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A queer voice of color finds theatrical expression with ‘Witness Uganda’

Queer actors of color take the lead at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

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Cast members during rehearsals: ‘Witness Uganda’ runs Feb. 5 – 23 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. For more information or tickets, visit TheWallis.org/Witness. (Photo courtesy Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

When 23-year old Griffin Matthews was kicked out of his church choir for being gay, he couldn’t have known it would launch him on a path that would change his life.

At the time, he was an actor in New York, struggling and broke, but the expulsion stung him so deeply that he bought a one-way ticket to volunteer in Uganda.

Now, years later, the theatre dream project that grew from the seed planted by that fateful decision is about to have its West Coast Premiere.

“Witness Uganda,” billed as a “documentary musical,” is the story of Matthews’ experiences in Africa; how he hoped that to help better people’s lives in a place where he could explore who he was, only to learn that the school-building program was corrupt – and how he turned his disillusionment around after meeting a group of local children who couldn’t afford the cost of schooling, and deciding to set up a makeshift classroom and teach them himself.

Matthews co-wrote the show with Matt Gould, another African volunteer he met after a mutual friend connected them.

“We met in New York,” says Matthews.  “Matt had been a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa for two years while I was working in Uganda, and one of our friends said, ‘Hey there’s another guy in musical theatre who’s been to Africa and is really passionate about it, you guys should meet!’  And when we met it was like – immediate chemistry.”

The two became partners – both in the romantic and creative sense.  They’ve been together for twelve years, married for two.

“We had so much to talk about,” Matthews continues, “and we were also trying to figure out what to do about the fact that we’d seen all these things.”

The answer they came up with was “Witness Uganda,” a show they originally conceived as a fundraiser to benefit the Uganda Project, a non-profit Matthews set up in 2005 to pay for the education, food, and health care of the Ugandan children he had taken under his wing – most of whom have now completed high school and are finishing up college.  The show took on a life of its own and eventually enjoyed an Off-Broadway run – though that production met with mixed feelings from its creators.

As Matthews explains it, “It’s really difficult to get a raw story out when people are swirling around to make it commercial, to clean it up for audiences.”

Gould elaborates, “We felt that audiences were ready for something grittier, something that felt more authentic than just a cartoon on stage.”

So, for the show’s rebirth in Los Angeles, the two have reworked things to get back in line with their original vision, and Matthews himself has stepped into the director’s chair.

“I always had a vision for what I thought the show could be,” says Matthews.  “It’s been a humbling journey for me to step into the director’s space and try and put the vision forward.”

He also says that “Witness Uganda” has taken on an added urgency in the new world that has developed since he and Gould began the project in 2008.

“When this show premiered, to be completely honest, he says, “we were under a very different administration.”

He continues, “Now there’s this great division, and political uproar over borders and of how we’re dealing with our neighbors all over the world.  I think the show tackles some of those issues head on.”

“We like to brand it as a protest piece,” he adds.
Politics aside, Gould says, their show is ultimately a personal story.

“Certain facts have been conflated,” he says, “some things are condensed – but this is Griffin’s experience, going over there and meeting this group of kids, and finding out that doing aid work and helping people can be really… complicated.”

Bringing “Witness Uganda” into 2019 has also underscored the positive cultural changes that have occurred for queer people of color since they began working on it.

Matthews says, “When we started writing this, there were two places for queer men of color to go in the theatre – either ‘butch up’ and be a ‘leading man,’ or put on a dress and heels.  If you were anything in between, you were in the chorus.”

Television has played an important role in changing that status quo.  As an actor, Matthews is also a regular on the Netflix series, “Dear White People,” and he says his experience there has been joyful.

He gushes, “For the first time in my career I’m playing a gay man of color who is not the side character.  I have a full storyline, I have a full existence.  It’s been so moving to be working on a show where I feel seen – where it’s not just, ‘Come in and be sassy.’”

Even if “the culture is shifting,” he adds, “you still don’t see queer actors of color in musicals, leading the charge.  We are still trying to break that barrier, to say that our stories are valid, our expressions of self are valid, and we’re actually not that different from you.”

With “Witness Uganda,” Matthews and Gould are doing their part to work for that goal.  With a cast rich in performers of color, a song score drawing on influence from African musical tradition, and script featuring the experience of a queer black man as the center of its multi-cultural narrative, it provides an opportunity for many oft-disregarded voices to be expressed – and its creators have worked to make it as authentic as possible.

“I think the goal is to get the grittiest, dirtiest, sexiest version of the story that we can tell,” says Gould.  “We want audiences to come in and feel – not that they’ve seen a show, but that they’ve had an experience, they’ve been to this place that we had the opportunity to spend time in.”

As for Matthews, he says, “For me it was always a piece that wanted to be a conversation-starter, to ask questions and ask the audience to think about what the answers are for them personally.”

He’s quick to add, “I’m hoping audiences come away inspired, and also feeling hopeful again.”

Of course, the two also want their show to entertain – and with a cast that includes 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi (“an amazing goddess,” says Gould), Jamar Williams, Amber Iman, and Emma Hunton, they feel sure it will.

As Gould puts it, “I think it’s going to be an experience that folks in L.A. won’t have had before.”

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Belinda Carlisle brings a heavenly Christmas Bash December 16th

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects Belinda’s evolving life

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Courtesy of Belinda Carlise

HOLLYWOOD – On December 16th, 7pm, the city of West Hollywood transforms into a piece of “Heaven on Earth.” An angelic supernatural deity from the sky won’t be delivering this gift, but rather an angel from iconic pop paradise.

