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While the struggles of many American minorities—women, blacks, Native Americans—have gradually surfaced onto the pages of ever-revised textbooks, the chronicles of gay culture in this country have remained largely apocryphal. Delivering a much-needed lesson in gay history, D.C.’s Different Drummers—a concert band comprising 40 predominantly gay and lesbian local players—pulled gay narratives from the closet of America’s past in its annual fall performance Saturday night. Crammed onto the stage at Hines Junior High School’s auditorium, the band revisited developments in gay and lesbian America throughout the 20th century, playing works by composers who deviated from the sexual mainstream and such “liberation music” as the theme from Schindler’s List.
“In this past century, our community, bursting like music from the silence, emerged from the shadows,” said Franklin Kameny, a longtime D.C. activist and the show’s co-host. “This is the century we came out.” A perennial first in gay activism—the first American to challenge a dismissal from employment because of sexual preference, the first to use the slogan “Gay Is Good,” the first to ask the American Psychiatric Association to reverse its designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder—the 74-year-old Kameny shared the podium with Angel Brown, an 18-year-old high-schooler working full time at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League.
A bald, tux-clad, professor type and a striking, giggly teenager done up in an elegant silver dress, Kameny and Brown juggled a script of historical vignettes they spliced into the band’s chronological program. Though the ensemble’s selections veered dangerously far into medley territory—”A Tribute to Judy Garland,” “A Tribute to American Classics,” “Music From Rent”—the gig was less about musical virtuosity than about celebrating a movement. Simply acknowledging composers like Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein as gay figures who helped define America ranked above doing their songs justice. “The audience is mainly gay, so we’re not here to raise awareness,” Brown noted. “It’s just to make people feel good, to remember who we are.”
The two MCs, a handful of special guests, and a crowd of 100 or so dotting a cavernous auditorium lent the event a playful, variety-show feel. Chris Raitzyk and Kerry Jones ran a few verses of Leroy Carr’s “How Long-How Long Blues” before cutting abruptly; a worn recording of Gladys Bentley—a raunchy lesbian singer who graced Harlem’s Clam House in the ’20s—came over the speakers, belting out scratchy lyrics until the duo jumped back in with a few more 12-bar runs. Paying tribute to gay servicemen, the Really Outrageous Twirling Corps naughtily sent up military boys to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Later, a team of men costumed perfectly as the Village People stormed the stage, dancing to a brass-and-woodwind rendition of “YMCA.” “I like to borrow theater and choral conventions,” said DCDD artistic director K. Scott Barker. “My theory is that if we just sit and play, people aren’t going to sit and pay.” —Dan Gilgoff
Actress and writer Oni Faida Lampley grew up in Oklahoma City, went to college in Ohio, then spent a year in West Africa hoping to find her roots. But it was in D.C. where she married the love of her life and realized many of her creative dreams.
The Dark Kalamazoo, which premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Nov. 8, tells the story of her growth from sheltered private-school girl to disillusioned African exchange student to mature black woman. Based on journals written 20 years ago, the show mixes memoir, political discourse, and satire to create a thoughtful portrait of an artist. Ostensibly a one-woman show, Kalamazoo also includes the live accompaniment of composer and University of Maryland instructor Kevin Campbell, who plays a dozen instruments onstage, from upright bass to djembe drum.
In the play, the main character recalls “giving her heart away to a man 20 years my senior,” a grass-roots community organizer, who sold T-shirts and “Black Power” buttons on the side. “My family freaked,” she tells the audience. “What was I doing with this old, ‘Bama-ass D.C. nigga with no money and a whole lot of hippie ideas? They said, ‘Come home. All will be forgiven.’ I disobeyed.”
Offstage, Lampley’s disobedience resulted in her establishing working relationships with Round House Theatre and Washington Stage Guild. Her first play, Mixed Babies, won a Helen Hayes Award in 1991 for Outstanding New Play. “D.C. is welcoming. When I was first trying to find work and didn’t know what I wanted to do, I found D.C. very open to new work. And people would share their expertise,” says Lampley. “It’s good to come to a place where people won’t just tell you what’s wrong with it, but really want to help you develop it.”
Now based in Brooklyn, Lampley still holds a fondness in her heart for Chocolate City and hopes that Washington will feel a similar love for The Dark Kalamazoo. “I would love to have more black people come. The show is different the more black people there are in the audience,” says Lampley. “But people find they can relate to the quest for identity regardless of their race.” —Holly Bass
The Dark Kalamazoo runs to Dec. 12. For more information call (703) 218-6500.