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Lily Tomlin on why she’s happy she lost the Emmy this year — and a whole lot more

Comedy legend on Fonda, Travolta, Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner and her nearly 50-year career

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Lily Tomlin, gay news, Washington Blade

Lily Tomlin says her comedy was too ‘off the wall’ for a ‘Carol Burnett Show’-type series in the ‘70s. (Photo courtesy Tomlin)

Lily Tomlin

 

Wednesday, Oct. 17

 

8 p.m.

 

Kennedy Center Concert Hall

 

2700 F St., N.W.

 

$39-129

 

kennedy-center.org

It’s Tuesday, Sept. 18, the morning after the Emmy Awards. Lily Tomlin was nominated for her role as Frankie on “Grace and Frankie,” her hit Netflix comedy in which she co-stars with her old pal Jane Fonda. By phone from her home in Los Angeles, Tomlin is thoroughly unfazed at having lost to Rachel Brosnahan for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” 

Tomlin, 79, has seven other Emmys and is only an Oscar short of EGOT status. She spent a delightful near-hour with the Blade by phone — ostensibly to talk about her Oct. 17 show at the Kennedy Center though she was far more animated on a host of other topics. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How were the Emmys?

LILY TOMLIN: Well I was a little bit late. I missed the opening number and then my category was announced and I went backstage to the green room to congratulate Brosnahan. … She was very sweet and everything like that. Then out in the hallway I ran into Betty White so we took a photo. She’s totally charming. Her birthday is Capricorn so she’s very much like my mom and she could be my mom, that’s what’s staggering.

BLADE: Was there anybody else you were particularly rooting for?

TOMLIN: Not so much. I don’t want to be blase about the Emmys but there’s so much product, I mean there’s no way they can embrace all the product. There’s something like 450 shows on the air probably that run every week at least part of the year. That’s just staggering. 

BLADE: Do you watch many of them?

TOMLIN: I only watch an infinitesimal fraction of them. I watch all the obvious ones, you know. “Ozark,” that’s sort of a creeper. When “Homeland’s” on I watch “Homeland.” “Billions.” I used to watch “Orange is the New Black” but I sort of got — well, you lose track of it. A new show comes along and you start watching that for a season or two then you gotta double back and see way into some other show you loved and it’s just too much. There’s no way any one person could watch all the shows for a whole year, never mind having to earn a living or anything.

BLADE: I don’t even know how the critics do it.

TOMLIN: I don’t even know if they do do it. I think they just run through one or two and they take a little consensus. I don’t think they can do it. Maybe somebody has laid out the statistics so they know that golly, it is possible but I’d be more hard pressed I guess. (laughs)

BLADE: Do you dream of winning the Oscar to complete the set?

TOMLIN: I think I probably have missed that chance.

BLADE: Well you never know.

TOMLIN: No, you never do know but as you get older, it’s very hard to come by older parts. And of course I have that idea alive but by that time it’s not gonna matter. It’s getting ridiculous. There was a time when everybody was focused on somebody coming along and, “Oh, she’s got an EGOT.” I’ve satisfied myself because I have two Peabodys. I said, “Well, if I did have an Oscar, I’d have a PEGOT. I wonder how many more people have a PEGOT.” (laughs)

BLADE: Probably none.

TOMLIN: Maybe, I don’t know. But it’s like all things in life. It’s not that it’s not exciting or fun or you value it or you’d like to win but frankly, I did not want to win last night. I didn’t want to win when Jane Fonda wasn’t nominated. So when she was nominated we’d go to the Emmys together and we’d feel pretty satisfied we weren’t gonna be called to the front because we knew we’d split the vote. You never really know. You don’t know what the count is, but I didn’t relish winning and plus I feel a little bit somewhat estranged from the multitude of shows that are on. I used to have friends on every show or I’d really be able to grasp the whole industry in an armload but times change. The Emmys will probably eventually evolve into something else. I’ve been a governor at the Academy and it’s a very hard thing to do. You have to have someone who has the brains to figure out what’s coming down the pike and how they should handle it. I think time will just take care of that.