That night, Belinda Carlisle makes a grand entrance and gives an eager audience the presence of a queen of pop, the most recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her group, The Go-Gos.

It will be on that night that Belinda Carlisle hosts THE party event of the season with co-host, drag superstar, Trixie Mattel. One sings, one throws comedic shade, and a packed room at the Abbey will be losing their collective minds.  Not that the party itself isn’t all the reason you would need to get it on your calendar, the evening benefits a fantastic charity, The Animal People Alliance (APA), that intertwines the love for animals with the salve to human suffering.

Courtesy of Trixie Mattel

APA’s charter reads: “To provide high quality and compassionate care, of the highest standards, to neglected street animals in India and Thailand. We train and employ vulnerable people from the community, and pay living wages that help them improve their standard of living.”   The organization, by employing people who would otherwise be stateless and/or in poverty, has treated over 16000 street animals since 2014. Their programs for animals include rabies vaccinations, sterilizations and other emergency health aid.

Belinda sat down with me this week on the podcast RATED LGBT RADIO to talk about her life, her amazing career, her party and the strength she has achieved in standing up to both inner and outer demons.

She survives. She fearlessly opens herself up, and if anyone scrutinizes her past… she will lead the way.  She happily tells of being a member of the most successful all-women pop bands in history.  They sang and wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments. They did it on their terms. No men were needed or required. She candidly shares about her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction. 

Belinda shows profound compassion for those struggling with addiction and darkness, “Addiction is a sickness…it is a disease of perception, you can’t see your effect on other people… It is a trap you feel you can’t get out of. Every addict has a heart and a humanity that is obscured by addiction. It is a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to go through. It is hard to remember that there is a heart under all that, there is something divine under all that darkness.”

Her interest focuses more on what came after she embarked on recovery  “My life is much more exciting since sobriety, even more exciting than the hey day with the Go-Gos. For anyone out there who is worried about aging, or life being over at a certain point—it’s not. Life is just the most amazing miracle and privilege.”

Her significance for the LGBTQ community, impacts many of the most vulnerable.  She is the mom of a gay man, activist and writer, James Duke Mason. His birth made her examine the trajectory of fame, drugs, and rock & roll in which she was on, careening threateningly close to disaster and death.

She had settled comfortably into maternal nurturement when Duke came out to her at the age of 14. Belinda had been impressed with Duke’s ability to explain the situation to her. She found out that he had been online with PFLAG for weeks learning about how to present his news to her, information to give and educated about key talking points. 

Appreciating their real life help of a young person in need, Belinda vehemently supported PFLAG, the Trevor Project and others ever since. “I am so glad I have a gay son, I can’t even tell you,” she says.

Artistically, she also continues to thrive.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted the Go-Gos this year.  It was an honor 15 years in the making.  It should have been an obvious choice to put them there.

As the first all-female group making it big, they sang, wrote every note and played every instruments. The Go-Go’s, a 2020 American/Irish/Canadian documentary film directed and produced by Alison Ellwood, cast attention on the Hall of Fame oversight, and essentially made the case for how special the group actually was.

Belinda also recently released a new single Get Together a cover of the 1967 Youngbloods hit. The Youngbloods sang it at Woodstock in 1969 to make a statement about the divisions of the Viet Nam era in America.

Belinda sings it now, her voice pure, mature and as an anthem making a plea, if not a motherly order, to reconsider the divisions we are experiencing today.  She says, “We live in this age of outrage.  This song is ‘ok people, CHILL OUT’. All this divisiveness is not going to get us anywhere. It’s timely.”

Beyond Get Together, Belinda works on more new music including singles and a new album.  She continues to produce with the top song creators of the industry including award winning song writer Diane Warren and Go-Gos dates at the end of the year.

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects the channeling of Belinda’s evolving life.  When she lived in France, she released a French collection.

As she delved into spirituality and the culture of Thailand, she released the powerful Wilder Shores, which blended a spiritual mantra into pop hooks. “Chanting is a science, it has a super power. It is not airy fairy,” she states.

The fact is, Belinda Carlisle continues arriving and thrilling.  She does not need to prove herself to anyone.  She has defined the next thirty years of her life as philanthropy.  

“I just wing it as I go along. I learned what it is like to work from the heart. Work in a way where you don’t care about any kind of outcome. That is how I am working now. I am just having fun, and doing just what I want. I am really lucky that way,” she declares.

Her party on December 16th at the Abbey appears right on track to bear that out.

Love, humanity, care of animals and a major splash of fabulousness enveloping an enthused audience.

In other words, pure Belinda.

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Listen to the full interview:

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Andy Grammer partners with Trans Chorus of Los Angeles

Celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are

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Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (Screenshot via YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (America’s first Trans Chorus, embracing all members of the trans, non-binary and intersex communities) for a special live performance of “Damn It Feels Good To Be Me” – celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are. What a special moment. In conjunction with the partnership a donation has been made by Andy to the TCLA.

A note from TCLA: “The Chorus really enjoyed the song and especially performing it with Andy around the piano. It was upbeat and expressed how important it is to live your life and your authenticity and to feel good about who you are. That is the thrust of our Chorus philosophy of moving from victim to victorious.”

Connect with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles:https://transchorusla.org/

Andy Grammer – Damn It Feels Good To Be Me (featuring Trans Chorus of Los Angeles)

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Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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