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Performing Arts

Pamela Maria Chavez’s “Caracol Cruzando” Shines

This article was first published by TAGG and can be read on their site here.

When Pamela Maria Chavez set out to make her short film “Caracol Cruzando,” she wanted to tell a story that brimmed with universality but was still tied to her own personal experience as an immigrant. What she ended up with was a beautiful and heart wrenching film about a young Costa Rican girl leaving behind her homeland for the United States.

The film, funded by Latino Public Broadcasting, centers around a young girl, Anais, who is preparing to leave her home of Costa Rica. Her family decides to cross the border separately, splitting up one child with one parent. Anais’ beloved pet turtle, a symbol of her ties to her homeland, is taken at customs, allowing the audience to understand the full breadth and tragedy that comes with the immigration process.

Chavez ses animation as a sort of perfect medium to tell the story. “Kids love animation, but so do adults,” she says. “What a perfect sort of medium to be able to ask, ‘How can I tell this complicated, dense story in a way that’s accessible?’”

Her desire to reach young people and families alike drove her to tap into the heart of immigration, even allowing herself to heal during the process. Chavez cited the balance of creating a piece of art that not only creates dialogue around present day issues like immigration, but makes it universal for all those watching, sharing in that feeling.

“Activism is in the story I’m telling,” Chavez says. “I don’t know if I will ever steer away from content that doesn’t speak to my heart.”

As a filmmaker, illustrator, and animator, Chavez sees the importance in honest and genuine storytelling, specifically emphasizing how these narratives should be told by those experiencing it.

“We don’t want that narrative told by somebody else,” she says. “We want to be steering these conversations. We want to be at the helm.” As a queer woman of color in the film industry, Chavez can’t overstate enough the importance of funding other artists and filmmakers from marginalized communities.

“Who I am as an artist and activist is somebody genuinely concerned about the things that happen in our world,” she says. “I can’t be passive.”

To vote for “Caracol Cruzando” for PBS’s Online Film Festival, click here.

An Interview with Musician and Storyteller Holly Near

This article was first published on TAGG and can be read on their site here.

Musician Holly Near has dedicated her life and career to ensuring that her music allows activism, storytelling, and more to intersect. She has participated in the annual music festival SisterSpace in the past and continues to be a vital force in that event and the LGBTQ community. Below, she tells us a bit about her own career and the importance of festivals like SisterSpace.

How did you get involved with SisterSpace, and why is an event like this important to you?

I began participating in women’s music festivals in the early ’70s. I believe they have been a hugely important way for women and perhaps more specifically lesbians to gather. We all need songs no matter who we are, no matter where we come from. Lesbian and woman-identified songs were originally sung in the privacy of the home but fortunately, the music broke down the front door.

You’ve been involved in the music industry for some time now. How have you seen the industry shift and change, specifically in its inclusion of LGBTQ performers?

I’m not much of an expert on the music industry. I left it pretty quickly. I didn’t know how to be me in it. I was singing political lyrics, anti-war songs, songs about social change right from the start, and that just didn’t fit into the industry hit song mold. So I started my own record company. This was in 1972. That said, I think the work that lesbian feminists did to make a space for outspoken music laid the ground work so that women artists could then chose to go in to the music industry or work with the alternative feminist networks.

How has your experience as an out artist shifted your own life?

Before I came out I was already singing songs that had words like “genocide,” so my chances of a mainstream career were already unlikely. I knew that it would be difficult when I came out. Back then, the so-called white, male-dominated left and progressive movements were not user-friendly to feminists or lesbians and, for the most part, not receptive to people of color either. So by coming out, I would lose a good part of my audience in the peace movement. But they eventually went through their own changes. Now, at least in appearance, most social change groups are welcoming of diversity of all types. It is the next step that is hard. How do we change the racism and sexism that still hangs on in organizations, institutions, and individuals? I think that songwriters can continue to be of use in this regard. It is important for people who think of themselves as progressive to look long and hard on what work still needs to be done. In this case, for example, lesbians have an opportunity to really undo the racism and class discrimination that lurks in our communities, our structures, our culture. Music festivals can be part of this work.

What does SisterSpace mean to you, especially in the context of today’s social and political climate?

SisterSpace has made a commitment to challenging racism and other forms of discrimination. It is in their mission statement; it is reflected on their board and in their leadership. It gives us all a place to practice and we can take that knowledge out into the larger community.

Is there anything else you would want to add, either about yourself or to burgeoning LGBTQ musicians?