BLADE: Are you still shooting season five?

TOMLIN: No, we finished that and we’re gonna start season six in January so we’re chugging along. We really do love doing the show.

BLADE: How long does it take to shoot a season?

TOMLIN: Four-five months but we have a little time. We put some hiatuses in there and we really like that. So we’ll work like three-four weeks and have a week off. And as time has gone on, the other characters, their lives have gotten more developed and so it used to be very heavy on the shoulders of Jane and me to handle the story because they had to establish our characters strongly first and now everybody else has a life going on and there’s a lot of interaction now so we’re able to have this time off. We just have fun, that’s all. I adore Sam (Waterston) and Martin (Sheen) and my kids. I even love Jane’s kids.

BLADE: Critics have said the show found its footing more in the second and third seasons. Would you agree?

TOMLIN: Yeah, I guess we found it as we went along because whoever was gonna develop that story, they were finding it too. I don’t think anybody had that story thought out completely. I don’t think any show ever does. It evolves as you go along. When I did “Damages” on FX, it was exciting because we were playing such bad people. We were always getting into some dreadful mischief. It was based on the Madoff family and we never knew how bad we were and they never told us. So we would sort of play it by ear. … We’d stand around and we were always having to play both sides of the road because we were hoping we were gonna be really bad. We’d stand around and say, “Do you think Joe would kill his mother, do you think she would kill her son …” (laughs) We were just really deep into it. So with “Grace and Frankie,” especially the beginning season, we had to adjust how we all behaved. … Like that scene on the beach when Jane and I are doing peyote and we’d sort of hit bottom with our husbands taking off and all that. When we played that one scene where she’s saying, “You know, why aren’t you mad and upset,” and all that stuff, and I’d say, “No, he didn’t know what he was doing, he couldn’t do it any other way and that’s all he could do,” and then she’d say, “How can you just take it” or something like that and then I broke down and said, “I’m heartbroken.” I didn’t really expect that.

BLADE: What’s it like working with Jane now versus 30 years ago? Has she mellowed or not mellowed or anything noticeably like that?

TOMLIN: I feel like she’s the same person. She’s always growing and always learning and changing and developing herself and trying to make everything better so I don’t even want to say she hasn’t changed because I’m sure she has changed for the better in many ways but I can’t just put my finger on it because she’s a really good person. Even when she’s being really direct, it’s because she wants to make things better for everbody. Like she’ll say to someone on the set, “You need a haircut.” Somebody else would just be devastated if somebody of Jane’s position on the show should go in and tell somebody that but sure enough, the person would go in and somebody would cut their hair and they’d look really great and it was just like she has an eye for it and she can’t help being that direct. It’s like, “God, we gotta fix this right now,” but never in a hurtful way. She’s really a wonderful friend to me.

BLADE: Are you in “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” her new documentary?

TOMLIN: I’m in it briefly in the beginning and then a little bit in the middle someplace. 

BLADE: Have you seen it yet?

TOMLIN: Yeah, we had a big screening and then Jane and I went up to San Francisco the next morning to lobby for one fair wage and we didn’t get home til midnight that night so we were beat. We had the movie until 10:30, 11 or so then we had to be up and out of the house by 7 so sometimes we’re just doing so much, we’re on the run all the time.

BLADE: How did you like it?

TOMLIN: I liked it. I thought it was rather epic. She has lived such a full life. 

BLADE: How has Netflix been to work for?

TOMLIN: Netflix is great. It’s good. It’s good except we don’t know how successful we are. Our agents don’t even know. They just know it’s popular.

BLADE: So there’s no ratings or any way to gauge it?

