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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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A conversation with Rick Chavez Zbur: it’s about service to others

“In order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of”

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Rick Chavez Zbur (center) (Photo Credit: Lindsay Melanie Photography)

LOS ANGELES – Rick Chavez Zbur has left Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, much different than he found it. The group has quadrupled in size, been at the forefront of passing some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ rights bills in the country and taking on the Trump administration.

Earlier this month he passed the reins over to a new leadership team led by Tony Hoang who succeeded him as Executive Director on October 16, 2021.  

Zbur is proud of his work at Equality California. From passing legislation that made PrEP and Pap available to challenging the Trump administration’s trans military ban, he was upfront and center for it all — championing social justice for the whole LGBTQ+ community, even when there were questions about if that model would work. 

“Will your membership and your base continue supporting an organization that has much more of a social justice mission?” Zbur recalls hearing when he took over Equality California in 2014. 

He tells the Blade he thinks the stereotypes and misperceptions about the LGBTQ+ community being primarily white and affluent led to the skepticism. But “that’s not the case,” he said. “Our community supports equality, and everyone understands that in order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of.”

Now, Zbur is ready for a new challenge: running for Assembly District 50. The death of his sister Jackie, who lost her three year battle with ALS in September 2020, was at the forefront of his decision. He recalls his sister sitting him down to make him promise he would try to find some way of doing something in public service. 

“Since Jackie passed, I’ve thought long and hard about the next phase of my life — how I can make the greatest impact on the toughest issues our communities face: healthcare, the environment, civil rights and economic inequality,” he writes on his campaign website

One of the most significant factors contributing to his decision was watching his sister’s struggle financially after her diagnosis. 

“By the time she got ill, she had saved up enough to put down a down payment on a very modest two bedroom condo and was starting to save for her retirement,” said Zbur. “And then she got sick. When that happened, she couldn’t work anymore, so she quickly got on Social Security disability, which was $2,100 a month. — it was barely enough to pay her mortgage. She quickly spent down her savings, and that’s when I started helping her.”

“I was, luckily, someone with great privilege and had those years of savings from when I was at Latham & Watkins as an attorney, but what do what do average people do when they’re in similar circumstances, if they don’t have the resources themselves or someone in their family, they can sort of step up?” he said. “That’s part of the reason why we have so many people in wheelchairs that are sitting out on the streets.”

Since he was a child, Zbur has been interested in politics, handing out literature at polling places with his father when he was as young as 10 years old. “I remember watching the 1968 Democratic convention as a kid and just being glued to the tube,” he said. “I always thought that I would do something in government somehow.” 

How he would come to work in politics was less clear, however. Zbur grew up in a rural farming community in New Mexico. His father, Richard Thomas Zbur, dropped out of high school to support his family. He would later join the Air Force and serve in the Korean War before moving to New Mexico. Zbur’s mother, Erlinda Chavez, came from poor farmers who lived in the Rio Grande Valley for generations. 

His father attended college in New Mexico and graduate school in Utah, largely thanks to the GI bill. Zbur and his family ended up moving back to New Mexico to care for his aging grandparents. The farm and parents taught him the values of hard work — values he learned well as he became the first person in his small hometown to attend an Ivy League university.

“I mean, they didn’t even administer the ACT or the SAT because there were not enough kids in my graduating class,” he said. 

Growing up in rural New Mexico also brought its fair share of problems. “I think I knew back in my bones that I was probably gay,” said Zbur. “The farm community was really oppressive — you couldn’t admit that you were gay.”

“I wanted to get out,” he said. 

He wouldn’t start to reckon with the fact he was gay until law school. “I just wouldn’t even let myself think about it because of my background, coming from this little farm community,” he said. “It was just something that was viewed with such a stigma that I wouldn’t even let myself go there. But as I started getting older, I started grappling with it. I had my first relationship, and I told my sister and a few friends.”