Young artists will make up a path that I cannot even imagine. That is how it goes and I look forward to seeing where it goes. However, no matter when we come in to this work, it is a challenge to really commit to being socially relevant and conscientious artists. It takes practice and can be painful and it can be glorious. As hard as it has been over the last 50 years, I do not regret for one moment working outside of the mainstream.

SisterSpace Continues to Pave Way for Fun and Inclusion

This article was first published on TAGG and can be read on their site here.

SisterSpace, the annual camping festival for women’s music, culture, and—most importantly— community, is gearing up for another year of femme-oriented fun with a social impact that is unparalleled.

With comedy, spoken word, jazz, pop, folk, rock, world music and more, the festival is spread out over five stages indoors and outdoors and lasts three days. This year’s theme, “Her(Story),” builds upon last year’s theme,“ReSisterSpace,” where workshops were focused on empowerment, activism, and self-care.

“We have several workshops about empowerment, but also about coming together,” says Jo-Ann McIntyre, an organizer of SisterSpace. “It’s about coming together, learning how to talk and listen to each other and hearing and celebrating each other’s stories.”

The festival, which has been held since 1977, has long ensured that the event is packed with opportunities and activities to connect queer individuals with each other and allow for intergenerational queer bonding and solidarity.

This year, the festival will celebrate the creation of the Virginia Giordano Memorial Fund. Virginia Giordano was a prominent and celebrated producer of women’s music in the 1970s who helped to promote LGBTQ musicians, including SisterSpace performers Holly Near and Cris Williamson, until her death in 2014. The fund is aimed at helping up-and-coming musicians and other individuals gain more recognition and visibility.

Near, who is on the advisory board for the Virginia Giordano Memorial Fund, has participated in women’s music festivals since the early ’70s and emphasizes the importance of these spaces in celebrating and advocating for one another.

“How do we change the racism and sexism that still hangs on in organizations, institutions, and individuals?” Near asks. “I think songwriters can continue to be of use in this regard. It is important for people who think of themselves as progressive to look long and hard on what work still needs to be done.” Music festivals like SisterSpace can be an avenue of change that can help in this dismantling.

“We all need songs no matter who we are, no matter where we come from,” Near says. With a line-up of musicians that span multiple generations and backgrounds (including Be Steadwell, Crys Matthews, Indigie Femme, and KIN4LIFE) and plenty more workshops and events, SisterSpace is gearing up for a successful year.

SisterSpace takes place September 7–9 in Darlington, Maryland. To register for the festival or to learn more about the SisterSpace community, visit sisterspace.org.

Happy Wife Happy Life: Bridget McManus Talks Being Happily Ever Married

This article was first published on TAGG and can be read on their site here.

Bridget McManus can be considered a lot of things (and rightfully so): a host, director, screenwriter, comedian, creator. But there’s one position that she’s managed to transform into a web series that is equal parts funny, endearing, and honest – wife.

McManus’ web series “Happy Wife Happy Life” features two married lesbian couples, including McManus and her wife of a decade, Karman Kregloe, discussing, debating, and dissecting the ins and outs of relationships.

“I always hear marriage is difficult, even challenging,” says McManus in a phone interview. “We love the idea of couples talking about how great it is to get married. Marriage is fucking awesome.” McManus and long-time friend Cat Davis conceived the idea, later asking their respective wives to be a part of the self-produced show.

McManus hadn’t even thought about marriage before meeting her now wife, but “love at first sight” became a reality when she met Kregloe. They married in 2008 and were among the 18,000 same-sex couples who were able to get married before Prop 8 was passed. They were grandfathered in, but that allowed McManus to see the immense privilege in being a married lesbian couple.

“Marriage is two people coming together to make each other’s lives better,” says McManus. “It’s letting the person you’re with flourish and allowing yourself to evolve, too.” It’s this sentiment that drives the show’s core; being a partner in all senses of the word and allowing for mutual respect and growth. The four women offer an insight into how to make the most out of married life and allows for a very literal glance into what married lesbian couples look like for younger queer people.

The show has unconsciously begun to recode the heteronormative marriage therapy trope into something more queer-centered and humorous, qualities that has led to the production of two seasons (and counting) of the web series. McManus is delighted with the response to the web series, but stresses that there is still a distinct lack of LGBTQ content in the mainstream media, but urges young queer people to seek out and even create their own representation.

“Everyone can put their stuff out there on the internet,” says McManus on finding more LGBTQ media. “[The internet] levels the playing field; of course, it’s not 100 percent leveled, but that doesn’t mean the minority can’t flourish and thrive too. I just want to see more queer content. I want to see more points of views and perspectives.”

