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Acting up and acting out with “Nancy F***ing Reagan”

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Colbert Alembert, Debi Tinsley, Mark Sande, Kiff Scholl, and Greg Ivan Smith star in the world premiere of “Nancy F***ing Reagan.” Photo credit: moses [@algaimaging on Instagram]

Anyone who walks into a play called “Nancy F***ing Reagan” has to expect that what they’re about to see is probably going to be controversial, left-leaning, and at least a little bit shocking.

That’s a good thing, because the people who would be put off by the title are the same ones with whom any conversation about some of the topics raised in the play would be as virulent and divisive as, well, some of the conversations that take place on stage.

Playwright Daniel Hurewitz’s biting, iconoclastic comedy takes place shortly after the passing of the titular First Lady, while her remains are lying (laying?) in state.  Just a few blocks away, in the Palm Springs home of college dean Maggie Lessing (Debi Tinsley) and her husband Richard (Mark Sande), old friends are convening at a birthday celebration for David (Kiff Scholl), a gay, nebbish-y history professor for whom the only thing worse than turning 50 is the thought of having it overshadowed by Nancy Reagan’s funeral.

The timing is admittedly unfortunate for this particular gathering; Maggie, David, and his longtime “frenemy” Jason (Greg Ivan Smith) are veterans of the eighties’ culture wars, and their shared history – much of which centers around the AIDS crisis – resonates with ways in which Mrs. Reagan could be seen as an arch-nemesis.  The occasion stirs up old memories, along with buried secrets and not-so-hidden resentments, and things are only made pricklier by the presence of Jason’s millennial boyfriend Kenny (Colbert Alembert), whose youthful perspective serves to exacerbate the tension, and the uninvited arrival of a student named Allison (Safiya Quinley), who demands that Dean Maggie hear her grievances about racism on campus.  With his party falling apart, David’s long-seething anger at Mrs. Reagan – and his longing to rekindle the passion of his lost radical youth – inspires him to come up with a way to make his birthday meaningful after all.

There’s a lot in the soup that Hurewitz has mixed up, and it might seem like too much if it weren’t for the fact that it ends up being so delicious.

To be sure, it might be rough going at the start; there’s an acerbic, self-loathing quality to the wit of these characters that evokes – not accidentally, I’d guess – “The Boys in the Band,” a play which is also about a birthday party for an aging, bitter queen.  Add to that the seemingly standard trope of the young boyfriend interloping among old gay friends, and you’re dangerously close to a tiresome formula.

But the playwright has put these pieces into place by shrewd design; while the cattiness of “The Boys” was rooted in the closet, for David and Jason – and even straight cis female ally Maggie – it springs from the bitterness of being freed from that closet only to watch half their generation die of a plague while Nancy and Ronnie responded with nothing but deafening silence.  That makes all the difference.

Nancy’s close post-mortem proximity to the proceedings makes for a particularly apt catalyst in stirring up intergenerational discussions about the dark years of the epidemic; but just when it seems the play is going to content itself with the rehashing of ancient (if still important) history, it blindsides us with the I-will-not-be-ignored urgency of the here-and-now. By introducing an emissary from the front in today’s culture wars, it forces us to spot the differences and draw the parallels between the causes (and the activists fighting for them) of both the past and the present – and it challenges us even further to confront our own conflicted viewpoints by introducing race into the equation.

Safiya Quinley faces off with Debi Tinsley in “Nancy F***ing Reagan.” Photo credit: moses [@algaimaging on Instagram]

It’s significant that Maggie, the very dean being challenged for being part of a racist institution, is here played by an actress of color; it underscores a key point being made in Hurewitz’ sly scenario – that these bruised social warriors of yesteryear have grown complacent after their hard-won victories, and by now contenting themselves to complain over cocktails about the issues of today while quietly toeing the line at their jobs inside the system, the have effectively become collaborationists with the very institutions they once rebuked.

