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March on Washington Film Festival boasts stellar queer content

Hybrid format features films, panel discussions, theater, and VR lab

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Filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton shines a spotlight on Black barbershops at the March on Washington Film Festival. (Photo by Brian Brigantti)

Kevin Kodama, a 26-year-old, queer, Asian-American filmmaker, was saddened and angered by the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. Then, he was a student studying film at San Francisco State University. “One of my professors encouraged me to channel my feelings {about the hate crimes} into a short film,” Kodama told the Blade.

Kodama took his professor’s advice. He wrote and directed “Shikata Ga Nai,” a poignant, compelling fantasy romance, set in a Japanese concentration camp where a lesbian couple attempts to reconcile their relationship as ghosts.

Kodama is one of the many filmmakers, theater legends and civil rights heros whose work will be showcased and honored at the March on Washington Film Festival (MOWFF) 2022 from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2.

MOWFF, in a hybrid in person and streaming format, will feature films, panel discussions, theatrical performances and the first-ever VR {virtual reality} Equity Lab in the Nation’s Capital. 

From its honorees to its emerging filmmakers, the Festival has a strong queer quotient.  

In its 10th year, the Festival celebrates African-American legends of theater and film who have advanced civil rights. Its theme this year is “STORY, STAGE & SCREEN.” To purchase tickets to the Festival, click here.

MOWFF was founded in 2013 on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Now in its 10th year, the Festival uses the power of film, music, scholarship to tell untold stories of the  unsung heroes of the American Civil Rights movement. The Festival shares these narratives to connect the past to the present and the future. For information about the Festival go to: marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.

MOWFF is committed to highlighting stories at the intersection of racial and LGBTQIA+ justice, David Andrusia, executive director of the Festival, told the Blade.

“We want to correct stories that have been mistold,” Andrusia, who is gay, said, “Too many are silenced and kept from telling their stories.”

This year, the Festival will bestow the John Lewis Lifetime Legacy Award to Rep. Barbara Lee, a founding member and a Vice Chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and the Chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus.

MOWFF2022’s other honorees are George C. Wolfe, Tony-winning director of “Angels in America” whose upcoming film “Bayard Rustin” celebrates the gay rights legend, and pioneering lesbian publicist and producer Irene Gandy, a two-time Tony Award-winner. 

Lewis, Wolfe and Gandy will be honored on the Festival’s opening night.

Gandy, 78, is glad that MOWFF is being held now.  “So that young people can learn about and remember Black community activists and artists who’ve fought for civil rights,” she told the Blade.

It’s important that people not forget that Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson  and other artists were part of the 1963 March on Washington, Gandy said. “We have to honor the legacy and continue the activism of these artists,” she added.

Gandy doesn’t go into meetings thinking “I’m Black” or “I’m gay.” “That deafeats everything for everybody. It crowds all the good things out.”

There’s a long way to go, but things are changing, Gandy, who for over 50 years has been the only Black female press agent member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM).

“There are more Black shows now – with Black actors and produces,” she said, “with more Black managers making decisions.”

In addition to being a groundbreaking press agent and producer, Gandy is a fashionista. In 2008, she became the first female press agent to be immortalized with a Sardi’s caricature. Known for her furs, in 2015, Gandy launched 

a signature collection featured in “Vogue” and her Lady Irene Fur line debuted earlier this year.

On a recent evening as she walked out of a theater on to Broadway, Gandy had an awesome encounter with a father and his five-year-old child. “The child was trans,” she said, “the child was biologically a boy. But when the Dad called him by a boy’s name, the child said ‘I’m a girl.’”

“This little, trans person didn’t know who I was – that I had won the Tonys,” Gandy said, “but she said to me ‘I love your style!’”

If they know who they are, everyone has a story to tell, she added.

The stories to be highlighted at the Festival include “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back,” an intimate portrait of the trailblazing Black entertainer; “Mankiller,” a documentary about Wilma Mankiller, who became the Cherokee Nation’s first Principal Chief in 1985; and “The Defenders,” about lawyers who fought for civil rights in Mississippi in the early years of the civil rights movement.

