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Acclaimed composer Craig Johnson brings Matthew Shepard oratorio to LA for Pride

Tragedy translates into musical inspiration at the Ford Theatre

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Craig Hella Johnson will lead Conspirare from piano in his acclaimed oratorio ‘Considering Matthew Shepard.’ Photo by James Goulden. (Courtesy of Conspirare)

Pride is a time for gathering together to celebrate who we are as a community, and how far we have come – but it’s also a time to commemorate the struggles and hardships of the past, so we can be reminded of why the fight for acceptance and equality must still go on.

One of the most resonant reminders is the 1998 tragedy of Matthew Shepard. It was a hate crime that quickly became a cultural touchstone, and inspired profound works of art in all media.

One such work is “Considering Matthew Shepard,” an oratorio composed by renowned composer/conductor Craig Hella Johnson – who will lead his Grammy-winning choir, Conspirare (along with a small instrumental ensemble and projected imagery), in a performance of this acclaimed piece at the Ford Theatre on June 15 and 16.

Johnson wrote the piece in 2012 as his very first full concert-length composition.

Why, so long after it happened, did he choose the Shepard incident as his subject matter?

“It’s really the other way around.  I have this feeling that it chose me.  Obviously, what happened to Matt pierced a lot of our hearts – but the unique aspect for me was the way it continued to knock on my door, like there was something there that wanted to be expressed.  After many years, I had to finally respond to it,” Johnson says.

After fifteen years of percolation, he had strong ideas about how to approach it.

“One area of music that’s really close to me is the ‘Passion’ setting – so, I set out to create a modern version of that.  It’s a framework which focuses on the last suffering days of an iconic life.  It was my hope  that this would be a way to help us remember Matt – and so many other lives that have been lost to hate crimes.  Matt was certainly the most well-known, but there was also James Byrd, that same year, and a whole generation of men and women that have gone unnoticed and unacknowledged,” he says.

It’s not just about remembering, though.

“I love the idea of a musical container, a big piece that can bring people together in a communal way where we can face ourselves together – not in a punishing way, but to the point where we break down some of our defenses.  We can reflect on ourselves, and ask those larger questions – ‘Why does this happen?  What do I have to do with this?’  Even those of us who might think we are on the outside of this, on the innocent side of this – we can ask ourselves how we might participate in the creation of a culture where such events could happen,” Johnson continues.

Johnson says his intention to bring people together is reflected in his musical choices.

“There’s a broad spectrum of musical styles.  There’s certainly some classical, some operatic aria.  But it was important to me that this piece would encompass musical styles that speak to all the people in this ‘tent’ – this family of humanity that is all included in the experience.  So, there’s Gregorian chant, there’s choral polyphony, there’s folk and country, there’s some blues – it’s a real melding of styles for sure,” he explains.

There are parts of the piece that he’s particularly fond of – such as a section with drums where the singers hurl their hurt and their rage into what he calls “a musical bonfire” for a group catharsis – but there is one moment which has special meaning for him.

“It’s when ‘Matt’ becomes ‘Matthew.’  That differentiation came to me from Judy Shepard, when I asked her how she and Dennis carry this deep loss out into the world, this grief that’s always refreshed for them year after year.  She said, ‘Matthew Shepard is the iconic name that travels the world.  We remember Matt, he was our son – that’s our private grief,’” Johnson says.

“I was able to get some of Matt’s journals, from when he was in high school and early college – that was sacred stuff, for me to get to hold those – and I set some of those into the second movement, I call it ‘Ordinary Boy.’  He loved being in the theater, so that section is like musical theater.  We go through this litany of things he loved – it’s really buoyant and fun, kind of effervescent.  And then, later on, there is a tenor solo called ‘In Need of Breath’ where a transformation takes place – this is where Matt becomes Matthew,” he continues.

So how does his oratorio fit into the Age of Trump?

“We had no sense, when we did the premiere, that this whole topic was going to become hyper-relevant again.  That’s why it’s become so meaningful to be singing it again, to be remembering that these things are happening more and more – the numbers have been spiking since November 2016, and our beautiful trans sisters and brothers, they’re just experiencing it so much right now,” he says.

But it’s not just a somber experience – there’s hope in it, too.

“There’s a movement near the end, called ‘All of Us.’  It’s an invitation to drop all these labels that separate us, and really start seeing each other as a human family – to learn how to live with each other, in love and respect,” Johnson says. “It’s a dream that feels far away sometimes.”

He pauses to reflect.

“I remember, as a young boy, having this question in the face of these confounding realities, these acts of hate, — asking myself, in the midst of all this darkness, is there love to be found?  That was my operating question as I went into this project,” Johnson says.

Did he find an answer?

“Yes.  In performing this with my colleagues, and with these extraordinary audiences we’ve encountered, there is something rich in connecting over the experience.  It’s in the ‘doing’ of this that I have found a kind of ‘living’ answer,” Johnson says.

He is hoping to share that answer with you when he brings “Considering Matthew Shepard” to the Ford Theatre in the middle of our month of Pride.