In realizing he was gay, he also realized there was not a clear path forward in government. “Other than Harvey Milk, who seemed really far away, no one in the country could run and win as an openly gay person.”

After graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, Rick moved to Los Angeles and joined Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s most respected law firms. He stayed for over 25 years, becoming one of California’s leading environmental and government law attorneys. He didn’t think much about politics much during his first few years at the firm — that was until the AIDS epidemic. 

“I was just angry about it,” said Zbur. ” And I was a relatively idealistic, unsophisticated, young person, and I decided that I was going to try to take my Congressman out.”

He lost the race, not realizing how difficult it would be to defeat a sitting incumbent, but he did win the Democratic primary. “I decided that I tried the government service thing, and now I was going to go back and just really try to contribute through the organizations that I cared about,” he said. 

Since then, Zbur says he has learned plenty of lessons and feels more than ready to serve the people of Assembly District 50.

“It’ll be an honor and a privilege to be able to serve the community in this capacity,” he said. “Should I have the privilege of being elected.”

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First Trans Amazon introduced by DC Comics In ‘Wonder Woman’

DC Comics-Warner Brothers became more LGBTQ+ inclusive with the introduction of the character of Bia, a Black trans woman

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Courtesy of DC Comics-Warner Brothers

BURBANK – The world of DC Comics-Warner Brothers became more LGBTQ+ inclusive this weekend as the venerable comic book franchise of Wonder Woman expanded with the introduction of the character of Bia, a Black trans woman, in the first issue of the series Nubia & The Amazons.

Earlier this month on National Coming Out Day, the canon of the Superman series changed for the life of Jon Kent, the Superman of Earth and son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, taking a bold new direction. After initially striking up a friendship with reporter Jay Nakamura, he and Jon become romantically involved, making Kent an Out bisexual character.

In this latest offering, Stephanie Williams and Vita Ayala, writers and creators confirmed that Bia is a Black Trans woman. They stressed that she “isn’t a box to tick … [she] is important to her community. Just as Black trans women are important to us in real life.” 

Of special significance to the introduction of the character in the DC Comic worlds was the endorsement of actress Lynda Carter who played the title role of Wonder Woman on television based on the comic book superheroine, which aired on ABC and later on CBS from 1975 to 1979. Earlier in the week Carter tweeted her support of Trans women;

Writing for the DC Comics-Warner Brothers website blog, co-creator Stephanie Williams said;

It’s been a dream to work with the likes of Vita Ayala, a non-binary Afro-Latinx comic writer who has been making quite a name for themselves. And then there is the illustrious and widely talented and dedicated Afro-Latina artist Alitha Martinez who is already in the comic hall of fame for all-time greats. Her passion for Nubia is unmatched. It shows in every cover and panel from Nubia’s Future State story written by L.L. McKinney, her Infinite Frontier #0 story written by Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad, and now the Nubia and the Amazons miniseries written by myself and Vita Ayala.”

Courtesy of DC Comics-Warner Brothers

I’m so excited about the history we’re creating, adding to, and remixing. The foundation has always been there, but needed some TLC. As Nubia embarks on this new journey as Queen of Themyscira, I hope her rebirth will be met with open arms and the desire to keep her always at the forefront. Nubia, now being queen, is poetic in so many ways, but one that stays on my mind is the very personal connection I feel. As I help to add to her legacy, she’s opened the door wider to my own,” Williams said adding:

Long may Queen Nubia reign, forever and always.”

Nubia and the Amazons #1 by Stephanie Williams, Vita Ayala and Alitha Martinez is now available in print and as a digital comic book.

Along with co-writing Nubia and the Amazons, Stephanie Williams writes about comics, TV and movies for DCComics.com. Check out more of her work on Den of Geek, What To Watch, Nerdist and SYFY Wire and be sure to follow her on both Twitter and Instagram at @steph_I_will.