TOMLIN: No, you never really know. It’s not like being on network and knowing you’re number whatever in a roster and you know how much the network wants to keep you or not keep you. It can work two ways. It can make you feel very familial with the boss man or it can make you rebel.

BLADE: Well you never know what kind of footing you’re on.

TOMLIN: Yeah, exactly. But they’re basically fun and the people at Netflix and Skydance, which is the producing partner of Okay Goodnight!, which is Marta Kauffman’s company, they all have a hand in it.

BLADE: How long would you like to see “Grace and Frankie” run?

TOMLIN: I think about eight years. Jane says she wants it to run until we’re both really old and everybody watches us age. I think that would be a good touchstone for people.

BLADE: Do you think sitcoms tend to run out of gas after about eight or 10 years?

TOMLIN: You mean the content?

BLADE: Yeah. It gets repetitious.

TOMLIN: Well I don’t know, we haven’t done it. Did “Seinfeld” run out? They were on nine years or something like that I think. “Murphy (Brown)” was 10 years.

BLADE: Are you gonna be on the reboot of that? (Tomlin played Kay on seasons nine-10)

TOMLIN: No, there’s no plans for me to be.

BLADE: What do you think of all these reboots? Is it a good thing or just a sign that they’re desperate for something with built-in name recognition?

TOMLIN: Well as with anything, it depends what’s done with it, who’s hand is in it. Is it innovative? Is it fresh? Can they find a freshness in those relationships? Now “Murphy” has a good chance because they’re gonna be very political and I think Candice’s character is very timely in that she has always been an independent woman. She’s assertive, she’s in a very timely, professional field and it’s been a long time since they’ve been on. Twenty years or more, maybe more.

BLADE: I read that “Grandma” was shot in just 19 days. Was it nerve wracking shooting that quickly?

TOMLIN: No, no it was great. The actors were so good and I adored (director) Paul Weitz. I’d done “Admission” with him and then he came back to me with “Grandma” and no, it wasn’t nerve wracking at all. It was rather fun. I thought that would be my last crack at an Oscar. I got a lot of great notices in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and all those papers but it just never took off. It was never a big enough hit to attract attention, maybe because of the subject, I don’t know. But I liked that little film very much.

BLADE: That was a decent hit relative to its budget. It must be quite gratifying to still be having hits with that and “Grace and Frankie.”

TOMLIN: Yeah, no of course it is. (laughs) Anything is fun that keeps you in the game.

BLADE: How did you get so chummy with (British cabaret singer) Mabel Mercer (1900-1984)? 

TOMLIN: Oh Mabel Mercer, now you’re taking me back so far. Well what happened is I used to work at Upstairs at the Downstairs. I was in a revue there initially with Dixie Carter and Madeline Kahn and Irv Haber who owned the club, Mabel Mercer used to do Mabel’s Room downstairs which was this small little blot kind of room and it was just ideal for her and it used to be her room. Joan Rivers came along and made a huge splash and she was there on weekends and Mabel would come in like Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays so Irv asked me to open for her. I had gone to see her in the old days when she was playing like, oh, what was it, the Bonsoirs or whatever that club was on 8th Street. My friend Louis and I would walk down there and we’d have like a quarter for the coat check and that would be it. The bar would be stacked so thick, you could stand there for a whole set and never even buy a drink. So when Irv gave me the chance to open for her, I just jumped at it. I think I was a little radical for Mabel’s crowd at the time. There’d be a lot of stars there at the late shows and I remember (‘30s actress) Patsy Kelly was one of the women and they were like of another generation. They were kind of very mouthy and loquacious and they’d speak out and catch you in all kinds of stuff. I used to do a funeral sketch where I’d use a ventriloquist dummy as the corpse to cheer up the crowd and Patsy jumps up and says, “OK, that’s enough of that, we don’t need to see that.” They didn’t like that subject and of course maybe as you get closer to death you don’t. So I lived in Yonkers and I’d go pick Mabel up in Harlem. She stayed there with relatives because she lived in Rockland County and I would go pick her up in Harlem and we’d drive to the club and then I’d take her back to Yonkers and having those times with Mabel Mercer was so fabulous. She was so wonderful, so human, so elegant and so down to earth. One time she said to me, “You know, Lily —   I would just love to get a commercial.” And this was a time when we didn’t really do commercials, not those of us who had any consciousness. We thought it was terrible that these big companies would co-opt artists into their commercial activities but she had a girlfriend who’d gotten a Tide commercial and bought herself a fur coat and she thought that was great. I loved her so much. I used to go to Cleo’s and different clubs around New York and she would make me cry so much. Laugh and then cry at the way she could interpret a song. She had no voice left really. Her voice was very limited but she was so brilliant and she would be so moving and entertaining. I cried into napkins then glued them into my scrapbook. I need to go over to the office and see if I still have all that stuff.