“Considering Matthew Shepard” will be performed at Ford Theatre (2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E, Los Angeles) on June 15 and 16, as part of the City of West Hollywood and WeHo Arts’ One City One Pride.  Tickets are available at FordTheatres.org or by calling 323 461-3673.

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Mama G plans wild Halloween celebration

Join Ariana Grande’s mom for music, costume contests, and more

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By Susan Hornik | HOLLYWOOD – Want to attend an exciting, unique party for Halloween hosted by Ariana and Frankie Grande’s mom? Check out Diamond Dog Entertainment’s inaugural “Mama G’S Halloween Happenings 2021,” which takes over The Bourbon Room Oct. 28-31. 

“I adore Halloween and have been known on the East Coast for hosting grand and wild Halloween parties,” enthused Joan Grande in an exclusive interview with the Los Angeles Blade. “After last year’s pandemic and cancellation of almost every holiday, we were all in desperate need for a Mama G Halloween event!”

The soiree is jam packed with intrigue, and will feature the world premiere of “Horror Camp: A Musical Massacre,” an abundance of live music and costume contests. Halloween-themed food and drinks will also be available for purchase.

“‘Horror Camp,’ is a 80’s and 90’s jukebox musical that spoofs the horror movies of the past,” she noted. “This year we are joined by the greatest cast of people known from Broadway and television: Marissa Jaret Winokur, Frankie Grande, Constantine Maroulis, Emma Hunton, YouTube’s Queen of Reactions, Maya Tomlin, and many other surprise veterans of song, stage, and TV.”

Mama G Grande thinks of Halloween as an “incredibly special” holiday.

“I love the rush and thrill of the unexpected scare, the music associated with Halloween, the strong tones, chords and orchestrations used to create that underlying feeling of fear and fright … sometimes you hear a melody and your hair stands on end, that is wonderfully fun for me,” she explained. I also love the feeling of being free to dress up in a way that perhaps you wouldn’t normally, whether it’s using a lot of makeup, putting on wigs and being in different characters.”

“Following the Musical, the party, which is hosted by Drag Queens greats Shangela and Eureka, continues, with performances as well as their judging our costume parties, with prizes totaling $1,500 each night,” she added.

“I am thrilled to work with Mama G and bring some HalleBOO to Hollywood!” Shangela told the Blade. “Anytime a Grande is involved, whether it’s a family party or a full-out function, I know it’s sure to be a good time!” 

To win the cash prizes, plan on wearing a costume that will stand out.

“Each night is themed — with every costume contest, the main contributing factor for me is EFFORT…and SMART!  I love a well thought out, complete costume…you know, no (grave) stone unturned!” she quipped.

Mama G’s son, Frankie Grande, a fan favorite during his time on CBS’ “Big Brother,” is thrilled that his mom has been working so hard on this event.

“I am so proud of my mom for all that she has achieved in her life as a mother and businesswoman and now she has this overwhelming desire to give back through the arts. I’m so honored to be her partner in Diamond Dog Entertainment. So come party with us this Halloween — we’ll have a gay old time!”

Another highlight of the event: a special midnight screening of the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

“I loved Rocky Horror from a very early age, because of my mother playing it for me as a child and seeing the Broadway show,” said Frankie. “The first time I dressed up as a character from the show was when I was cast as Frank N Furter in the LA production of ‘Rocky Horror.’  And of course ever since then, he is one of my favorite characters to dress up as.”

Even though they have been busy planning the event, Frankie and Mama G have found time to watch television, seeing Ariana make her debut as a judge on NBC’s The Voice.”

“I love everything about Ariana being on ‘The Voice!’ She is a brilliant musician, both technically and naturally gifted, with a heart bigger than the universe, which she doesn’t hesitate to share. I think that is why she is such a gift to the show.”

If you are headed to New York for Halloween, Mama G has activities for you there as well.

“We are producers for a pair of plays on Broadway. ‘Is This A Room,’ which just opened last week to rave reviews including The New York Times’ Critics Pick, and ‘Dana H,’ which opens this weekend. These two plays are about two extraordinary women and their harrowing experiences told in their very own words. I highly recommend that you see these shows when you are in New York City, they are glorious.”Tickets, which start at $39, and VIP packages are now available for purchase online here.

All guests must show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative PCR COVID test within 48 hours. Masks will also be required when guests are not eating or drinking.

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Netflix walkout attracts 100 plus supporters & also a few Chappelle fans

The demonstration comes as backlash over Dave Chappelle’s standup special “The Closer” on Netflix, criticized as being transphobic, continues

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Screenshot of KTLA 5 coverage of the protest

HOLLYWOOD – A walkout of Trans employees and supporters was joined by over 100 additional demonstrators in support of the transgender community outside the Netflix offices at 1341 Vine Street in Hollywood Wednesday and were also met with a handful of Chappelle fans.

Wednesday morning’s demonstration comes as backlash over comedian Dave Chappelle’s standup special “The Closer” on Netflix, which has been criticized as being transphobic, continues.

Organized by Los Angeles community activist Ashlee Marie Preston, the event was held “to underscore the importance of responsible content offerings that prioritize the safety and dignity of all marginalized communities,” Preston wrote in a statement released a couple of days ago.

