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Non-binary actor stars in LA Premiere of Taylor Mac’s “Hir”

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Zack Gearing, Cynthia Kania and Puppett star in the LA premiere of Tayor Mac’s “Hir” at the Odyssey Theatre (photo by Ron Sossi)

After bringing two live extravaganzas to Los Angeles in the last two years, Taylor Mac – the boundary-pushing playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer – has gained an enthusiastic audience among local theatre-goers.

Mac (who uses “judy,” lowercase sic, not as a name but as a gender pronoun) has received multiple awards – including the Kennedy Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, two Bessies, two Obies, the McArthur “Genius” Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship – and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in America.”

Now, one of “judy’s” most acclaimed plays is being mounted by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, which will open its 50th anniversary season with the L.A. premiere of “Hir.”

The word “hir” is a gender-neutral, third-person singular object pronoun that replaces the use of him or her.  According to Mac, “The title is a metaphor.  It’s pronounced ‘here,’ and I enjoy the duality of something being about gender and also about place.”

Hilarious and terrifying, “Hir” is a dysfunctional family dramedy for a new era: a highly intelligent, heartfelt, and deeply humorous portrayal of a family in crisis – in which domestic abuse, the trauma of war and the acceptance of gender neutrality are illustrated in a nearly absurd, emotionally gripping, intensely real dynamic.  Somewhere in the American suburbs, Isaac, dishonorably discharged from his tour in Afghanistan, has returned home to discover a household in revolt.  The insurgent: his mom. Liberated from an oppressive marriage to Isaac’s father by his debilitating stroke, and with Max, Isaac’s newly out transgender sibling, as her ally, Paige is on a crusade to dismantle the patriarchy.

The play, like most of Mac’s work, is an outrageous exploration of American culture; described in the press release as “a darkly funny, shockingly absurd and endlessly surprising vision of a world in transition,” it’s cut from the same edgy, theatrical cloth that Mac is known and lauded for.

Even so, director Bart DeLorenzo asserts that, at its core, “Hir” is really “a classic American play,” with all the familiar elements of the gritty, “kitchen sink” dramas written by such 20th-century playwrights as Arthur Miller.

“It’s set in a family home,” he explains.  “There’s a family with conflicts, with secrets; there’s a son who’s coming home from the war and everything is changing.”

From there, however DeLorenzo says the play takes the formula and “sets it spinning.” He is also quick to point out that, despite its old-school roots, “Hir” is up-to-the-minute contemporary.  “It’s about the future of America and how we might break into the next moment.”

He continues, “This country, in its defining documents, was seeking to transition from autocratic rule to individual rights, but how far did we get?”  He says the play’s argument is “the opposite of the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan – unless you’re willing to overlook and ignore quite a lot, this country has never been great, it has never lived up to the promise of its constitutional freedoms. But, from this point on, many voices contend, it will have to.”

In the course of the play, Mac covers a lot of topics that are at the center of the “culture wars” in today’s America; not surprisingly for an artist known for challenging gender norms, some of the most prominent themes have to do with queer identity and the need to move beyond binary understanding.

Key to this aspect of the production is Puppett, a non-binary actor who plays Max – the newly transitioning teen-ager who gives voice to a lot of its edgiest ideas – and who says “Hir” couldn’t be more timely.

Non-binary actor Puppett portrays Max in Odyssey Theatre’s LA premiere of Taylor Mac’s “Hir” (photo courtesy Puppett)

“Where we’re at right now,” they say, “is the breakthrough into the mainstream of talking about the existence of transgender people – which is good – but it’s mostly been from a binary standpoint, of transitioning from one gender to the other.  The play introduces the conversation that there are more than two genders.”

Puppett believes that Max’s position in the play’s family dynamic is an essential part of getting the message across.  “Paige [the mother] gives a lot of importance to Max’s ideas about the ‘doing away’ of binaries,” they say, “and that allows for the audience to hear them more than they would otherwise.”

“Max is in a place in their life that makes sense for a seventeen-year-old,” they continue, “where they have a lot of ideas that are ‘facts’ for a couple days and then everything changes – everything feels like it’s the ‘truth’ but the ‘truth’ is always changing.  That’s true of everyone in the play but I think it’s the most age-appropriate for Max.”

Puppett says this youthful perspective provides a comedic element that is crucial to opening minds.  “There’s importance in looking at who Max is,” they say, “but also there’s a lot of humor in the extreme of them and the things they say, and I think that people who identify with Max will also be able to laugh at themselves through the things that Max says.”

“It’s a really great comedy,” they continue, “which is not always obvious from the synopsis.  It’s really funny, and it gives equal weight to the absurdity of each character.  That makes things more accessible, so I’m hoping that people who are less familiar with some of the topics will be able to have it as an easier access point.”

