January 1, 2020 at 8:30 am PST | by John Paul King
Remembering the best of LA’s 2019 arts scene
arts 2019, gay news, Washington Blade

The still-vibrant masterpiece ‘Swan Lake’ is most remarkable for the sheer beauty of its imaginative choreography. (Photo courtesy Center Theatre Group)

One of the greatest perks of living in Los Angeles is year-round access to the kind of world-class arts and entertainment experiences only a world-class city can offer. Here’s a look back at some of the Blade’s favorites in 2019.

“Witness Uganda,” Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts:
To a western ear with preconceptions about Africa, the title might conjure thoughts of distress, danger, and despair. Instead, this “documentary musical,” written by husband-and-husband team of Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, was a thrilling tale of hope.

An autobiographical piece exploring Matthews’ real-life experiences as a volunteer in Uganda after being expelled from his church choir for being gay, this vibrant, unexpectedly joyful musical follows the young man’s efforts to teach a handful of poor children and his eventual establishment of the Uganda Project, a non-profit devoted to raising money for the education of his African wards. Along the way, it takes on wider-ranging issues around the experiences of people of color – not just in Africa, but in America, too – while also focusing on its hero’s own efforts to find a place for himself as a queer man.

This West Coast premiere at the Wallis brought an explosion of talent to the mix, with a diverse and enthusiastic ensemble, led by Jamar Williams and 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi, turning every musical number into a jump-to-your-feet show-stopper; and while the Wallis’ Lovelace Studio Theatre is a small-ish venue, they made it feel like we were watching a cast of thousands, and audiences lucky enough to get a ticket also got the privilege of experiencing the life-changing power of theatre firsthand.

A scene from ‘Witness Uganda.’ (Photo courtesy Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts)

“Daniel’s Husband,” Fountain Theatre:

In a post-Marriage Equality world, Michael McKeever’s play might have seemed a few years out of date, but that’s a deceptive viewpoint to take. This intimate, five-character piece

centered on a long-standing, affluent gay couple who disagree about marriage; one wants it, while the other, though he would “fight to the death” for the right of others to get married, believes that actually tying the knot is an assimilation into “normal” society that goes against everything his radical queer activist heart believes in.

Bolstered by remarkable performances and a deeply compassionate script, this theatrical gem took us on a journey from light-hearted comedy to complex drama we watched an unexpected health crisis turn the couple’s world upside down, reminding us of the practical benefits of marriage – so long denied to same-sex couples – while also offering a grim warning against the hubris of making a choice based on philosophical principal when the real-world stakes are so high.

“Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business,” by Frank DeCaro:

The great thing about this 2019 arts highlight is that it will be around forever. Written by local drag legend DeCaro, this non-fiction volume was the end result of a five-year labor of love that the author calls “encyclopedic,” but also “light-hearted.”

With 144 pages worth of lovingly crafted layouts, 100 story-unto-themselves photos (some of them from the queens’ personal collections), and contributions by the likes of Lypsinka, Bianca Del Rio, Hedda Lettuce, Harvey Fierstein, and Wesley Snipes, DeCaro’s book is, as the foreword by Bruce Vilanch fittingly puts it, “a living, pulsing documentation of some of the most brilliant subculture artists in America’s cultural history.”

Outfest 2019:

With the most attendees in more than a decade, the 38th annual Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival was the unquestionable highlight of the year for fans of world-class LGBTQ cinema.

Screening more than 240 films from 33 countries, with more than two-thirds of them directed by filmmakers who are women, trans, and people of color, this year’s festival was focused on diversity and intersectionality within its lineup. With titles ranging from local crowd favorite “Circus of Books” (a documentary about LA’s legendary adult store and cruising spot) to the heartbreaking Guatemalan conversion-therapy drama “Temblores” to the Grand Jury Prize-winner for US Narrative Feature, “Jules of Light and Dark,” it was one of the strongest slates in the festival’s history and served to remind audiences how far we’ve come in the world of queer cinema since Outfest began in 1982.

It was also the debut of Outfest’s new Executive Director, Damien Navarro, who inspired the crowd at the closing night gala by saying, “We are the magic that we create, and we are the changes that we envision,” and teased them that about plans for the festival’s future by asking, “How can Outfest be there for you always – always on, and always there?”

Cyndi Lauper & Friends “Home for the Holidays” Concert, Novo at LA Live

It was one of those happy occasions when fantastic entertainment intersects with real-world benefits for real people with real – and urgent – needs. With all proceeds going to Lauper’s “True Colors United” organization, which helps with the crisis of LGBTQ youth homelessness by providing training and education programs, advocacy at the state and federal level, and building youth collaborations and youth leadership programs that help bring solutions, it was a way of treating yourself to an unforgettable evening of top-notch talent while also doing something concrete to help a segment of our queer community that is all too often ignored and forgotten.

A star-studded lineup of performers – including Belinda Carlisle, Billy Porter, Justin Trantner, Lily Tomlin, Kesha, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, and many other outstanding artists – was on hand for the evening, which also included the presentation of the United Nations’ first-ever High Note Global Prize, an award which honors and celebrates major recording artists for using their music and celebrity platform to advocate for social justice worldwide, to Lauper herself (who also performed, of course). On December 10, it was definitely at the top of the list for places to be.

Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Home for the Holidays’ was a 2019 highlight.

Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” Ahmanson Theatre:

Yes, this reimagining of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet – which put Olivier-and-Tony-winning choreographer Bourne on the map for his bold choice to make the doomed romance at its center a same-sex one – could really be considered a “Best of 1995” choice; but this remounted production at the Ahmanson reminds us that the work of a visionary artist is not only timeless, but also worth experiencing over and over again.

Though the power of its gender-swapped casting may have mellowed somewhat after nearly three decades of progress in LGBTQ visibility and acceptance (watching two impossibly beautiful, impossibly athletic, and impossibly graceful men dance together with smoldering chemistry no longer feels transgressive, thank goodness), and the weight of its unavoidable AIDS subtext may not be as heavy (or as obvious) as it was when it debuted at the height of the epidemic, Bourne’s lavishly mounted spectacle is still a testament to the wonders possible when queer voices find a way to express authentic queer experience through the magic of performance.

Best of all, even with all that cultural importance on its shoulders, this still-vibrant masterpiece is most remarkable for the sheer beauty of its imaginative choreography – created with Bourne’s characteristic blend of whimsy and heart-stopping drama – and executed with world-class skill by some of the most talented dancers on the planet.

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