After his meeting with his professor, Kodama had the idea of doing a story set in the concentration camps where Japanese Americans were interred during World War II. 

“It’s a way of bridging the history of anti-Asian policies of that time with the anti-Asian racism and hate crimes of today,” he said.

Queer people who were interred during the War had to be closeted. “For most of the decades after the War, queer people were left out of stories told about the camps,” Kodama said.

“Because of homophobia – discomfort with queerness,” he added, “people didn’t talk about it. Same-sex couples had to pass as friends.”

“Shikata Ga Nai” was filmed on the site of one of the camps – Manzanar in Inyo County, California (a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service). “One of the nice things about my film is it will get people to talk about it {queer people in the camps} who haven’t talked about it.” (The film will be shown at MOWFF as part of the Student and Emerging Filmmaker Competitions.)

Derrick L. Middleton, a talented, 35-year-old, Black, gay filmmaker, uses his art to tell stories.

Middleton, born in Harlem in New York City, knew as a little boy that he was different. “I wasn’t yet labeled as ‘gay,’ but I felt like I didn’t fit in,” he told the Blade.

“It felt unnatural to try to be masculine in the way I was expected to be,” he added.

He, like other Black queer men, ran up against hyper-masculinity, when he went to a barbershop.

“Barbershops are critically important to the Black community,” Middleton said, “I want to honor them.”

When Black people were enslaved, one of the few things they could learn was how to cut hair, Middleton said. “When they were freed, owning a barbershop was one of the few businesses they could run,” he added.

But, heteronormity rules in many Black barbershops. Subtle or overt anti-queer slur often make you feel unsafe if you’re queer and Black in a Black barbershop.

“I had already come out to my family and friends,” Middleton said, “but I felt, to be safe, I had to go back into the closet when I went to a the barbershop.”

One day, he became angry and scared when he went to a Black barbershop. “The barber told me that he didn’t cut hair for sissies,” Middleton said.

He was so frightened that he couldn’t think of anything to say and ran out of the barbershop.

Out of this experience, Middleton made “Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop,” an eye-opening, engrossing, moving documentary short about the stories of himself and other queer Black men in Black barbershops. The film premiered in 2016 at the White House and was awarded the Grand Prize for Emerging Documentary by the March on Washington Film Festival.

“I never thought that I, a boy who grew up in Harlem, would get an award at a White House ceremony when the country had a Black president,” Middleton said, “It was a dream come true.”

This year, Middleton has been selected for a VR Equity Lab and Fellowship. His work will be showcased in the Festival’s VR Equity Lab. Middleton’s VR Equity Lab project “Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop” (The Series). The series is a spinoff that takes viewers on a journey to barbershops from different countries in the African Diaspora, using 360-degree video and animated interactive scenes to give viewers an immersive experience from the perspective of LGBTQ people.

“I hope that the Series will be mainstreamed on a platform like Hulu or Netflix,” Middleton said, “so that people who aren’t able to access it through VR will be able to see it.” 

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Music & Concerts

DC Different Drummers Jazz Band to perform ‘Oasis’

Performance by combo ‘2nd Independence’ scheduled

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The DC Different Drummers Jazz Band will perform on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 3 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Central Library.

This concert, titled “The Oasis,” will feature the 20-person big band playing jazz pieces in a variety of styles, from swing to bossa nova to jazz fusion and more. There will also be a performance from the improvisational jazz combo, 2nd Independence.

Admission is free and more details are available on the event’s website

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Out & About

Smithsonian Zoo programming is back

Family-friendly Halloween event begins Oct. 28

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute will host “Boo at the Zoo” starting on Friday, Oct. 28 at 5:30 p.m. 

This is a family-friendly Halloween event that includes special after-hours access for animal viewing at the Elephant Community Center, Small Mammal House, Reptile Discovery Center, Great Ape House and Think Tank, a Halloween souvenir treat bag, dance party and 30 trick-or-treat stations around the festively decorated Zoo. 

Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased on the Smithsonian’s website.

