albums by the way, we used my demos a lot, which was interesting, so we’d have to include that time. I’d recorded those songs at home first. Like in “Did We Not Choose Each Other” when you hear the frying pans and all the crazy percussion and the keyboards, all that stuff was done at home. “As I Lay Me Down,” the percussion, the keyboards, all that was taken from my original demo and we just overlaid and built upon it.

BLADE: You felt you’d captured something on those that couldn’t be bettered?

HAWKINS: Yeah. There were periods where different producers would try to get away from it but even the head of the record company, Don Ienner at the time, the head of Sony, he said, “No, you’ve got to use the vocal on her demo, that’s why I signed her.” So there were always those moments where we would go back to that. … So “Whaler” didn’t take a long time ‘cause Stephen works fast. “Tongues and Tales” took a long time because I’d never made a record before and Rick Chertoff is known for taking a really long time. He wanted demo after demo after demo after demo. He could spend years on just a thought. It takes him hours to get a freaking sentence out. But in some ways, that’s also why he’s brilliant. He’s like an old-fashioned director. He’ll take you to dinner and you have to include all that in the process. So on “Tongues and Tales,” they didn’t spend anytime on me. It was all about the radio, what will happen to the album, and Rick Chertoff takes everything into consideration but then when it came time for vocals, believe it or not, they gave me like a day. I was really upset about that inside, but I did not wanna complain because they didn’t make me write with anybody, they completely stayed true to my vision so I thought, “Well, OK, I have a day, I’m just gonna use a day.” So the vocals were very fast. … But that worked out OK because I’m one of those people you can’t overdo things too much with. On “Whaler,” though, he did take much more time with the vocals.

BLADE: What happens to all the alternate takes and photo and video outtakes when a major label project like that wraps? Do you get it all or is it sitting in box in a warehouse somewhere?

HAWKINS: I think Sony probably trashed it all because, you know, I fought with them by the third album. I have all the demos, which is shocking. … But they didn’t care about what they didn’t use so I would think by this time they would have trashed everything. I did get a bunch of pictures. … Great outtakes from sessions by David LaChapelle, Bruce Weber and Mark Hanauer. It would be fun to do something with those but at this point in my career, I don’t want to spend the time looking through photos.

BLADE: I sense from what you’re saying there was some frustration with the release of “The Crossing,” your last album in 2012. Was the rollout underwhelming? How do you feel about it now that you have a little distance from it?

HAWKINS: Well that’s why I don’t want to put out another record the same way. I think there are some songs on it that are amazing. I just love “The Land, the Sea and the Sky.” It’s so raw, I don’t know, I just love the feel of it. And I love “A Child.” There are some songs I love. But certain songs I think are terrible on “The Crossing” and those are the ones I actually worked the most on. Like “Betchya Got a Cure,” I think could have been a great song but I think it’s just terribly done. … My manager-slash-partner had lost interest in me as a person and as an artist or whatever and I couldn’t really — I mean, I did it totally alone. No producer, no nothing. I even engineered the goddamn record. It was a beautiful studio, but still. I put it out with zero, and I mean zero, support, so in a way, it’s amazing it sounds as good as it does and it’s as lively as it is. There’s no way really I could have done better in that situation.

BLADE: What was your cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from? I found it later on a compilation and wasn’t sure.

HAWKINS: That was for a charity album. It might have been breast cancer because they wanted songs by women and I chose that because Joan Baez sang it and I loved it. I recorded it in my apartment where I was at the time on Christopher Street and I just did it at the piano with all those crazy vocals and the djembe drum and that was basically it. But people seem to like it. Sony was pretty mad at me. They said it wasn’t professional enough. I was like, “Well, then, you know, give me some money and I’ll do it more professionally.”

BLADE: Melissa Etheridge’s VH-1 “Duets” special now seems like this amazing time capsule of great ‘90s women rockers. What was it like taping it?

HAWKINS: Well, the first memory is when she called. … I dove to the floor to pick up the land line at a house in L.A. where I was staying and I couldn’t believe I was talking to Melissa Etheridge because this was at the time when she was having her huge, breakout like big, big moment, and I hit my head on the closet door when I went for the phone so I was pretending to be completely with it and cool and obviously I wasn’t. … I remember rehearsing with her and just thinking she was so amazing, her guitar playing and her presence. I loved her and felt like I would have loved her even if she wasn’t Melissa Etheridge, but I never would have because she’s from such a different part of the world. So then we got to the show and I really thought I’d botched it and I was kind of embarrassed. But I loved being with her and Paula Cole was super nice too.

BLADE: I get what you’re saying about prioritizing certain projects over others but it’s been 25 years this year since “Tongues and Tales” and “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Are you doing anything to commemorate that?

HAWKINS: No, I didn’t really realize it was exactly 25 years. See that’s where it would be nice to have a team to help me remember those things.