McManus has seen the “nonstop growing and thriving” in the queer community but acknowledges it may not be accessible to everyone. Web series like “Happy Wife Happy Life” have gained mainstream traction for the LGBTQ community and become an important and central platform for new queer creation.

“Happy Wife Happy Life” season 3 premieres on June 3 on tello Films and was recently submitted for an Emmy Award in the “Outstanding Short Form Variety Series” category. McManus is working on multiple other projects as well, with no signs of slowing down in sight.

The Washington Ballet Presents Three World Premieres

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

In the armed services how you identify yourself (rank, branch, tours of duties) reveals critical information about the length and depth of your military career. In the world of dance, particularly in ballet, there is similar identification shorthand that gives insight into a dancer’s proficiencies. What can never be quantified is the human element, the fact that no two people–even those who have the same experiences–will experience them the same way. That human element was on full display as The Washington Ballet, under the artistic direction of Julie Kent, presented Three World Premieres March 14-18 at the Harman Center.

Three World Premieres was a showcase of three veteran dancers Clifton Brown, Gemma Bond, and Marcelo Gomes, as they pivot from their work as performers to creators as choreographers. The two-hour performance had intermissions after each act. Clifton Brown’s Menagerie opened the show.

Brown, who started his professional dancing career in 1999 as a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) is a Bessie Award winner, a founding member and rehearsal director for Jessica Lang Dance.  Additionally Brown has performed on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. Menagerie features 10 dancers and was set to Gioachino Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major. Cellist Suzanne Orban and Bassist Marta Bradley brought the piece of music to life; their playing added another rich layer to the performance.

Menagerie, as its name suggests, was free-flowing and light. Comprised of three dances, each had corresponding openings and endings. The start of the piece has two male dancers with their backs turned to the audience, heads high as if looking at a horizon. The lighting designed by Robert Fabrizio was subtle throughout, starting in a pale blue that shifted to deep copper before returning back to blue. The two male dancers were soon joined by two female dancers, with a slow rhythmic interplay prior to a pairing off.

Menagerie seems very aware of the audience. Commonly with four dancers two men and two women, the pairing would be gender balanced, but often that convention was brushed to the side. And there were at several turns facial expressions just as important as the body moments in regarding to the feelings of the dancer. As all ten dancers arrived on stage there were still moments where groups clustered, but more of the movements were in long clean lines facing the audience. The syncopation of the dueling cello and bass added drama, and even the moments when the music was less intense the natural rhythm of the dancer’s steps filled the sound void. As Menagerie draws to a close all ten dancers are on stage against a golden orange backdrop, creating a flower-shaped silhouette. It reminded one of a formation we’ve seen performed by the Ailey Company, but the transition out was joyful movement filled with laughter, encapsulating Brown’s genius and station as a creative.

Gemma Bond hails from Bedfordshire, England, and she is currently a corps member of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Bond’s choreographic career goes back just as far as her dance training; her first piece was staged at the age of 13. The 2017-2018 Princess Grace Foundation- USA Choreography Fellow has created three ballets for ABT’s Choreographic Institute and her next commissioned work with a premiere at the Ballet Sun Valley. Performed this evening was Myriad, set to the music of Henry Purcell. The dance features six female dancers and one male counterpart. Whereas Menagerie did not reduce to a linear narrative, Myriad is presented as a story, with a clearly defined being, middle, and end.

As the curtain rises a white-hot backdrop stings your eyes. Thankfully it softens as six women dancers in long flowing pastel-colored dresses move to center stage. Through the opening, the dancers are commonly interlocked, each taking turn coming to the forefront. One after the next, each establishes her own tempo while the rest sway in the rear. Seeing these performers, and knowing there will be a seventh, it was hard not to think of themes like creation and completion. As the male dancer arrived–on this evening Brooklyn Mack–those earlier thoughts are solidified as he dances with each woman individually. Each dance had some overlap, but was distinct. And as Mack and Ashley Murphy dance you begin to see a more pronounced contrast in the styles of the women dancers. As Mack leaves the stage the lights are lowered to the point that you cannot tell the remaining women dancers apart. Their long elegant outlines become elongated as their movement slows, and the bright light that opened the dance is long gone as dusk and darkness settle over the stage.