BLADE: Were you close to Madeline and Dixie?

TOMLIN: I was closer to Madeline. … They’re both dead now and it’s just terrible. Madeline especially died really early. Anyway as Ruth Draper would say, “Well, that’s that.”

BLADE: You grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Detroit. Did you know or know of Aretha and Smokey and all those folks?

TOMLIN: I was but I didn’t know them personally. I knew of them. I knew of Motown and I knew of everything but I didn’t really know them. I later met Diana Ross and she introduced me to Michael Jackson. He was really quite a kid but I didn’t really hang with them. They wren’t within like a two- or three-block radius of the apartment house I lived in.

BLADE: With all those TV specials you did in the ‘70s, was there ever talk of you having your own variety show?

TOMLIN: Well all those specials were supposed to be pilots for variety shows. I did six of them — four for CBS and two for ABC and I had huge ratings, especially for the first couple. The second special I did for CBS, Freddie Silverman wasn’t going to air it. He screamed at my manager Irene, “He said this $360,000 — they only cost $360,000 in those days — jerk-off.” Then he had breakfast with Alan Alda, and Alan Alda was on it, and he said, “Oh, I just had the greatest time doing Lily Tomlin’s special,” and Fred Silverman went back and looked at it again and he relented and they put it on at 10 o’clock that night and we got two Emmys, best special and best writing. 

BLADE: Why do you think they never got picked up?

TOMLIN: It was unusual for its time and that was the last gasp of variety shows until something like “Saturday Night Live” comes along and “Fridays.” “Fridays” was a fairly successful show too. … You can’t predict a lot of this stuff. My shows were just too off the wall basically at that time but they weren’t off the wall, they were right on the wall. They were really good, most of them. When they didn’t really interfere with us, we’d go haywire.

BLADE: Jane says the “9 to 5” sequel is a go. What’s the status of that?

TOMLIN: It’s being written. Then we’ll have our input but we can only wait for the first draft and see how that goes. But they want it quite badly so I think they’ll keep working on it til it’s greenlighted.

BLADE: It’s so many years later. Was there serious talk of doing something sooner?

TOMLIN: There was constant talk of it. Before (director) Colin (Higgins) died, he had written a draft that would have starred Jane, Dolly (Parton) and me. Now we’ll be paired with a younger generation although we’ll figure prominently in the story but there’ll be other aspects of the story that would not have been present if we’d done it immediately after the original. At one point, Jada Pinkett Smith optioned it and they were gonna do it with an all-black cast. That never came to fruition and Jane Fonda had given up the rights in some fashion so she didn’t even have control of it at that time. Now it’s come back around to us again.

BLADE: Does performing at the Kennedy Center have any special resonance for you since you have the Honors and the Twain Prize or is it just like performing anywhere else?

TOMLIN: Well the last time I was there, I did “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” so I’m not doing that show at the moment but I’m doing something character driven. I use some video, mostly to make fun of myself or to reflect on a character’s development from many years before. I like to think of my act as a roller coaster ride and you never know when that drop is gonna come. I just like to keep things mixed up.

