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Kelly McDonnell

I Hate New Year’s Elevates the classic Holiday Rom-Com

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 16, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

The holiday season is going to be different this year. It might not feel as festive with loved ones at a distance or favorite businesses closed down. But a joyful, musical remedy during this time is the new holiday film, I Hate New Year’s, directed by Christin Baker of Tello Films.

When up-and-coming pop singer, Layne Price (Dia Frampton), hits a writer’s blocker for songwriting, a psychic named Zelena (Candis Cayne) advises her to travel back home to Nashville. Layne stays with her oldest and best friend Cassie, played by the charming Ashley Argota, most known for her roles on Disney Channel. Zelena advises Layne to go back to “a place where you need to learn to love again.” And these days, we could all use a reminder on how to love.

The conflict isn’t just Layne’s simple writer’s block. Cassie wants to tell Layne that she’s in love with her, even though they’re best friends. Layne is completely one-track-minded about fixing her writer’s block and doesn’t see the love she needs standing right beside her.

The film’s antics unfold throughout Nashville, with bubbly, if not typical rom-com scenes including a karaoke scene, a shopping montage and an impromptu musical number. The music in the film, which was written by Billy Steinberg and Josh Alexander, is heartfelt and perfectly bedroom pop. Steinberg’s repertoire features #1 hits for Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, explaining the film’s upbeat and pining soundtrack.

Argota is a force throughout this film. Not only does her voice enchant as she sings a melodic piano tune called “Hours of the Night,” she’s also the film’s emotional crutch. From the beginning of the film, we know her one desire: to express her love for her friend, no matter the cost. It’s a daring feat, and we want her to succeed. Argota’s eyes show the most emotion, and they’re glittering and enthralling to watch.

We watch Cassie struggle, loyally and dotingly following Layne through Nashville as she chases after an ex-girfriend. We see how painful it is for Cassie, but her persistence to be the best friend that Layne needs is heart-warming. It’s the perfect remedy for any cold feelings during this winter season.

The film’s other success is its familiarity. Unlike many other mainstream LGBTQ romances, there’s no coming-out drama. The characters’ sexuality just exists. It needs no explanation to any other character or to the audience, it has its history and its own realism. The normalized emotional connections between all the characters—many of whom are LGBTQ themselves—is refreshing to see on screen.

Like any cheesy holiday rom-com, there’s the opposition between the cheery friend, Cassie, and the Scrooge, Layne. These two characters clearly have a history, and though it’s not fully established or emoted just how well the two know each other, Frampton’s and Argota’s connection on screen feels authentic.

It’s joyful to watch these two friends do what we hopefully will be able to do again soon: go out without masks on, grab drinks in a crowded bar, sing karaoke into a shared microphone, and wander the streets with our hands intertwined.

WETA highlights local singers in Special holiday premiere

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 14, 2020 in The DC Line here.

The pandemic halted live performances in March, but there’s still music and holiday cheer on tap this week.

This Tuesday at 9 p.m., WETA Arts will premiere Washington Voices: Songs of the Season, a medley of pre-recorded holiday choral performances by 12 area choirs.

The special is mainly showcasing archival footage from the choirs’ previous holiday performances since 2006. One new performance by the Children’s Chorus of Washington will also be presented, despite the difficulties of gathering and singing due to the pandemic. The group’s members individually recorded themselves singing, and the recordings were then edited together for a full ensemble performance. And while the group ceased in-person vocal rehearsals and performances in March, the members recently filmed a socially distanced American Sign Language performance in front of the Washington National Cathedral, to accompany the recorded music. 

WETA Arts producer Judy Meschel and Children’s Chorus of Washington artistic director Margaret Nomura Clark collaborated to broadcast the sounds of the season even in a year where that’s technically difficult.

“Holidays are not complete without the choral concerts throughout our region,” Nomura Clark told The DC Line.