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Ebony Power 100: Deputy White House Press Sec. Karine Jean-Pierre

Her position is historic as the first Black Lesbian who is speaking for the nation’s chief executive as Deputy Press Secretary

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Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre courtesy of EBONY Magazine Power 100 awards

BEVERLY HILLS – Ebony Magazines’ iconic annual Power 100 awards ceremony, honoring those individuals who have had a positive impact on the African-American community is making its 2021 post coronavirus pandemic return airing Saturday, October 23 from Los Angeles and hosted by Wayne Brady.

Brady, a television personality, comedian, actor, and singer, will also give a special performance during the broadcast, and he is slated to receive Ebony’s Vanguard Award for his decades-plus career “as a consummate, all-around entertainer and performer.” 

Included in the distinguished list of honorees is principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who is listed in the magazine’s category of ‘Ceiling Breakers.’ As the principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre conducts the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Room in the West Wing standing in as needed for White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki and also she conducts what are referred to as ‘gaggles.’

“Gaggles” refers to informal briefings a White House press secretary conducts with the daily press pool rather than the entire White House press corps.

President Joe Biden’s selection of Jean-Pierre was a first in the history of presidential administrations. Her position is seen as historic from the perspective of being the first Black Lesbian to hold forth behind the podium of the James S. Brady Press room in the West Wing speaking for the nation’s chief executive.

Jean-Pierre has been with the Biden administration since she joined the Biden-Harris campaign in May of 2020 and then accepted the position of Chief of Staff to Senator Harris in August. In late November of 2020, then President-elect Joe Biden named seven women to his incoming White House Communications Team to include naming Jean-Pierre as the Deputy White House Press Secretary.

The daughter of immigrant parents from Haiti, Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique and later raised in Queens, a borough of New York City. A longtime activist and communications specialist, she has a Master’s in Public Affairs conferred on her by New York’s Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she has taught as an adjunct professor and lecturer in international and public affairs since 2014.

During the first Obama admkistartion term, Jean-Pierre, 43, served as the regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs.

Speaking with the Advocate magazine in June of 2011 Jean-Pierre reflected on her tenure working for the Obama Administration as an openly LGBT staffer. “What’s been wonderful is that I was not the only; I was one of many. President Obama didn’t hire LGBT staffers, he hired experienced individuals who happen to be LGBT,” she told the Advocate. “Serving and working for President Obama where you can be openly gay has been an amazing honor. It felt incredible to be a part of an administration that prioritizes LGBT issues.”

Speaking with NBC News journalist Tim Fitzsimons; “The sun was setting and the lights got much more prominent,” she said, referring to late June 2015, when she watched the White House lit in rainbow colors to mark the historic Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. “People had signs and people were crying, and there was just so much joy.”

“I remember thinking how proud I was of this administration, that I had worked for that,” Jean-Pierre, said. “It really brought together, in that one moment, how important LGBTQ rights were and how much that administration fought for our rights.”

In 2016 after her White House stint, Jean-Pierre served as a Senior Advisor and National Spokesperson for Washington D.C. based MoveOn, a progressive non-profit public policy advocacy group and political action committee. Her primary portfolio at the non-profit was addressing President Trump’s rhetoric and platform of hate, violence, racism, immigrant-bashing, and women-bashing.

She also served as the deputy campaign manager for former Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s 2016 campaign run for the Oval Office.

Jean-Pierre received national recognition after a June 1, 2019 incident during the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum she was moderating in San Francisco, when 24 year-old Aidan Cook, a member of the animal right activist organization Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), rushed the stage grabbing the microphone out of then California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’s hand. The Senator was a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at the time of the incident.

Jean-Pierre, who had jumped in between Cook and the Senator after he took the microphone kept the activist away from Harris until security arrived and removed him. At the time of the incident, Harris, like most other candidates in early stages of the primary process, didn’t have a U.S. Secret Service detail for protection.

Jean-Pierre, her partner, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and their daughter reside in Washington D.C.

The EBONY Power 100 ceremony also is marking the culmination of Ebonys 75th anniversary year. 

For the complete list of honorees please head over to here. (Link)

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