Entries from December 2008 ↓

Setting a New Standard

Billy Porter

In the music industry, a “standard” is a popular song that almost everyone knows, a classic that has been recorded or sung by numerous performers who each put their own spin on it. In a previous era, they were often songs first composed for a Broadway show (think anything written by Cole Porter) that migrated to the pop charts thanks to someone like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, who’d give them a new uptempo or ballad treatment.

Few singers today sing the standards, those songs are perceived as too old. But Sunday night at Joe’s Pub in New York, the genre itself got a whole new interpretation.

Singer Billy Porter returned to that venue for the first time since his 2005 one-man show Ghetto Superstar with an inventive new program of music he called The Contemporary American Standard.

Selecting numbers by singers or songwriters better known to today’s audiences like Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Donny Hathaway, India Arie, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor to name a few, Porter sang inspired neo-soul, rock, pop and hip hop arrangements of songs that collectively mined feelings of love, desire, loss and inner strength.

These were not mere note-for-note covers of other people’s songs, but rather reinventions, in Porter’s own gospel/soul/Broadway-stage-infused style. Faithful to the meaning of the “standard,” everyone knew these songs but marveled at the unique approaches. Porter brought the house to its feet with a slower, funkier take on Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” then later dropped a few original rap lyrics into a remix of the Beatles “Got to Get You Into My Life.”

In conceiving the whole show, Porter assessed the state of the recording industry and the ways in which consumer spending on music has changed. “People want comfort music,” he said, “Music they are already familiar with.” No one was releasing anything new, he noted, “Unless you’re Beyonce.”

Backed up most ably by a three piece band and assisted by his musical collaborators James Sampliner and Michael McElroy, Porter gave the capacity crowd more than its money’s worth. Scheduled for only one more evening, Monday night, hopefully he’ll either book a longer stay in the near future or record an album of these songs for those unfortunate enough to miss this show.

Home Again

Home

New York’s Signature Theatre Company continues its season-long tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company with another revival from the latter theater’s repertoire of excellent works. Samm-Art Williams’ Home, a Tony Award nominee for Best Play when it debuted on Broadway in 1980, is getting a new Off Broadway staging that is every bit as enjoyable as the original.

With a three-person cast that features Tracey Bonner, Kevin T. Carroll and January LaVoy collectively portraying more than 25 characters, this play is storytelling at its entertaining best.Home follows the life of Cephus Miles (Carroll) an amiable North Carolina farm boy who struggles to stay true to himself amidst a rapidly changing and turbulent America. The play spans a period from his adolescence in the 1950’s to his senior adulthood in the present, weaving in his experiences during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era as he leaves behind his family’s farm to seek refuge and prosperity up North.

Williams uses a series of highly amusing and colorful vignettes to string together stories within the story. It is often like sitting at your granddaddy’s knee while he recounts some of the life lessons he picked up along the way. Hearing Cephus tell how he learned to “speak Indian” for example, is simply a brilliant piece of writing.

Director Ron OJ Parson maintains a lively pace throughout and makes skillful use of his cast. Bonner and LaVoy in particular carry not only the load of transforming themselves into multiple characters but provide music and sound effects as well at times.

Cephus’s journey takes him from found love to lost love, jail for draft evasion, a downward spiral into drugs and depression and final redemption. Right before our eyes, Carroll evolves from an innocent youth to a jilted lover, from confused victim of the system to a beaten down survivor.

Home parallels the northern migration experiences of countless African Americans who throughout the early part of the last century left the South in search of something better, only to be disappointed. But it should also have broader appeal to anyone wondering where they truly belong and what it takes to find happiness.

The play opens officially Dec. 7 and is scheduled to run through Jan. 4, 2009.

World AIDS Day 2008: Does anyone still care?

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Another December 1st and another World AIDS Day. This year in fact is the 20th anniversary of the commemoration.

Around the world, 33 million people are living with HIV with nearly 7,500 new infections occurring each day. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 1.1 million people live with HIV, while the country has yet to enact a national AIDS policy. There is hope that President-elect Barack Obama will make this a priority.

The statistics change little from year to year. What does seem to change however is the level of attention paid not only to this day but to the virus and the epidemic itself. Interest in “AIDS issues” seems to be on the decline. Popular perception is that anti-retroviral medications have made HIV a manageable disease or that it’s really only a problem in third world nations.

World AIDS Day has started to become almost a private little affair, marked only by those directly affected but otherwise unnoticed by the vast majority of people. There will be the usual public readings of the names of those who have passed, church services and solemn tributes, and people will wear red ribbons. The nightly news will stick a story somewhere in the middle of the broadcast. But most Americans will go about their business oblivious to what this day means. They will also likely spend the next 364 days thinking that HIV/AIDS is “someone else’s problem” or that it only affects people who “deserved” to get it. On a day when education and public awareness should be at it’s highest, there remain those who willfully disengage on this issue.

For this commemoration to have any lasting impact, we must connect with more people in more ways and on a broader range of intersecting issues, beyond this single day.

When we are talking about health care disparities and how millions of Americans work without health coverage, we are talking about a contributor to the HIV epidemic because people with no health insurance are less likely to know their status or to seek treatment in a timely manner.

When we talk about economic inequities that force people into homelessness, we are talking about a major contributor to the spread of HIV because many of those who become infected have been forced to compromise their values and their bodies just to find a place to stay.

When we don’t talk about homophobia, or do anything about it, we are contributing to the marginalization of an entire group of people, which has been proven to have a negative impact on the self-esteem and self-worth of gay men, increasing their likelihood of engaging in high-risk behavior.

When we cut funds for AIDS outreach, education and treatment, we only exacerbate the problem.

This disease affects everyone, in ways some may not even be aware. The sooner we acknowledge this fact, the closer we’ll come to holding the last World AIDS Day.

World AIDS Day 2008: Resources

20th anniversary logo

A sampling of community informational resources:

World AIDS Day activities

National HIV and STD Testing Resources

Centers for Disease Control

Black AIDS Institute

POZ World AIDS Day

CHAMPCommunity HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project

Gay Men’s Health Crisis

The BODYAfrican American HIV/AIDS Resource Center

World AIDS Day 2008: Across the Blogosphere

20th anniversary logo

As we have in years past, the blog community stops to mark World AIDS Day. If you have posted an entry on your site, send me a link via the comments field below and I’ll post it in this space, updating through out the day.

Sadly, over the last few years, we’ve seen a marked decline in bloggers posting WAD entries. Perhaps it was more fashionable years ago and less so now.

Gay Persons of Color

GreasyGuide.com (There are several WAD entries on this site.)

Living Out Loud With Darian

SGL UniverseThe Gayte-Keeper

Cuppa Joe

Fumbling Toward Divinity

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force OutSpoken Blog

Front Porch Storytellin

Blog-AroundHarlem.com

SistersTalk

Noctuary: a record of what passes in the night

Rod 2.0

JustBThat.com

BlackGayBlogger.com

Keepingitreal

J’s Theater

Randy Boyd’s Blocks