Washingtonians looking to attend a seasonal show normally have as many as seven or eight options every night throughout December, said Gretchen Kuhrmann, artistic director for Choralis, a Falls Church choir with two performances being showcased during the television event. Washington Voices will let viewers watch their favorite choirs and discover new choirs all on one night, Kuhrmann said.

The Washington area is truly the nation’s capital for choirs: for every town in the DMV, there’s one to six choirs, according to a 2003 study by Chorus America. This special includes more than 1,000 local chorus singers, the organizers said.

Kuhrmann, Nomura Clark and Thea Kano, artistic director for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, all said the holiday special shows that despite the pandemic’s devastation, the arts are still thriving in the region.

From the comfort of their couches, area residents can watch their neighbors performing beloved holiday music, including Christian hymns, Jewish songs, classical arrangements and pop radio classics. Kano said GMCW chose to perform the comedic “Hanukkah Rhapsody” to represent the Jewish community and to provide variety in the type of holiday music being featured.

Meschel and Nomura Clark both said they wanted the program to reflect the diverse DMV community. An independent committee from WETA Arts reviewed more than 30 submissions from local choirs and chose groups that were representative and visually interesting for the program.

The program includes children’s choirs, senior choirs, symphonic groups like Choralis, and massive ones like GMCW, which has 200 members. 

In addition to GMCW, 11 choirs will be featured in the one-hour program: 

  • Alfred Street Baptist Church Music Ministry Choir
  • The Thirteen
  • Washington Performing Arts’ Men and Women of the Gospel Choir and Children of the Gospel Choir
  • Alexandria Harmonizers
  • Zemer Chai
  • Cathedral Choral Society
  • Children’s Chorus of Washington’s Bel Canto Chorus and Concert Chorus
  • Choral Arts Society of Washington
  • Choralis
  • Encore Chorale
  • Fairfax Choral Society Vocal Arts Ensemble

The different groups represent talent from throughout the DMV and “as diverse as they are… it brings us all together,” Nomura Clark said. “We are presenting ourselves to us,” Meschel added.

A special like this seemed impossible months ago. When the pandemic began, singing became one of the most dangerous activities possible, Kano said. Taking deep breaths in and releasing aerosols while vocalizing made singers both spreaders and vulnerable catchers of the novel coronavirus. Choral singing, in the traditional sense, was quickly abandoned for safety.

But Choralis’ Kuhrmann wanted to keep the choir community connected. She contacted a few local choir directors for weekly virtual meetings to discuss tips for online rehearsals and programming. The group expanded to include directors, conductors and composers across the region.

The group was a “brain dump” for sharing ideas on how to adjust to choir directing over Zoom, Kuhrmann said. “We all needed each other.”

Some groups with the same rehearsal times teamed up to host guest speakers who lectured on vocalization, music theory and composing. Nomura Clark said that one benefit of this virtual space was her ability to invite a composer from London to talk with her group.

Artistic directors began sharing arrangements that were created to accommodate the audio shortcomings of Zoom, which has presented challenges for group singing, Kuhrmann said. Zoom only highlights the single loudest sound, so when Choralis rehearses over the online platform, members have to remain muted and learn on their own, Kuhrmann said.

The Gay Men’s Chorus has had similar challenges. Kano said she doesn’t know what the entire choir sounds like until members’ individual recordings are edited together. Kano said that her group provides safety for LGBTQ+ people who are marginalized, so while virtual rehearsals may not be musically fulfilling, it still unites members with their “chosen family.”

Meschel and Nomura Clark said they hope the WETA special will encourage viewers to support local choruses and attend in-person concerts when choirs perform live again.

Kuhrmann said the artistic directors have already discussed plans for when live performances resume. Ideas include a summer festival to showcase choruses or a massive, multi-group performance at an arena where everyone can finally meet face-to-face after months of virtual bonding.

“We all have a lot of energy and passion, and none of us want to sit on our hands and go back to business as usual once this is all over,” Kuhrmann said.