How they all deal with that – both from the older and the younger side of the equation – is what makes “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a fun ride. With all these heavy issues whirling around them, its characters respond by immediately finding their own stake in the game and making it all about them; that’s exactly what humans do, of course, and that’s why Hurewitz’s script can be so laugh-out-loud funny while still getting its points across about unrelentingly dire issues.

Buried under all the satire and snark, too, there is an exploration of the uncomfortable (for some, anyway) notions that, no matter how heinous a person’s actions may have been, forgiveness is necessary if we want to move forward (though sometimes, maybe, we have to make one final, dramatic statement before it happens), and that when it comes to changing the system, sometimes the choice between two courses of action should be “both.”

Such deceptively centrist-seeming viewpoints don’t distract, however, from the enjoyment we get from watching these characters spar throughout the action – and the actors who expertly play them.  Scholl, as David, is the hub of the show, and cannily crafts his performance to highlight the constancy in his persona, the steadfast refusal to let go of something that matters to him – even if that means he spends a lot of time whining.  Hilariously whining, to be clear; he does a great job of personifying that guy we all know, who we might even pity in some way because he always seems so damn miserable under all those quips and barbs, and letting us laugh both with and at him.  Then he takes us along on a redemptive journey in which he allows himself to be as surprised by it as we are.  It’s a funny performance, sure, but its deeper than it seems, and braver, too.

Tinsley, as Maggie, is an excellent counter to his energy, yet entwined with it, too, as she establishes a strong, grounding presence that somehow manages to persist even as a few setbacks (and a few more drinks) reveal a tempest within. Smith, as Jason, brings an archness that gives a touch of meanness to his wit, but he also brings a warmth that makes us like him anyway; Alembert, as his younger flame, makes it clear from his first entrance that he’s not just there to pose shirtless and say clueless things – he’s a passionate, intelligent, independent man, and it elevates this potential cliché of a character into a welcome and integral part of the action.

Sande – as hubby Richard, a recent retiree now diving into a writing career – gets to serve as a sort of chorus to all the turmoil, both part of and somehow removed from it, and delights us with his charm and authenticity as he comments on (both literally and through the contrast of his freshly-revived lust for life) the goings-on throughout; representing the generation on the other end of the spectrum, Quinley, as Allison, delivers a solid portrayal of a strong and impassioned woman of color that avoids turning her into a stereotype by showing us the not-quite-sure-of-herself young person underneath.

Add in unflappable TV reporter Erica (played with surgical skill by Amy Kersten), whose broadcasted new segments pop in every so often to keep everyone up to date on the status of Mrs. Reagan’s body, and you have a tight, talented, and hilarious ensemble cast; under the experienced directorial hand of L.A. theater veteran Larry Margo, they make “Nancy F***ing Reagan” a hilariously confrontational joy that is worthy of the boldness of its title.

 

“Nancy F***ing Reagan” runs through August 4 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood.  For details and more information go here.

 

 

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Movies

‘Pray Away’ exposes horrors of ‘conversion therapy’

The fraud is still out there, actively claiming victims

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A scene from ‘Pray Away.’ (Image courtesy Netflix)

LOS ANGELES – It’s fitting that Blumhouse Productions should be among the array of associated companies behind the new documentary “Pray Away,” which debuted on Netflix Aug. 3.

Now a major Hollywood player, Blumhouse Productions spent a decade building its success on creepy horror movies like “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge.” The horrors revealed in “Pray Away” are every bit as disturbing as anything in those movies; the difference is that these are horrors that take place in real life, and that makes them even more chilling.

As its title suggests, the Kristine Stolakis-directed documentary dives into the world of “conversion therapy,” specifically in the form of the Christian “Ex-Gay” movement, and unspools its history from its beginnings in the 1970s. That was when five men, struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church, started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” They quickly received more than 25,000 letters from people asking for help and formalized as Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world.