BLADE: Does Ernestine have anything to say about the current administration?

TOMLIN: She probably has plenty to say but she won’t be saying it this evening. I don’t think she will. Unless she and Trump get into a Tweeting war (laughs).

BLADE: Did you and John Travolta hit it off making “Moment by Moment” (1978)?

TOMLIN: Yeah. He could do my characters, especially Trudy the bag lady. He was a darling guy. I loved him a lot. He was really cute, really sweet. Only about 23 or something.

BLADE: Have you seen him recently?

TOMLIN: Yeah, I’ve run into him. I’ve seen him at the theater or at award shows, especially when he was doing O.J. Oh, who did he play? He was very good. He’s a good actor. He sent me a congratulations on my Emmy nomination.

BLADE: How is (your wife) Jane (Wagner) these days? What’s she up to?

TOMLIN: She’s wonderful, terrific, fabulous.

BLADE: Does she enjoy being more behind the scenes?

TOMLIN: I think she does prefer that. She’s much more introspective than I am. But, you know, if she does something she likes to be acknowledged for it. We’ve tried hard to do that over the years. I used to have to write to Ted Koppel. He used to say, “As Lily Tomlin says …,” during the tenure of “Search,” there were so many great lines in “Search,” and it was true, I did say it but Jane wrote it. I’d say, “Ted, you’ve got to acknowledge Jane for this line.” 

BLADE: Are you working on anything together now?

TOMLIN: We’re mostly working on producing stuff. We’re working on a show on the pulp novels of the ‘50s. I don’t know if you know them or not, but Ann Bannon’s books about Beebo Brinker who is a lesbian in the Village in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

BLADE: Where would one have purchased those books then?

TOMLIN: You’d get ‘em off a low grade news stand or in a little kiosk that wasn’t in your home town. It was always kind of furtive. God forbid somebody would see one in a drawer in your house or something.

BLADE: Were they as kitschy at the time as they seem now?

TOMLIN: No, they weren’t.

BLADE: They seem like total kitsch now.

TOMLIN: Yeah, they’re pretty kitschy but they were rather heart felt. We’re trying to make a series of it.

BLADE: Will it be cheeky or straight? 

TOMLIN: Well I think it may be in the eye of the beholder.

BLADE: What do you like to do when you have a day off at home? Do you like to piddle around the house and cook?

TOMLIN: Yeah, I like to be at home. I have Cancer rising so my home is important to me. I have an Aries moon, so I’m volatile. Then I have a Virgo sun, if all this stuff is true and applicable.

BLADE: Did you see the new Gilda (Radner) documentary?

TOMLIN: No. Someone sent me a notice to go to a screening but I had to work that night but I’m really anxious to see it. Gilda was so dear. She was a little bit younger and whereas  I was good friends with Madeline and Dixie, I never really got to be close to Gilda except we were both from Detroit and I was on “Saturday Night Live” a few times.

BLADE: It’s nice to see her getting some dues a little bit with this.

TOMLIN: Oh yeah. None of the girls on “SNL” really got any kind of real celebration. The guys went on to make movie after movie and it didn’t even matter how they did. They always had one in the can, one in the planning and one on the boards so it one was failing, they always had two more chances. Gilda never really had any great vehicle written for her or anything like that. 

BLADE: Thank you.

TOMLIN: Wow, you were pretty Johnny on the questions spot. I hope I gave you something to work with. 

Lily Tomlin with Paul Weitz on the set of her hit 2015 movie ‘Grandma.’ (Photo by Glen Wilson; courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

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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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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

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Billy Porter appearing on Tamron Hall's show Wednesday (Screenshot via YouTube)

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.

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Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters

Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark

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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.

The final season of “Pose” will begin to air on FX on Sunday, May 2, at 10 p.m. ET. (Photos courtesy of FX)

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