BLADE: It’s so cool that you’re able to still devote yourself to art. New York and L.A. are both so insanely expensive and you’re raising two kids. Do you ever feel practical or financial concerns encroaching on your art? How do you soldier on?

HAWKINS: You do have to soldier on as an artist no matter what and as a mother because you cannot let those people down. It doesn’t matter if you have any money or not. The thing about being an artist in this day and age is that you cannot expect any kind of support if you’re in the music business. I’m lucky to have the support and recognition that I do. I see young people I’ve met and let open for me who have these amazing songs, they’re young and beautiful and talented and they’re in a way worse position than me. I’m doing really well, I actually am. … I could make a choice. I could make a lot of money, I mean relative to what I’m going to get back, and throw it in my career right now, but I really do feel the timing isn’t right and it would be a complete waste. I feel it’s a time to be really selective. … I learned with “The Crossing,” it’s not good enough to just stay afloat. It’s actually better almost to disappear and for everyone to think you’re gone forever and you were so beautiful and great then and if you have a rebirth or even if you don’t, then at least your work stands on its own. That’s a big concept. I hadn’t even really thought about it, I was just kind of talking out of my ass but yeah. I’m maintaining an amazing lifestyle in this amazing city and my children and art are doing amazingly well and I will tell you the honest truth — I’ve never been so happy in my life.

BLADE: How has being a mom shifted your artistic lens or has it?

HAWKINS: It’s made me more appreciative and patient with myself. … It’s moved me away from trying to be a perfectionist. … It’s also been fun to see how some things that I thought were just about me, they’re sort of genetic. Like the singing and stuff. … Not so much the creation of a song, but my son is like this amazing little walking poet and he says things that blow me away, but I think maybe he gets it from my mother. There’s some quality about it that’s really fun to see.

Sophie B. Hawkins, gay news, Washington Blade

Sophie B. Hawkins at a 2004 Pittsburgh concert. (Washington Blade file photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

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Meet the LGBTQ leaders behind D.C. statehood fight

‘We’re still second class — it’s just so unfair’

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From left, Bo ShuffBarbara HelmickJohn KlenertMonica Hopkins and Phil Pannell are leaders in the fight for D.C. statehood. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the nation’s capital, home to one of the country’s largest LGBTQ populations and where more than half of the citizens identify as people of color, residents have no voting representation in Congress. LGBTQ statehood advocates have been fighting for decades to expand voting rights, autonomy, and representation to Washington’s 700,000-plus residents. 

Philip Pannell moved to the District from New York City in 1975 to work for the D.C. Council. As he made his way through his new home, he said he was immediately struck by the lack of representation. He felt then, and still feels today, like a second-class citizen, he said. 

“For us to be here in the District of Columbia, to be living in what is essentially a colony, is unconscionable,” said Pannell, 70, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. “We’re still second class. It’s just so unfair.”

LGBTQ statehood advocates Bo Shuff, Barbara Helmick and John Klenert of DC Vote; Monica Hopkins of ACLU; Stasha Rhodes of 51 for 51; and Pannell all have two beliefs in common — a hope statehood will become a reality someday, and that the movement is intertwined with LGBTQ rights and racial justice.  

Residents pay federal and state taxes, serve on juries and register for the draft — but don’t have the same liberties as those who reside in the 50 states. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District in Congress but as a non-voting delegate.

Statehood is supported by the Biden administration and by Democratic representatives in the House and Senate. 

Bo Shuff, executive director, DC Vote 

Bo Shuff (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Shuff, who identifies as gay, has long worked on the frontlines of LGBTQ policy, including the fight for marriage equality. He became involved in the statehood movement when working as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s campaign manager. 

Statehood first appeared on the ballot in 2016 when Mayor Bowser called for a districtwide vote on whether the nation’s capital should become a state, Shuff said. Before that, statehood was introduced in Congress but never brought forward and other solutions were considered.

The bill for statehood has passed the House twice and was discussed in the Senate. But Shuff, 48, said legislation moves slowly and he expects statehood to take time.

“It is simply a large hill to climb,” he said. “And if you’re climbing Mount Everest, you don’t always make it on your first try.”

The current system where Congress oversees the District, which has no voting representation on the federal level, is “textbook racism,” he said. 

“You have a majority white body, the United States Congress, making decisions and passing all of the laws that impact a majority Black community,” he said. 

Other voting rights bills, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, are essential, and statehood should be considered when crafting legislation on voter suppression, Shuff said. 

Education around these bills across the country, including statehood, is important, he said. Including statehood in this advocacy educates those outside the area that statehood is, at its core, a voting rights issue, Shuff said. 

Philip Pannell, executive director, Anacostia Coordinating Council 

Phil Pannell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Pannell works in the revitalization of Washington’s neighborhoods east of the river and has led the Anacostia Coordinating Council for 25 years. The organization has accomplished much for Wards 7 and 8, including garnering community support to build the Anacostia Metro stop. 