That doesn’t mean “Hir” makes light of the difficult questions it raises.  Puppett says, “There’s a lot left for you to chew on after the play’s over.  I think it brings up more questions than answers, which is ultimately useful.”

They add, “The play does a good job of teaching the audience through the characters being taught, without placing all the burden on the queer character – which I think is really smart.  All of the characters are exploring and changing, and it pushes the audience into the same space by the end.”

That doesn’t mean Puppett doesn’t feel some weight on their shoulders.  “It’s a role which can be seen as representing a large portion of the queer community,” they say.  “One role can’t speak for everyone, but some people in the audience might perceive it that way, and that does feel like a large responsibility.”

Asked whether it’s intimidating to take on such a key role in a play by one of America’s most original and important contemporary voices, Puppett stops to consider.

“That part of it hasn’t occurred to me yet,” they say.  “But if I think about it hard enough, it might be, so I’m gonna try not to.”

 

“Hir” runs January 19 – March 17 at The Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025).  For exact performance schedule, reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.

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Notables

Equality Florida’s Nadine Smith named to Time’s Top 100 list for 2022

“In the fight for equality in Florida, there has perhaps been no greater advocate for LGBTQ people than Nadine Smith”

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Courtesy of Equality Florida

ST. PETERSBURG, FL. – Time magazine released its annual 100 most influential people list and this year one of the honorees was Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith. In the biographical sketch accompanying Smith’s listing, Time writer Kristen Arnett noted “in the fight for equality in Florida, there has perhaps been no greater advocate for LGBTQ people than Nadine Smith.”

“I am deeply honored to be included in the TIME100,” said Smith, a Black, queer woman. “This recognizes decades of work not only by me, but by the dedicated team of volunteers, staff and supporters I’ve had the privilege to work with at Equality Florida.  Our work is far from done as Florida, once again, stands at the center of the fight against extremism and hate.  We are bearing the brunt of a governor willing to sacrifice the safety of children and destroy our most basic liberties in his desperate bid to be President. But this is not simply Florida’s fight. The wave of anti-LGBTQ, racist, freedom-destroying bills sweeping the country calls each of us to fight for our rights and, indeed, our democracy.”

The list, now in its nineteenth year, recognizes the impact, innovation and achievement of the world’s most influential individuals. 

Smith comes from a long line of activists and barrier breakers. Her grandparents helped form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union to fight for the rights of sharecroppers. While in college, Smith co-founded IGLYO, the world’s largest LGBTQ youth and student organization. She co-chaired the 1993 March on Washington that drew a million marchers and she was part of the first Oval Office meeting between a sitting President and LGBTQ leaders. In the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Smith and her team coordinated a national response including raising millions in direct resources for survivors and families of the 49 killed. 

Smith’s recognition comes as Florida has taken center stage in the right wing, anti-freedom agenda aimed at erasing LGBTQ people from classrooms, propagandizing curriculum, censoring history, banning books, and putting politicians in control of personal medical decisions.

“Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential ambitions have fueled bills like Don’t Say Gay, the Stop WOKE Act, a 15-week abortion ban, and dangerous national rhetoric that seeks to dehumanize LGBTQ people in service to the most extreme segment of his base,” Equality Florida stated in a press release Monday.

The 2022 TIME100, and its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, with related tributes appear in the June 6/June 13 double issue of TIME, available on newsstands on Friday, May 27, and online now at time.com/time100.

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Outfest

Blow your mind with today’s hottest Queer TV- 2nd annual OutFronts

Queer television is here, and it is just getting started to shine.  Buckle your rainbow belts, this unicorn is ready to fly

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WEST HOLLYWOOD – Back in the day, getting a whisp of any queer media, whether it was a short “gay” movie or a quick queer themed storyline, was hard to come by. Sure, there was OutFest started in 1982 by some UCLA students. Roseanne kissing a girl, a lesbian wedding on Friends, and Ellen’s bursting media’s mind before it crashed and burned her.

Not anymore. OutFest has made that clear with its second annual OutFronts, a four-day hybrid festival. Queer television is here, and it is just getting started to shine.  Buckle your rainbow belts, this unicorn is ready to fly.

The festival combines free-to-view virtual panel discussions with ticketed in-person events as part of the Los Angeles area’s Pride season. The festival kicks off on Friday June 3rd and extends through Monday, June 6th. It features episodic premieres, advanced screenings, and both in-person and virtual discussions with the talent from some of the most exciting LGBTQIA+ programs available on television today.    