But I’m A Cheerleader Re-release Sparks New Critique of Ongoing anti-LGBTQ policies

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published December 1, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

But I’m A Cheerleader is a perfect satirical film. Its explicit and ironic criticism of conservative and religious ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity in the 1990s shines a light on contradictions of the time.

Between liberal government policies that banned sexual orientation discrimination and the continued social brutality against LGBTQ people, like Matthew Shephard who was murdered in 1998 for being gay, Jamie Babbit’s 1999 feature film was an over-the-top critique of inequality. The film’s re-release on December 8 with new scenes and interviews with creators and cast will hopefully add to the film’s successful campy narrative that reminds audiences of resilience.

Netflix’s Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, who is 17 years old when her parents send her to a conversion therapy home called “True Directions.” But Megan can’t be a lesbian! Doesn’t everyone fantasize about their teammates in short skirts? Well, Babbit wants you to, as the camera close-ups focus on a girl’s short skirt or on her breasts. These glimpses into Megan’s imagination shows what she wants and what she denies herself.

There are five steps to convert back to straightness at True Directions. Step one is admitting your homosexuality. To get to step five, Megan and the other women campers learn how to wash dishes and change diapers while the men campers play football and fix cars. This is a re-learning process of the natural order dictated by True Directions, despite how mundane and inconsequential all of these tasks are. By step five, the campers should be cured to heterosexuality.

When she first admits she’s a lesbian, Megan’s face twists into an indiscernible mixture of fear and relief. Her eyes crinkle and fill with tears, but her lips fill into an almost smile, stiff but on the verge of shining. The other campers hug her. Admittance is the first step, but does it guide Megan down the straight, and narrow path?

The film has coded campy coloring, with girls dressed in Barbie pink outfits and the boys in button-up blue suits. The house is always being cleaned and the furniture is wrapped in clear guards, a nod to the discriminatory idea that gayness is contagious and to the lingering 90s AIDS fear.

Babbit is re-releasing But I’m A Cheerleader as a director’s cut in 4K HD on December 8 with never-before released scenes and a reunion interview with the film’s cast, which also includes RuPaul and Michelle Williams.

The film’s resurgence is especially pertinent as politicians have revamped their support for anti-LGBTQ policies. Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the United States Supreme Court was a loss for the LGBTQ community, particularly because of Barrett’s history as a trustee at private Christian schools with anti-gay policies.

The Trump administration has also taken legal action that would restrict LGBTQ access to support shelters and schools based on gender identity assigned at birth. Attacks against LGBTQ individuals are still making national news, especially this year with several Black and Brown trans women and men being murdered at record numbers.

The conservative and religious-based ideologies that targeted homosexuality in the ’90s and prompted Babbit to create this campy satire haven’t gone anywhere.

The re-release of But I’m A Cheerleader is exciting for a queer cult-classic getting some fresh air, yet it’s evergreen applicability is disheartening. But as Megan confronts crushing conversion attempts from clueless hypocrites, we can, too.

First virtual Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony celebrates the ‘district of creativity’

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published November 23, 2020 in The DC Line here.

Since 1985, the Mayor’s Arts Awards have offered a chance to highlight notable DC venues such as the Lincoln Theatre, a sprawling auditorium on the historic U Street Corridor and a frequent host to the annual event. But the 2020 awards, presented on Sept. 30, relocated to a virtual format like most other celebratory events this year. 

Though the 35th annual awards ceremony couldn’t be held on the historically Black-centric U Street, most of this year’s winners produce work that focuses on Black creativity and empowerment, and many performers showcased Black Washingtonian pride. 

“There’s never been a time, there’s never been a day, like this in our city or in the world,” said Chaz French, a DC-based recording artist and featured speaker at the awards. “Overall, it’s the perfect time to show the rawness of our city, our flaws, our beauty.” 