The final premiere of the evening was choreographed by Marcelo Gomes, from 2002 until 2017 a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Gomes started his training at age 5 in his native Brazil, and in 1993 was awarded the Revelation Prize that sponsors his travel to the states to continue his dance education. The Outset, which is set to the music of Antonin Dovrak, was played this evening by a quartet including violinists Sally McClain and Mayumi Pawel, Jennifer Ries on viola, and Suzanne Orban on the cello. The Outset is the most story rich of the three premieres, and not just because the dancers have character names in the program. Created by eleven dancers, The Outset tells a very particular story and does it really well. The dance segments are episodic and easily flow into each other. Penny and Martin are a young soon-to-be-married couple who live in a small town. While they are excited about the prospect of starting a new life together, Martin yearns to explore life beyond his small town limits. The struggle of loving and leaving is the central tension of this work.

The costume design (by Judy Hansen) accentuates the authenticity of The Outset. The women dancers wear long prairie dresses while male counterparts are in dark colored pants and button-down shirts. As the dance moves to a more formal setting, accents like ribbons and bolo ties are added. The dancing in The Outset generally was in one of three varieties: celebratory but controlled line dances, multi-tiered formations, and couple paring. The line dances were joyous and well executed as they used showcased the company’s well-practiced coordination. The multi-layered formation that often included all eleven dancers drew your eyes all over the stage, giving the impression of organized chaos. From a story-telling perspective, it allowed the protagonists to appear out of the center of the action, which played well into the overall theme of questioning ones place at home. Much of the couple dancing was performed this evening by Maki Onuki, and the aforementioned Brooklyn Mack. The two performed wonderfully together, taking advantage of Mack’s dexterity and Onuki’s powerful grace. It was a pleasure to see Mack’s skill showcased in two of the three premieres.

As the final curtain fell there were two obvious takeaways. Brown, Bond, and Gomes’ years of dedication to the craft of dance have translated into three unique works of choreography. Menagerie, Myriad, and The Outset were each distinct, yet very much in the evolving tradition of modern ballet. The gifted dancers of The Washington Ballet and the artistic supportive environment that director Julie Kent is prioritizing there will be an opportunity for more dancer-turned-chorographer works in the future.  

Washington Jewish Film Festival Brings New Intersections To The Screen

by Anying Guo

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine.

As the Washington Jewish Film Festival enters its 28th year, director Ilya Tovbis reminds us of the full diaspora of the Jewish experience that is equal parts universal and intersecting. Coming into his sixth year as the director of the annual film festival, Tovbis has seen growth not only in quantity, but in the kinds of films that are showcased at the festival. Though the jump in numbers (from 5,000 attendees to about 15,000) is impressive, the care and thought of selecting the films that are shown has become a major part of why the festival has found success with a diverse audience.

“We’re a festival of the Jewish community, but not [exclusively] for the Jewish community,” said Tovbis. “The root of our mission is not to discover the dominant narratives around the Jewish experience; we are really interested in the full diaspora of the Jewish experience.”

Tovbis has seen a steady increase in the amount of representation for marginalized communities in film festivals, and views the Washington Jewish Film Festival as one outlet that not only welcomes but embraces these intersections. As someone who has worked at major museums and festivals in cities such as San Francisco and New York City, Tovbis finds D.C. a city to be one filled with rich cultural knowledge and expertise after talking with patrons deeply about niche and specific aspects of films.

His focus is on finding films that represent not only the Jewish experience, but intersecting identities as well. Specifically, the “Rated LGBTQ” section of the film section is a reminder that the Jewish experience and the queer experience is and has always been intertwined. A spotlight film of this year’s festival is The Cakemaker, a film that bears a universal sense of grief and loss while also navigating queer identity and loneliness against the backdrop of cultural clashes.

“What’s exciting is that we as humans have these sort of layered identities,” said Tovbis. “I think when we delve deeper into the film that are a part of the LGBTQ sidebar that becomes really clear – it’s all about how those identities reflect and press on one another.”

With roughly a thousand films submitted for eighty slots, Tovbis admits the difficulty in curation, because not every patron or even selector will understand why a film was chosen. Tovbis stresses that they try to select films that represents facets of the festival, even if that means passing on films he or others personally loved.

“We are seeing more films grappling with the fluidity of our modern world,” said Tovbis, who brought up the film The Strangest Stranger as one of the most thought-provoking pieces about the nuance and complexity of identities. “It mirrors society, as fluidity and identity is finding its way into media and public discourse. Art really does reflect life, and if it doesn’t, it’s essentially life-less.”

The Washington Jewish Film Festival will run from May 2-13. For tickets and information, visit wjfff.orgor call at 202-777-3210.