Netflix had issued a statement prior to the walkout saying: “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

Singer-songwriter, entertainer and community activist Neverending Nina was interviewed by KTLA 5 LA at the demonstration. “As Black trans people, as trans people, as non-binary people, we are ultimately all we have,” she told KTLA’ Erin Myers, while standing among hundreds gathered for the demonstration. “So if we don’t speak up for ourselves, then who will?”

“We just want to make sure that these entities are being held accountable, and actually provide change to better the community that has been dealt trauma by issuing certain propaganda in this space,” she added.

Video of the event showed several participants that carried signs, some that read “transphobia is not a joke” and “Black Trans live Matter.” Several speakers addressed the crowd.

Among the speakers, which included actor and drag performer David Huggard Jr., whose stage name is Eureka O’Hara, was Leon Wu, founder of SharpeHaus. Wu, a designer, entertainment producer and BIPOC trans activist told the Blade after the protest ended;

“It’s time for big entertainment, media and publicity to make a commitment to change. It’s time for us all to take more social responsibility on the content we create, direct, produce and distribute to the world. I mean, just look at what we’ve done to ourselves in the past two years during pandemic. We’ve seen how much misinformation, sensationalized news and irresponsibility in public or social media can do us so…much… harm. It’s time to take more social responsibility on what is ethical comedy and entertainment, what is newsworthy, and what information is positive, helpful or innovative to share in the world.”

A few counter-protesters arrived carrying signs saying “We like Dave” and “We like jokes.”

Counter-protester Gigi Larue said many comedians “take jabs” at everyone.

“You may not like what he has to say, but don’t listen,” said Gigi Larue. “You don’t get to silence his voice and silence the voices of people who support him.”

“Comedy is for everyone, but we also know that there is truth in jokes,” Nina told Myers. “And so we if anyone has not been around a trans person ever in their life but they also have always heard jokes about trans people, then that bias will show up when they finally get introduced to trans person.”

The growing outcry by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and allies since the release earlier this month of the Netflix Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, regarding transphobic and other anti-LGBTQ innuendo and statements by the comedian escalated after the company suspended one of its Trans employees.

After the special aired, Terra Field, an Out Trans Netflix senior software engineer based in San Francisco, posted a series of tweets that expressed anger over Chappelle’s blatant transphobia.

Field in her Twitter thread countered the position laid out by Sarandos, pointing out that Chappelle’s promoting the kind of ideology and speech can result in real-world consequences especially death for Trans people. 

The situation was further enflamed when the company terminated a Black organizer of the pending October 20 walkout by its Trans employees. The employee, “who is Black and currently pregnant, asked not to be named for fear of online harassment.”

Netflix Inc. Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos sparked internal dissent he defended the special and said it wouldn’t translate to real-world harm.

Sarandos later said he “screwed up” in his efforts to communicate with the workers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Stand Up in Solidarity,” will present co-CEO Ted Sarandos with a list of “firm asks” after the demonstration and the protest will feature a PSA from stars including Angelica Ross, Jonathan Van Ness, Jameela Jamil, Eureka O’Hara and Colton Haynes.

Additional reporting and video by Susan Hornik

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Netflix walkout Wednesday morning: “Stand Up in Solidarity”

A walkout is set to happen Wednesday morning at 10:30AM near Netflix’s EPIC building in Hollywood at 1341 Vine Street

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LA Blade Graphic

HOLLYWOOD – A walkout to show solidarity with Trans people and Trans employees of the streaming giant Netflix is set to happen Wednesday morning at 10:30AM at Netflix’s EPIC building in Hollywood.

Organized by community activist Ashlee Marie Preston, the event will feature creators, grassroots organizers and public figures coming together “to underscore the importance of responsible content offerings that prioritize the safety and dignity of all marginalized communities,” Preston wrote in a statement.

The event received an overwhelming response and was shifted Preston announced on Instagram.

The growing outcry by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and allies since the release earlier this month of the Netflix Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, regarding transphobic and other anti-LGBTQ innuendo and statements by the comedian escalated after the company suspended one of its Trans employees.

After the special aired, Terra Field, an Out Trans Netflix senior software engineer based in San Francisco, posted a series of tweets that expressed anger over Chappelle’s blatant transphobia.

Field in her Twitter thread countered the position laid out by Sarandos, pointing out that Chappelle’s promoting the kind of ideology and speech can result in real-world consequences especially death for Trans people. 

The situation was further enflamed when the company terminated a Black organizer of the pending October 20 walkout by its Trans employees. The employee, “who is Black and currently pregnant, asked not to be named for fear of online harassment.”

Netflix Inc. Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos sparked internal dissent he defended the special and said it wouldn’t translate to real-world harm.

Sarandos later said he “screwed up” in his efforts to communicate with the workers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Ahead of the walkout, Netflix issued a statement saying: “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

“Stand Up in Solidarity,” will present co-CEO Ted Sarandos with a list of “firm asks” after the demonstration and the protest will feature a PSA from stars including Angelica Ross, Jonathan Van Ness, Jameela Jamil, Eureka O’Hara and Colton Haynes.

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