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Arts & Entertainment

‘Orange is the New Black’ back with riveting final season

Hit Netflix show changed TV forever in multiple ways

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Orange is the New Black, gay news, Washington Blade
Orange is the New Black, gay news, Washington Blade
Taryn Manning (left) and Uzo Aduba in ‘Orange is the New Black.’ (Photo by JoJo Wheldin; courtesy Netflix)

Sometimes the hype is true. When the first 13 episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” dropped on July 11, 2013, it changed the way Americans watched television and the role of women in the broadcast industry, both onscreen and behind the cameras.

Now that the seventh and final season has dropped, it’s time to look back on the tremendous impact the series has had and take a spoiler-free look at the “Beginning of the End” as episode one of the last season is titled.

When the series launched, Netflix was a fledgling streaming service best known for shipping DVDs to your home in red envelopes. With the critical and popular success of “Orange,” Netflix became a major Hollywood player producing television series and eventually movies that earned nominations and trophies from such prestigious organizations as GLAAD, GALECA, the Golden Globes, the Emmys and more.

The show also helped to popularize the concept of “binge watching.” Fans spent entire weekends watching every episode of the first season and the way we watched television began to change.

“Orange” also broke new ground with its realistic portrayal of life in a women’s prison and its treatment of serious social issues. Over the course of the first six seasons, the show explored mass incarceration and the rise of the private prison industry; the tension between punishment and rehabilitation; staff corruption and guard brutality; prison overcrowding and funding cuts; substance abuse; violence against women; the terrible impact of solitary confinement; white privilege, white supremacy, institutionalized racism and the Black Lives Matter movement; and the #MeToo Movement.

In season seven, series creator Jenji Kohan takes on a new issue: the inhumane brutality of ICE detention centers. The detention center is run by the same corporation that runs the prison, but conditions there are even worse. The detainees have even fewer rights than the prisoners and limited contact with friends and family. As one detainee realizes, “nobody knows where we are.”

“Orange” also made great strides in the employment and representation of women in television. The casting of trans actress Laverne Cox as inmate Sophia Burset was a historic move that made Cox into a star and an important trans spokesperson. The casting of comedian Lea DeLaria as Carrie “Big Boo” Black was a milestone in the representation of butch lesbians, especially when she brandished a dildo on screen.

Overall, the cast included a rich spectrum of women of different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities, ages, socio-economic classes and cognitive abilities. The show also explored a wide variety of life-affirming sexual and platonic relationships between women and celebrated the power of female resilience.

In addition, Kohan also emphasized hiring women to write and direct many of the episodes (several of the shows in later season were directed by cast members). The writing throughout the series was first-rate. Kohan and company craftily used flashbacks to fill in character backstories (and to move the action outside of the prison walls). They also effectively used a delicious dark sense of gallows humor to help lighten the heavy material. The direction was smooth and assured, gliding effortlessly between the various characters and plotlines.

Long-term fans of the show will have no trouble gliding into season seven, which picks up where season six ended. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has been released on parole but remains in a long-distance relationship with inmate Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). She’s living with her New Age brother Cal (the very funny Michael Chernus) and is having trouble paying for her monitoring devices while working a dead-end job.

With the help of “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning), Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (the dazzling Uzo Aduba) tries to reconcile with her old friends Cindy “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks). Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) and Galina “Red” Reznikov (the magnificent Kate Mulgrew) find themselves working in a different kitchen facility.

There’s also lots of turnover and turmoil with the prison staff and their families.

Finally, fan favorites Diane Guerrero (as Maritza Ramos) and Laura Gómez (as Blanca Flores) return as former inmates who are detained during an ICE raid.

If you didn’t watch the first six seasons (and don’t have time to binge-watch over 80 hours of previous episodes) can you start “Orange Is the New Black” midstream? The answer is a resounding yes. The large cast and overlapping plot lines an be daunting at first but it’s easy to read up on the backstory online.

For fans old and new, the seventh and final season of this ground-breaking series is well worth watching. The show digs deeply into some of the most troubling issues of these turbulent times and asks difficult questions that we all must grapple with.

As Suzanne asks, “Do I deserve to be here?” Or, as Gloria and Red discuss, “How do we get back to who we were before?”

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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Arts & Entertainment

NSYNC star Lance Bass & husband Michael Turchin welcome twins

Singer, husband, and popular West Hollywood nightclub owner, now adds the job of ‘Dad’ to his resume

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Lance Bass and Michael Turchin via Instagram

WEST HOLLYWOOD – Former boy-band NSYNC star and co-owner of the popular LGBTQ+ nightspot Rocco’s, Lance Bass, announced that he and husband Michael Turchin are the proud parents of twins, Violet Betty and Alexander James.

In his announcement on Instagram, Bass wrote; ‘The baby dragons have arrived!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ I can not express how much love I feel right now. Thank you for all the kind wishes. It meant a lot. Now, how do you change a diaper??! Ahhhhhhhh!”

The babies were carried via surrogate, the singer noted saying that Alexander, born one minute before his sister on Wednesday, weighed 4 lbs., 14 oz. Violet weighed 4 lbs., 11 oz. Bass said in his Instagram post.

His husband also announced the news on his Instagram account. “Introducing the newest members of the Turchin-Bass household: Violet Betty and Alexander James!!!! They’re pure perfection and yes that includes the dozens of poops we’ve already dealt with. Our hearts our full!!! Thank you everyone for the well wishes 🥰🥰🥰”

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