The in-person festival events include:

  • QUEER AS FOLK presented by Peacock  This is the world premiere screening of the new Peacock series, a vibrant reimagining of the groundbreaking British series exploring a diverse group of friends in New Orleans.  The program includes a panel talkback with cast and creative team.
  • “Love, Victor” presented by HULU and DISNEY+  It is the show’s third and final season, and OutFronts is proud to show the premier episode of the season!  The program includes  “Love, Victor’s” showrunner and young cast present to discuss the impact of the show’s run, what we might expect from season 3, and bid a farewell to the groundbreaking series.  
  • QUEER FIREFIGHTERS ONSCREEN AND IRL Queer firefighters on TV sit down with their real-life counterparts to discuss being queer and saving lives. The in-person discussion will include Ronen Rubenstein (9-1-1: Lone Star), Brian Michael Smith (9-1-1: Lone Star), Traci Thoms (Station 19), others.
  • LEGENDARY   LEGENDARY is the groundbreaking competition series now in season 3 on HBO Max.   The OutFronts program includes LEGENDARY host and MC Dashaun Wesley will conduct a talk-show style look back at some of the most earth-shattering moments from the show’s history, and a candid talk about all the unfolding drama of the current season.

The virtual events include:

Topic panels  

  • Presented as virtual panels, these panels cover hot queer television topics. These include exploring social media influencers who have used their clout to cross over into the acting world – with Gigi Gorgeous, Kalen Allen, and Boman Martinez-Reid. Another panel looks at “TV’s Queer Pioneers”, with actors who were among the first to regularly appear as three-dimensional queer characters on television, including Wilson Cruz, Amber Benson, and Jane Sibbett. A panel looking to create the next icons spotlights actors who have created some of the most impactful queer characters of recent years, including Harvey Guillen (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS), Javicia Leslie (BATWOMAN), Brandon Scott Jones (GHOSTS), and Vico Ortiz (OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH).

Series panels  

  • Presented as virtual panels, these programs feature discussions of hot shows and their new season offerings:  a talk on SyFy and USA Network’s CHUCKY moderated by Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, with CHILD’S PLAY franchise creator Don Mancini and cast members Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Fiona Dourif, Zackary Arthur, and Bjorgvin Anarson; a one-on-one career-spanning conversation with comedy legend Paula Pell upon the release of GIRLS5EVA season two on Peacock; a discussion with the cast and creators of Freeform’s MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM in advance of the series’ final season; a talk with GENTLEMAN JACK creator Sally Wainwright and actor Lydia Leonard; a focused conversation with the queer talent and characters from Showtime’s smash-hit YELLOWJACKETS; as well as panels featuring talent from HBOMax’s SORT OF and THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS, VH1’s RuPaul’s DRAG RACE, Prime Video’s HARLEM and THE WILDS, The CW’s TOM SWIFT and THE 4400, and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL – THE SERIES from Disney Plus and Disney Branded Television.

The inaugural year of OutFronts saw nearly 70,000 participants from across the globe. This year should see even more. “It’s inspiring to know that one festival couldn’t possibly cover all the wonderful LGBTQIA+ stories being told on television today,” said Outfest’s Director of Festival Programming, Mike Dougherty. “The OutFronts by no means represents an exhaustive account of all that is queer in TV, but they do gather a multitude of brilliantly talented queer artists and allies whose diversity of perspective and experience are on full display in these funny, entertaining, and emotional conversations. I can’t wait to share them with the world.”

It’s time to join the Queer Television Fandom community, whether you want your seat to be in a happening LA theater, or in your own living room, your piece of the rainbow awaits! See you at OutFronts 2022!

All panel discussions will be free of charge to view online and via Outfest’s OutMuseum platform. The OutFronts are presented by IMDb and media sponsors are The Los Angeles Blade, ABC7 Los Angeles, Clear Channel Outdoor, Edge Media, KCET/PBS SoCal, Pride Media, Queerty, Rainbow Media, Autostraddle, and Variety. RSVP and view the full calendar of The OutFronts programming at theoutfronts.com

**********************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more. He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine. He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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Movies

Join Joel Kim Booster on ‘Fire Island’ this summer

Gay rom com features queer Asian cast

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Joel Kim Booster stars in ‘Fire Island.’ (Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

It would be an understandable mistake to see Joel Kim Booster on one of the two “Out Traveler” magazine covers he’s gracing this month and assume he was just another sexy fashion model, but the 34-year-old Korean-American comedian is not having a moment in the blazing sun of queer pop culture just because of his undeniable talent for rocking a Speedo. 

He is actually in the middle of the publicity push for the upcoming film “Fire Island,” which he wrote and in which he co-stars with (among others) close friend Bowen Yang and comedy legend Margaret Cho, and which begins screening exclusively on the Hulu streaming service just in time for Pride month.