Between The World and Me

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current

Witnessing the meteoric rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates from a relatively unknown journeyman journalist to a multiple New York Times list best selling author, the easier narrative to follow was Coates.

It did not matter that Coates eschewed the spotlight at first, then tried his best to redirect his newfound celebrity to the issues and the people that needed the attention. There was a segment of his readership that wanted from Coates what we typically request from all brave, new, voices that challenge the status quo – more.

With the presentation of his “Between the World and Me,” adapted for the stage by Lauren A. Whitehead under the direction of Kamilah Forbes and scored by Jason Moran, the places, people and experiences Coates so incredibly illuminates through this work are drawn to the forefront again.

The audience filed into the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to a musical mix of Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone among others. Promptly at 2:15 p.m. the music was lowered, as were the house lights. The dark curtains were pulled back and the stage revealed.

In the foreground were three clear podiums, stage right, with nine chairs and accompanying music stands. Behind them stood a tall, rectangular media screen. On top of the screen sat Jason Moran at his piano, as he was joined by Mimi Jones on bass guitar and Nate Smith on drums. The trio played softly as the cast entered on both sides of the stage.

Behind the band was a similar media scene that was synced with a larger one under it. The first image shown was cracked pavement similar to the one displayed on Coates’ 2008 debut novel, “A Beautiful Struggle.” As the actors found their seats, the music came to close when Joe Morton came out to open the production.

The book version of “Between the World and Me” is a tightly-written 152 pages without a table of contents. At its heart, the book is a letter to Coates’ then-teenage son, Samori. The power of the story is how Coates expresses his understanding of how his physical body, like the one of his son and all people of African decent, fit in the larger context of American history.

Morton opens as the book does, with setting primes for this discussion. It was a response to an interviewer’s question about what it meant to lose his body. What is clear from the outset is the pairing of the actors with the parts of the text they presented was intentional, not just for tone and annunciation, but for the history each actor brought to this work.

For example, Tariq Trotter, who is professionally know as Black Thought of The Roots, was called upon to express the difficulty of navigating urban America, being it the Baltimore of Coates’ youth or his first venture into Brooklyn after college. Trotter, only four years older than Coates, has often written about the difficulties he faced growing up in Philadelphia.

The production began to pick up steam as it entered what would be the second part of the book. At this phase, Coates is questioning, discovering and re-questioning the vast amount of history he is consuming during his studies at Howard University. This is also the time when Coates is laying claim to one of his first heroes, Malcolm X. In a beautiful convalescing of words, music, lighting and the media screens, Greg Reid and Michelle Wilson duel in rhythm and tell how Coates came to appreciate and adore Malcolm X. As they tell the story, the jazz trio played forcefully in the background. As two spotlights beamed down on Reid and Wilson, the iconic photo taken by Don Hogan Charles of Malcolm X with a rifle in his hand came into focus on the lower screen, while a picture of him smiling appeared on the upper screen.

Next, Susan Kelechi Watson, who is an alumna of Howard University, told of the cultural education Coates received at The Mecca. Dressed in black, Watson expressed with incredible joy and energy what Coates saw, heard and felt while walking the yard of D.C.’s oldest Historically Black College. There was moment when Watson beat on the podium, recreating the beat of hip-hop cyphers that happened on campus. It is then you realize that despite the seriousness of what Coates is expressing to his son and to us, this is not a tale of sorrow or fear, but rather a complicated reconciliation of the reality of being black in the country.

The moments when the actors read as an assemble where carefully used and punctuated important passages. Marc Bamuthi Joseph channeled the anger and pain of Coates as he tried to make sense of an officer-related killing of his dear friend Prince Jones. Balanced against that rage was Dr. Mable Jones, Prince’s mother voiced by Pauletta Washington. As Washington and Reid recreated this heartbreaking conversation, the audience was forced to understand why this entire venture had to happen. If not for anything else but to acknowledge the countless Prince Joneses this country creates and the mothers who are left behind.

As the performance came to an end, Morton returned to close the circle he had started with words of wisdom for Samori. They were neither overtly hopeful nor dismal, for the times we live in are far too nuance for extremes.

As Morton ended, the rest of the cast joined him at the front of the stage to a loud wave of applause. After a quick turn to thank Moran, Jones and Smith, the cast exited.

Then, a scroll of names of people lost to state-sanctioned violence rolled across both screens. The applause turned to silence while some in the audience recorded on their phones. Virtually no one left his or her seat until the last name left the screen – that of Saheed Vassell.