Award categories ranged from nightlife creativity to arts education, encompassing the many aspects of DC’s “creative community.” The mayor’s Creative Affairs Office — part of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment — took over administration of the awards in 2019 when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which used to host the event, became an independent agency.

The night’s award winners, presenters and performers repeatedly voiced solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged Washingtonians to vote in this year’s elections.

Virginia Ali, the co-founder and owner of restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl — a U Street staple — accepted the Mayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. “I want to take this moment to thank our extraordinary mayor and her extraordinary team,” Ali said. “We expect to be at Ben’s Chili Bowl another 62 years.”

DC Black Broadway, which hires exclusively from the DMV area and produces Black-centric theatrical shows and television programs, won an award for Excellence in Performing Arts.

Indya Wright, a photographer, graphic designer and producer who goes by “Icy the Artist,” won for Excellence in Media Arts. “All of the art I’ve ever created is for the love of this city,” Wright said as she accepted her award.

Wright has done production work for the film Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the television show The Colbert Report. She currently works as the director of content development at Artiste House, a public relations and branding organization that centers on Black design and storytelling.

Purify Love — an activist and a poet who has written more than 600 poems, raps and songs — won the Larry Neal Writers’ Award. As the leader and founder of the Purify Love Movement, she uses motivational speaking to spread her belief that sharing peace and love are the best way to “create lasting change in any society,” according to her website.

Other nominees for this award included Karen Zacarías, an award-winning playwright and the founder of local education nonprofit Young Playwrights Theater, and Randon Billings Noble, an essayist. 

The virtual event also featured many pre-recorded segments from performers such as drummer and America’s Got Talent contestant Malik Dope, 9-year-old rapper Zyah, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC., a collaborative music project that highlights musicians in DC, performed in both Spanish and English. In separate Zoom boxes, the artists played drums and guitars, and sang lyrics about unity: “I know that everything will be alright as long as we are united.”

The Chuck Brown Band dedicated their song to the homegrown culture of go-go, which became DC’s official musical genre in February. “You can never mute DC,” the band sang over images of Black Lives Matter protests. The phrase refers to a 2019 dispute that arose when T-Mobile forced a Shaw Metro PCS store owner to turn off the go-go music that emanated from his store after a nearby resident complained about the noise. Local residents rallied around store owner Donald Campbell, and T-Mobile reversed its decision, allowing his store to play the music. 

The resulting #DontMuteDC movement highlighted challenges faced by DC’s Black community, such as displacement, and has helped spur new policy initiatives. In July, the DC Council voted to allocate $3 million in funding to go-go music programs and musicians that have been especially struggling during the pandemic.

The Mayor’s Arts Awards also featured short clips of famous native Washingtonians like Grammy-nominated rapper Wale and Laz Alonzo, who stars in the Amazon Prime series The Boys. They praised Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC, which host and comedian Tommy Davidson dubbed the “district of creativity.”

The complete list of winners:

  • Distinguished Honor: Virginia Ali
  • Excellence as a Community Arts Advocate: Ron Moten
  • Excellence in Arts Education: Rain Young
  • Excellence in Media Arts: Icy the Artist
  • Excellence in Performing Arts: DC Black Broadway
  • Excellence in Visual Arts: Rodney Herring
  • Excellence in the Creative Industries: Nelson Cruz
  • Excellence in the Humanities: Joy Ford Austin
  • Excellence in the Nightlife Economy: Hendres Kelly
  • Visionary Leadership: Tiara Johnson
  • Emerging Creative: Artbae
  • The Larry Neal Writers’ Award: Purify Love

Say Their Names: Honoring Black Trans Lives lost in 2020

By Kelly McDonnell and Becca Damante

This article was first published November 21, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

As of November 2020 there have been at least 21 murders of Black trans people this year. Let’s take the time to honor them by saying their names remembering their legacies.