After decades of spreading anti-LGBTQ propaganda and touting methods based on discredited and pseudoscientific practices, the company was rocked when a multitude of former “success stories” began to come forward and renounce their claims of having become heterosexual. Faced with public outcry and an inescapable recognition of the untold harm they had perpetrated, Exodus officially ended its operations in 2013.

“Pray Away” is not really about Exodus, though, nor is it about scandal – at least not the salacious kind. It’s about the real human pain underneath all of that, and it follows the stories of several men and women who were once connected with Exodus. Once among the leaders and high-profile representatives of the organization, these are individuals who spent years as “Christian superstars” in the religious right before coming out as LGBTQ and disavowing the very movement they helped to start. Through the stories they tell of their personal journeys, and the resolve with which they dedicate themselves to debunking the notion that being queer is something that should or even can be “cured,” they underscore the depth of the influence that conversion therapy – and its proponents – exerts not just on its participants but on LGBTQ society as a whole.

There’s Mike Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus, who ultimately became one of the first high-profile members to denounce the group and come out as gay; John Paulk, another former Exodus leader, who along with his “ex-lesbian” wife was the face of the movement through appearances on television and magazine covers until being caught in a gay bar and exposed in the press; and Yvette Cantu, who became a highly visible spokesperson for conversion therapy and even served as a “policy analyst” for the Family Research Council – a virulently anti-LGBTQ organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – before crippling anxiety forced her to confront her feelings of guilt over the harm she was helping to inflict.

These narratives, interwoven throughout to form a bigger picture, bear witness to the personal damage caused by conversion therapy, but many of them also cast light on the even more ominous nature of the movement’s machinations behind the scenes, as it aligns itself with politicians to gain the power necessary for turning its anti-LGBTQ stance into legislative and judicial policy.

Randy Thomas, the former Exodus vice president who disassociated from the group shortly before it disbanded, relates how the movement allied itself with conservative politicians eager to stir up their constituents with a “moral” issue and facilitated the passing of Proposition 8, the California referendum that effectively banned same-sex marriage before being struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015. The implication – that a well-organized minority can gain enough political traction to impose its extreme views on a whole society – is something of which most viewers will already be keenly aware, given the shape of the last few years, but it serves as an chilling reminder of the very real and widespread harm that has been perpetrated by fundamentalist bigots acting in the name of religion.

Of course, “Pray Away” is also a story of triumph; the subjects who share their stories are shown clearly to have moved beyond the lies of conversion therapy to live much happier, fulfilled lives; one, Julie Rodgers, who was once groomed as the poster child for an Exodus-affiliated “ex-gay” ministry, is even in the process of planning a wedding with her girlfriend – perhaps the most appropriate “happy ending” of all, considering the circumstances.

Still, though, the disquieting realities exposed by Stolakis’ documentary are never quite erased by these positive outcomes. Outdated notions that are perennially used to sex-shame queer people and frame their identity as a dysfunction – the parents are to blame, masturbation is bad, gay people are child molesters, girls become lesbians through fear of men, and other such infuriating tropes – keep turning up in the discourse throughout; a procession of pious, white male faces (some belonging to disgraced former “moral leaders” like Jerry Falwell) decry homosexuality as sinful in archival media clips; and in perhaps the most unsettling sequence, we see footage of a notorious “reparative therapy” psychologist – the late Joseph Nicolosi – manipulating a patient (or rather, a victim) through psychological torture.

Most horrifying of all, perhaps, is another narrative that is woven among the others. The film begins with Jeffrey McCall, a Christian activist who was once a transgender woman but claims to have renounced his trans identity for Jesus. We watch as he works to organize a misleadingly named “Freedom March” for “ex-trans” awareness, guides a mother over the phone toward rejecting her child’s trans identity, and participates in a ritualistic “warrior” chant with a group of other former trans people – all without a trace of joy in his face, his voice, or his manner.