Directed by Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”), it’s a movie that’s generating a lot of buzz, partly because it’s the first predominantly queer film to be backed by a major movie studio (Disney, through its Searchlight Pictures division). We’ve been burned too many times not to be skeptical about such a project, but anyone already familiar with Booster’s work will undoubtedly tell you it’s not likely to be another watered-down, safe-for-the-mainstream offering designed to check off boxes on the diversity agenda. Since he first made a splash with an appearance on “Conan” in 2016, he has gained a following among queer and straight audiences alike with his unapologetically gay, unabashedly sex-positive comedy, leading to what some might call a meteoric rise to the brink of superstardom through an acclaimed stand-up career, his roles on TV in shows like the short-lived sitcom “Sunnyside” (on which he was a regular), “Shrill,” and “The Week Of” (as well as his writing for shows like “Billy on the Street” and “The Other Two”), and his popular podcasts (“Urgent Care with Joel Kim Booster + Mitra Jouhari” and “The Joy Fuck Club”).

Now he’s poised to become a movie star with “Fire Island,” a gay romantic comedy set in the titular vacation retreat that dares not only to feature a cast made up entirely of queer characters, but doubles down by putting the focus on queer characters who also happen to be Asian. To top it all off, it gives Booster a chance to show off his literate side with a story – which concerns a group of gay best friends out for sexual adventure, and possibly even romance, on what might be their last trip to the iconic gay getaway – adapted from no less esteemed a literary source than Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

The Blade was fortunate enough to chat with Booster in the middle of this very high-pressure month before his feature film debut, and our conversation was informed by the kind of erudite and compassionate intelligence that has marked the young comedian’s career from the start.

BLADE: In your comedy, you’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from being raised as a Korean adoptee by white American parents in a deeply Christian midwestern community. Does that experience figure into the movie, too?

BOOSTER: Of course! As a transnational adoptee, my entire life I’ve been fighting against this nagging feeling of not quite fitting in – and that’s whether I’m around white people, or Asian people, or even some gay people. It’s tough, and it’s been such a paramount part of my life to find people who make me feel seen and accepted and to keep them close, so it felt really important for the theme of chosen family to stay in the forefront when I was making this movie. As much as it’s a “rom com,” it’s also about friendship – about relationships with people who, like I say in the movie, “fill in the gaps.”

BLADE: How did you hit on using Jane Austen as a source?

BOOSTER: It was really a lucky accident. I brought “Pride and Prejudice” with me on the first trip Bowen and I ever took to Fire Island. I would be lying there on the beach reading it and thinking, “It’s amazing how the things she was writing about are so relevant to what we’re experiencing on this island right now.” It was kinda wild, and it started out as threat, a joke – I would keep saying, ‘I can’t wait to write an all-gay adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set on Fire Island,’ and people would boo and throw things at me. But after that I would always bring an Austen book with me to read on the island, because it felt special to me. There was just something so prescient about what she wrote, and about her observations on class, especially reading it in this place where we had sort of created our own class system, as gay men.

BLADE: When did it stop being a joke?

BOOSTER: Actually, my agent suggested that I should write it, because I was in between projects. I just had a pilot that was passed on by Comedy Central, I was depressed, I had nothing to do – so I ended up writing it as a half-hour pilot script. But nobody wanted it until Quibi [the short-form entertainment platform that launched and folded in 2020 after failing to meet projected subscription levels]. Say what you will about them, but they really invested a lot of money and time into new and young voices, and they took a lot of chances. They took a chance on me, and when they folded I had this script that I could point to which I had written and developed with them. This movie was a tough pitch to sell on just a log line, but I had this finished project, this complicated piece of work to show people, that was much more intricate than I think “Gay ‘Pride and Prejudice’” would maybe lead people to believe.

BLADE: Your movie is just one of several big queer titles on deck for 2022, including Billy Eichner’s rom com, “Bros.” How do you feel about that?

BOOSTER: Honestly, it really takes some of the pressure off. When we get, like, one gay movie a year, a lot of attention and scrutiny gets put on that movie and it’s expected to be everything to everyone in our community. And our community is huge, and it’s diverse, and there are so many stories that aren’t being told. I’m so glad Billy’s movie is coming out as well, he was my first comedy boss, and I’m really happy that people in our community are going to have two big gay rom coms to choose from.

BLADE: We haven’t seen “Bros” yet, but we’ve seen “Fire Island.” There’s a review embargo [until May 23], but I think it’s safe to say nobody is going to boo or throw things at you. Do you feel any sense of competition about it?

BOOSTER: My hope is that people love both, but it’s nice that if somebody goes to see my movie and says, ‘That’s not for me, I don’t see myself there,’ then a couple months later they’ll see Billy’s and they’ll have another shot at it. And I hope both of our movies are successful enough that they create a million clones. I hope it’s just the beginning.

“Fire Island,” which also stars Conrad Ricamora (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and a host of other familiar queer performers, premieres on Hulu on June 3. 

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