Monika Diamond was a 34-year-old Black transgender woman killed on March 18, 2020 in Charlotte, NC. According to HRC, Diamond was “active in the Charlotte LGBTQ and nightlife community” and was “co-CEO of the International Mother of the Year Pageantry System—a pageant that honors LGBTQ mothers.”


Lexi was a 33-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Harlem, New York City on March 28, 2020. Her friend Lavonia Brooks noted Lexi’s love of poetry, fashion, and makeup and said: “I really looked up to [Lexi] because of her tolerance and respect. Lexi had a beautiful heart, she was very gifted.”


Nina Pop was a 28-year old Black transgender woman killed in Sikeston, Missouri on May 3, 2020. Pop was well- known in the area, and a friend shared that she was “always happy.”


Tony McDade was a 38-year old Black transgender man who was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida on May 27, 2020. Friends shared that he had “such a big heart” and his “energy would lift [their] spirits.”


Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells was a 27- year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Philadelphia, PA on June 9, 2020. A friend shared that “Dom was a unique and beautiful soul who [they were] lucky to have known personally.”


Riah Milton was a 25-year-old Black transgender woman who was killed in Liberty Township, Ohio on June 9, 2020. She was a home health aide and a loving sister and aunt.


Brayla Stone was a 17-year old Black transgender young woman who was killed in Little Rock, Arkansas on June 25, 2020. In honoring her memory, people have said that “Brayla was someone who always held space for others to be themselves and express their identities.”


Merci Mack was a 22-year-old Black transgender woman who was killed in Dallas, Texas on June 30, 2020. According to her Facebook page, she was a restaurant worker and loved baking cookies and relaxing in the jacuzzi.


Tatiana Hall was a 21-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in New Jersey on or near June 30, 2020. Not much is known about Tatiana at this time.


Draya McCarty was a Black transgender woman who was killed in Baton Rouge in late June or early July 2020. Not much is known about Draya at this time, but she was from Hammond, Louisiana.


Shakie Peters was a 32-year old Black transgender woman who was found dead close to Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 1, 2020. Shakie’s friend shared that Shakie was “a very independent person and very loyal to her friends” and was also “full of laughter and an abundance of life.”


Bree Black was a 27-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Pompano Beach, Florida on July 3, 2020. Not much is known about Bree at this time, but local activists set up an altar for Bree and are hoping to get in touch with her family.


Brian Powers, also known as Egypt, was killed in Akron, OH on June 13. Powers, 43 years old, was a passionate chef and worked for a catering company. He also had a love of dance.


Queasha Hardy, 24 years old, was killed in Baton Rouge, LA on July 27. Hardy owned a hair salon business, “So Federal Styles,” that she had recently started. Friends said she was unapologetic about her identity.


Tiffany Harris, who also went by the name Dior H Ova, was 32 years old when she died in the Bronx borough of New York City on July 26. Her Facebook page noted her hometown as Kingston, Jamaica, and showed a love for fashion.


Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, also known as Rocky Rhone, was 34 years old when she was killed at a vigil for a homicide victim in Portland, OR on July 28. She had studied at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she was the owner and founder of her own clothing brand in Portland. She was active on social media against racial injustice.


Isabella Mia Lofton, 21 years old, died on September 7 in Brooklyn, NY. She was originally from Chicago, IL. Her sister said she was kind to everyone despite hardships.


Aerrion Burnett was killed on September 19 in Independence, MO at 37 years old. She died several days before her birthday. At a vigil, a friend said, “She was a goddess.”


Mia Green, 29 years old, was killed in Philadelphia, PA on September 28. A friend said, “Her smile was so perfect and so contagious.”


Felycya Harris was killed in Augusta, GA on October 3. The 33-year-old was an interior decorator with her own business. Her social media showed her love of dance and fashion.


Brooklyn DeShuna, a 20-year-old who also used the name Brooklyn DeShauna Smith, was killed in Shreveport, LA on October 7. She studied cosmetology at Bossier Parish Community College. A friend described her as a “genuinely a good person.”