It’s that last sequence in which “Pray Away” becomes most reminiscent of one of Blumhouse’s horror films; in the feverish, histrionic abandonment to which they give themselves in their chant, these struggling people evoke the unnatural fervor of a possessed congregation at a cult. Watching the spectacle, it’s easy to see them as deluded and dehumanized. Even so, one can’t help but sense that the tears in their eyes are real; they draw our compassion, and they remind us that the fraud of conversion therapy is still out there, actively claiming victims.

The evil of Exodus may have been vanquished in “Pray Away,” but like any good horror film, it makes sure we know there’s still plenty of room for a sequel.

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Books

Leontyne Price book will inspire you to embrace opera

A dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, and poetry

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‘The Monster I am Today’
By Kevin Simmonds
c.2021, TriQuarterly Books
$20/160 pages

Years ago, my boss, who had the flu, insisted that I use her ticket to hear Pavarotti give a recital at Lincoln Center. I knew nothing about opera, but was thrilled by this opportunity. After the performance, I ended up in a receiving line to meet the famous tenor. When I shook his hand, he put me at ease about my ignorance of opera. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “I listen to Waylon Jennings.”

I tell you this not to name drop, but because “The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse” by San Francisco-based writer, poet, and musician Kevin Simmonds makes me want to do nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe opera.

Between the pandemic and other problems of life, it’s easy to become desensitized to poetry, other people’s pain – even beauty.

As you read “The Monster I am Today,” Simmonds, who grew up Black and gay in New Orleans, will awaken your deadened senses.

Through a dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, song lyrics and poetry, Simmonds brings Price, the first African-American to achieve international acclaim in the opera world, to life.

Price, 94, was born in Laurel, Miss. In 1955, Price was the first Black singer to appear in an opera on TV when she sang the title role in “Tosca.”

She performed in major opera houses from the Metropolitan Opera to the San Francisco Opera to La Scala. Price has received many honors. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Yet, though she’s so renowned, even some of her most ardent fans might not know much about her life.

Price, Simmonds says, didn’t believe in talking about herself too personally or complaining about her struggles publicly.

“Have I talked too much,” Price says, “You know, talking a lot isn’t good for a singer.”

It’s ironic that Simmonds puts this quote from Price right after one of several (fictitious) FBI files of her in the book.

As Simmonds notes in the endnotes, the FBI files in the volume aren’t official FBI files, but the content in them is factual.

The faux FBI file notes that Price attended a production of “The Dutchman” by “Negro agitator Leroi Jones, who is married to agitator Hettie Jones, a Jew.”

“The play is insolent filth and undisciplined rage toward the white race,” the file added, “Price endorsed the performance from her seat in the audience by shouting, ‘Right on!’”

You can’t help but wonder: Does Price mean that talking too much would hurt her singing voice? Or is she also thinking: talking too much wouldn’t be good given white society’s racial prejudice?

“The Monster I am Today” isn’t a bio of Price. Yet, through taut, incisive poems and prose fragments, Simmonds makes her up close and personal.

“Dear, this wasn’t no Chitlin’ Circuit/not Ella’s or Lena’s crowd,” Simmonds writes in a poem in Price’s voice, “This was box seats passed/from one generation/of Vanderbilts Carnegies Astors and Guggenheims to the next.”

Price is the life in the title of the book. But you soon realize that Simmonds is remembering — riffing — on his life.  Price is the monster (in the sense of marvel) etched in Simmonds’ DNA.

Opera, music, and high school chorus saved his life when Simmonds was a young queer kid.

“Opera: Italian for ‘a work, a labor’:the feminine Latin root op: ‘to work, produce in abundance,” writes Simmonds of his young self, “Feminine work of abundance – that’s what I sought to behold and become.”

Simmonds studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina.  He is the author of two poetry collections, “Mad for Meat” and “Bend to It.”

Because “Monster” is structured as overture, performance, and postlude, reading it is like being at the opera.

Its beauty and heartbreak will tear your heart out.