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Theater

‘Hamilton’ star boosting Afro-Latinx, queer representation

Gonzalez and partner launch DominiRican Productions

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Pierre Jean Gonzalez (Photo courtesy Ambe J. Photography)

‘Hamilton’
Through Oct. 9
The Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., N.W.
$59–$399
Kennedy-center.org

For gay Latinx actor Pierre Jean Gonzalez, playing the title Founding Father in the national tour of “Hamilton” isn’t just another part.

“It’s a powerful thing,” says Gonzalez, recognizing the enormity of the job. “We all learned history in school. We know who’s who when we look at a textbook; but when people who look like you are telling the story, it shifts.”

Currently moored to the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 9, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal 2015 sung-and-rapped through musical presents early American history in a novel and inclusive way, focusing on the life experience of one man. With 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the show continues to be the hottest draw in town wherever it pitches its tent. 

“When I step on stage as Hamilton, I’m continually amazed by the pandemonium in the audience, especially the younger fans. If we miss a single lyric, the children know,” he says. 

“It’s a drama, a soap, and an action movie. An ambitious immigrant, Hamilton pushes through obstacles, creates his own narrative, and doesn’t throw away a shot. Audiences like that.”

Reared in a housing project in the Bronx as the only boy in a Dominican/Puerto Rican family it wasn’t cool to be queer, says Gonzalez. So, he played it straight until his second year at Rutgers University when a comfortably out friend inspired him to follow suit. Back at home, the family wasn’t all that surprised, he adds with a chuckle.

Navigating through life as his authentic self gives Gonzalez a leg up. He explains, “I think feeling more connected and open makes me a better actor.”

As a drama student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Gonzalez spent a life-altering junior year studying Shakespeare at the Globe in London: “For me the metronome, cadence, the words and music in ‘Hamilton’ are very much connected to Shakespeare, and that’s why I’m here now.”

After school, despite finding an agent and auditioning, those first four years weren’t good. “For a Latinx actor with my look there were three roles: thug #3, a dishwasher, or hitman.”

He was dismayed. Despite possessing training, talent, energy, and good looks, casting agents didn’t see him as a leading man. But with “Hamilton,” the industry changed and so did Gonzalez’s self-perception: “Finally, I knew I was the right choice to play a leading man.”

In total, Gonzalez has toured with “Hamilton” for five years counting 18 months of “pandemic nothingness,” he says. Before being promoted to playing Alexander Hamilton in August of 2021, he was standby, covering Hamilton, Burr (the villain) and Britain’s King George. At a moment’s notice he might have been called on to play one of three tracks. “It was turning me on artistically,” he says. “One of the last crazy days before the pandemic, I was Hamilton for a Saturday matinee and that same evening I was Burr. Not a lot of actors can say that.”

During the early days of the pandemic and before, Gonzalez and his fiancé Cedric Leiba Jr., an Afro-Latino actor, had many conversations surrounding career frustrations. They discussed the challenges faced by actors of color, and how those challenges can be compounded when said actors are also queer.

In 2020, the couple founded DominiRican Productions, an award-winning film production company whose mission is to ramp up Afro-Latinx and queer representation both behind and in front of the camera.

“It kind of happened as a protest,” he explains. “George Floyd had just been killed and the country was starting to look at itself and ask why are Black and Brown bodies treated this way?”

Success has ensued with two collaborative, celebrated shorts — “Release” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get Who?” — both directed by Gonzalez. 

While working with your partner can sometimes be a lot, it also has its advantages, says Gonzalez. He appreciates the pair ultimately always have one another’s back. Also, they’re different in complementary ways. “Cedric is more type A, really gets things done,” says Gonzalez “He keeps me tethered to the ground.” 

For the moment, the affianced actors have put nuptials on the back burner, preferring to invest their time and money in the company. Gonzalez says, “We don’t have kids or a mortgage, the company is our child; it’s what drives us.” 

And what about “Hamilton”? “Another year, maybe longer? Whatever happens, I’m taking it one day at a time and feeling a lot of gratitude,” he says. 

Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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