Local theater company to release its first audio play this week

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published November 16, 2020 in The DC Line here.

DC theater company Edge of the Universe Players 2 will release its first-ever audio play — a production of Anton Chekhov’s comedy short, The Marriage Proposal.

Adapting a stage performance to an auditory-only experience, director Stephen Jarrett says, is a welcome challenge. “The fear is not a bad thing,” he said.

The show — which will be available through Dec. 2 — will feature local actors Kim Gilbert, Jamie Smithson and Cody Nickell. Rehearsals and recording, which will take place over Zoom, are occurring in the span of just one week.

Smithson has done several Zoom productions during the pandemic, but this is his first audio play.

“I’m very eager to see this podcast because it’s just a different way of approaching the art. I think a lot of companies are going to do it,” said Smithson, whose area credits include shows at Arena Stage, Folger Theatre and Signature Theatre, among others.

Moving a stage production into an audio-only format presents challenges for actors as they attempt to connect to the audience and to the other actors.

“The choices that I make as an actor are going to change a little,” Smithson said. “With a farce like this, so much of it is physical, especially the clowning and all that. The vocal choices will have to be more important.”

“You want emotion to be seen,” Jarrett said. Now, “everything has to be put into the voice.”

Jarrett said rehearsing and recording audio over Zoom will allow the actors to react to each other organically and convey emotion for the listeners. If audience members can imagine the characters’ facial reactions, they will be more engaged with the play, he added. 

Jarrett has directed two previous shows for the theater company, Entertaining Mr. Sloane in 2015 and The Summoning of Everyman in 2013. Jarrett was supposed to direct a third show at this past summer’s Capital Fringe Festival, which celebrates independent artists in DC, but the festival was shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the cancellation, Edge of the Universe Players 2 still wanted to mount a production, and an audio play, which many theater organizations have been producing for years, seemed most accessible, Jarrett said.

“There is no replacing the live theater,” Smithson said. “Artists have to make art, and what’s happening is that everyone is finding their own way.”

The Marriage Proposal is a 22-minute, one-act comedy about three Russian aristocrats who argue about everything from polite manners to property ownership to hunting dogs. The characters’ attempts to control the arguments are what make the play so funny, Jarrett said.

Amid so much uncertainty and contention across the nation and world, Jarrett said this may be the ideal time to produce a comedic play. “The whole purpose of art, for theater, is to make time stand still,” Jarrett said. “For 22 minutes, maybe that will relax some people.”

A free podcast of the show will be available on Edge of the Universe Players 2’s website, with listeners encouraged to donate to the theater company.

LGBTQ History: Compton Cafeteria Riots

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published October 20, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

Three years before the Stonewall Riots, transgender activists fought police brutality in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, 1966, transwomen resisted police intimidation and brutality outside of a popular LGBTQ gathering spot and all-night diner.

Gene Compton’s restaurant chain was a popular spot for transgender women, who had been denied entry to gay bars, to hang out, but management frequently called police on transgender patrons. Police arrested transwomen for the crime “female impersonation” because cross-dressing was illegal.

Transgender and gay people picketed police injustice and the restaurant’s management outside of Compton’s Cafeteria. Police arrived and attempted to arrest protesters, then one transwoman threw coffee at the police. A multi-day riot began, though it’s unclear for how long or how intense the protests were since police records of the year no longer exist, and the event wasn’t covered by newspapers.

A plaque at the former Compton’s Cafeteria site says, “Here marks the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria where a riot took place one August night when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination.”

Many people involved in the riot were part of the first American gay youth organization, Vanguard, founded in 1965. Vanguard and the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church organized multiple equal rights protests against businesses that refused to serve LGBTQ people.

Documentary filmmakers Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman interviewed riot survivors and local transwomen of the San Francisco Tenderloin District for her 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.