“The steady, anesthetizing racism of the campus police, professors and classmates poisoned and debilitated me,” Simmonds writes of his time at Vanderbilt, “I thought I’d lost my voice.”

A standing ovation for “The Monster I am Today.”  It’s a monster of a book.

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a&e features

Everything you need to know about WorldPride 2021

Party in Scandinavia with the happiest people on Earth

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Confetti rained down in New York’s Times Square at Stonewall 50 WorldPride New York’s closing ceremony two years ago. (Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

By Mikey Rox| NEW YORK – It’s been two years since Stonewall 50 – WorldPride NYC 2019 became the largest international Pride celebration in history, but the “bye” year of 2020 wasn’t due to the pandemic. 

The global celebration has been held every odd-numbered year since 2017 given its massive logistical undertaking (with sporadic celebrations in 2006, 2012 and 2014 before then), and WorldPride Copenhagen – Malmö 2021 couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Hundreds of thousands of cooped-up queer revelers and allies will flock to the twin host cities in Denmark and Sweden, respectively, from Aug. 12-22, to party with the happiest people on the planet, a delightful distinction provided to the Scandinavian countries by the United Nations’ famous World Happiness Report. (The United States ranked No. 19 in the most recent report, FYI.) 

So what’s in store for this year’s all-out progressive-flag-flying festival? Read on for more.

Two LGBTQ anniversaries in Denmark

If you can believe it, it’s been 70 years since Danish doctors in 1951 performed the world’s first successful genital reconstruction surgery, a medical marvel that provided hope to transgender people the world over. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Gay Liberation Front’s Danish chapter, which has been instrumental in blazing trails toward equality for the country. Look how far it’s come.

Opening ceremonies kick off in Copenhagen

In conjunction with Copenhagen Pride, WorldPride will officially start late afternoon on Aug. 13, but in adherence with COVID-19 protocols the opening ceremony won’t be held in WorldPride Square (at least not as of press time; things could – and probably will – change). That potential snafu notwithstanding, Denmark welcomes vaccinated U.S. travelers, and if any testing is needed, both PCR and antigen tests will be available free to everyone, including tourists, 24/7. Copenhagen is OPENhagen again.

WorldPride Square will be open for the rest of the fest

WorldPride Square, a makeshift village of sorts (similar to the Olympics) located within Copenhagen’s main square, will provide a gathering place for all attendees that have traveled far and wide. LGBTQ+ and non-governmental organizations spanning the globe will set up shop in the square to greet pedestrians, provide information, and invite folks to get involved. Art exhibits also will be a centerpiece of the village, alongside a street-food market and bars with plenty of space to relax. 

EuroGames will be held simultaneously

If you enjoy watching athletes compete in variety of sports that range from boxing and badminton to dancing and dodgeball, add the spectator-friendly EuroGames to your list of to-dos while you’re in Copenhagen. If you want to get hands-on, consider signing up to become a volunteer at the games, to be held Aug. 18-20; EuroGames’ website is currently accepting those applications. 

Spread out and explore other WorldPride villages

While WorldPride Square will serve as the jump-off for the 10 days of festivities, other available villages will allow crowds to spread out and explore their individual interests. In addition to Sports Village for EuroGames athletes and fans, other villages will focus on kids and families, youth, women, and the queer community, among others. Programs and content of these villages will be target-audience specific but open to everyone.

You might have a brush with royalty

Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, Countess of Monpezat, is patron of Copenhagen 2021, making her the first-ever royal to serve in the role for a major LGBTQ+ event. Say hi if you spot her; she knows a queen when she sees one.

Despite pandemic protocol, the show will go on

Organizers have said in an official statement that despite some COVID-19 restrictions, they’re “continuing to plan for full delivery of all Copenhagen 2021 events taking into account the guidance and recommendations” of government agencies. Doubling down, organizers have promised they will not cancel or postpone events. 

Now there’s only one thing left to do: Let’s go!

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels)

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