Currently, Pannell and the council are sponsoring a poetry contest for middle and high school students on why statehood is important to them personally. 

“They understand what the issue of statehood is all about,” he said. “It’s just so encouraging.”

If statehood passes, the District would be home to the highest percentage of people of color in the United States. That in itself makes the movement a racial justice issue, he said. 

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. 

Pannell has been arrested at several LGBTQ and statehood protests, including a

statehood rally in 1993 with then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and many others for blocking an intersection near the Capitol.

“Being involved in the statehood movement means just as much to me being involved in the struggle for LGBT rights,” he said. 

Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager, 51 for 51 

Rhodes, who identifies as queer, initially moved to Washington from Louisiana to work in gun violence prevention, but was struck when congressional Republicans sought to roll back measures.

“I was a little confused about how Republicans would be able to do that, considering they were local laws, and learned what lack of statehood meant for residents of D.C.,” she said. 

Now, as the campaign manager for 51 for 51, an organization advocating for statehood, she said she sees the movement as “the most intersectional work of our time.”

During a time when voting rights bills are being debated at multiple levels of government, statehood should be a priority, Rhodes said. 

“If we truly want to live up to the ideals of our democracy and fight the current wave of voter suppression sweeping across the country, D.C. must be granted statehood and D.C. residents must be given full voting rights,” Rhodes, 34, said. 

Rhodes comes from a family of advocates stretching back generations. Her grandparents, who lived in rural Louisiana, were active in the early days of the civil rights movement. They would help register people to vote and worked as key organizers in the area, she said. 

“I sort of had the bug early,” she said. 

Barbara Helmick, director of programs, DC Vote 

Barbara Helmick (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Helmick, 70, moved to the District in the late ‘70s. Her first brush with shortfalls due to the lack of statehood was when sodomy was decriminalized in 1981 but quickly overturned by Congress. It was not until 1993 when it was legalized. 

“That was a wake-up call — Congress wouldn’t let this jurisdiction, our locally elected officials, deal with that,” Helmick said.

The District’s lack of power and autonomy is inefficient, she said, and restricts the area from easily drafting and applying laws that work best for the community. 

But press coverage of statehood is a hopeful sign, as well, Helmick said. Activity in the House and Senate is also positive, she said. 

“I am extremely optimistic,” Helmick said. 

Monica Hopkins, executive director, ACLU DC 

Monica Hopkins (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Hopkins, who identifies as bisexual, began leading the District’s ACLU chapter seven years ago after running ACLU Idaho. When she moved to Washington, she said she immediately felt a disconnect because of the lack of federal representation. 

“I don’t think that you can live in D.C. and not feel that disconnect of not having a voice,” she said. “It’s very disempowering.”

Hopkins, 48, said statehood is integral for the District for many reasons. More power would be allotted in approving and crafting budgets, and oversight without congressional votes would end, for example. 

The District’s lack of statehood has intersected with LGBTQ equality issues through the years, she said. In the ‘80s, the District attempted to start a needle exchange program to curb high rates of AIDS. In 1998, Congress banned the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs because of fears the program would encourage drug use. Local municipalities could still use their own money to pay for the program — except the District.

The ban was lifted in 2007, but Washington still sees the ramifications of nixing the program today, Hopkins said. 

“We couldn’t, at the time, do what D.C. residents wanted to do with our own taxpayer money,” she said. 

The District also has no control over its own National Guard, which was highlighted during the Jan. 6 riots when Mayor Bowser was unable to call in reinforcements and was forced to wait on approval from the Pentagon. This showed the rest of the country the issues in the District’s governance, Hopkins said. 

“Some of the most devastating sorts of things can happen when we don’t have control over our own state,” she said. 

John Klenert, chair, DC Vote board 

John Klenert (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Klenert, 72, developed his interest in the movement after writing a paper on voting rights in the District and the 14th amendment while at college at the Catholic University of America. He’s been involved on the fringes of the movement since then and joined DC Vote 10 years ago.

His gay identity is “the icing on the cake” in his advocacy for statehood, he said. 

A scholar of constitutional history, Klenert said statehood is essential in upholding democracy in the United States. 

Other solutions to the lack of representation have been attempted, but he believes statehood would be the most successful avenue in expanding protections to District residents. 

“We live here in the District of Columbia, many, many of us are citizens of this country, which means that we belong to a constitutional democracy,” he said. “And yet, we have no say in how this government is run.”

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D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art

A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up

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After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.

Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com. 

A scene from 2019’s Awesome Con. This year’s event is slated for the weekend of Aug. 20. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information. 

The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.

The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com. 

Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com. 

FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information. 

The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.

 After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out. 

Bob Mould, gay news, Washington Blade
The Bob Mould Band plays 9:30 Club on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup. 

Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

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.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

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.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

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.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

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.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

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.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“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.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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