Keepin’ On with Faison

Tyree Young and Ceez Liive in “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY.” | FAISON FIREHOUSE

There is a real jewel up in Harlem, the Faison Firehouse Theater, a 1906 firehouse that has been beautifully restored and retooled into a fabulous arts space.

Its founder, legendary choreographer George Faison, who gave us “The Wiz,” the ballet “Suite Otis,” and so many other wonders, is leaping into drama, directing his theater’s first play, “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” (through Jul. 8; 6 Hancock Pl., btwn. Morningside and St. Nicholas Aves., near 124th St.;

Written by Karimah, and starring Tyree Young and teenage poet Ceez Liive, it’s the time-spanning story of a couple of young gay fugitives from the law –– a slave from the plantation era who has a relationship with his owner, and a woman from what is called the Penitentiary Era of the 21st century. It’s inspired by the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

I took the A train uptown to check it all out and was amazed by the wonderfully intimate 100-seat theater, state of the art rehearsal spaces and offices, and a luxurious reception era so glamorously outfitted it might be a set from a Noel Coward play. Faison, almost exploding with excitement over his latest project, told me, “I haven’t felt like this in I can’t even tell you how long. How empowering this makes me feel because this playwright’s voice is being heard. I compare her to Albee and so forth because the ideas are about the freedom to be loved and to be able to talk to people about your choices. To find something original and be able to do it is just great for me, and I’m absolutely loving it.

“People need awakening here because Harlem has been something of a dead zone and we have been ignored. Revolution was built on these streets –– people came with nothing but dreams in their pockets. That has somehow been stripped away, but I hope it’s coming back.

“This play is about reawakening that activism, if there’s going to be that change. It’s almost a welfare state here, but our mentality has changed and that’s why I am here nurturing the young, apprenticing and grooming them to make them ready to step in our shoes, not stand on our shoulders, but walk on. I have a couple of students from Howard University on my staff, and have reached out to Columbia and NYU for kids who are versed in technology.

“We’re not getting grants because we don’t fit a certain criteria, so I’m producing this. You just get pushed back by your own people, the politicians, especially [City Councilwoman] Inez Dickens, [Congressman Charlie] Rangel, [State Assemblyman Keith] Wright. I and other groups here have approached them –– nothing! There’s nobody to vote for. Put that in your interview!”

Faison laughed when I asked him if he’d ever had to come out as a gay man: “I’ve always lived my life completely, so there was no need to, didn’t have to proclaim that to anybody. It has no reflection on my work, anyway, and this play is probably an exception to all of it.

“I kind of resent it when people run up and tell me about being gay. I’m not interested in that, but in what can we do together to push this envelope of understanding, opportunity, and education. It’s not about me. I’m strictly about the work. Everything I do is political, and I haven’t had to declare anything. My telling you doesn’t mean anything. Your perspective is the danger, what you’re going to do with that information, which goes back to James Baldwin and all those writers looking for political and social freedom. People only use private things they know about you to use them against you, and I’m not going to jump into either that box or the closet.

“I taught my brothers how to throw a football, okay? And I chose dancing at a time when men didn’t dance and could express myself without words. I worked with everybody, Alan Jay Lerner, Leonard Bernstein, you name it.

“Bernstein was a genius –– temperamental, high-strung, all of those things, but that’s an artist. A lot of things were said about him, some true and some not, but that was a man who was a slave to his own art. Music was his mistress and, yes, he had a real sense of dance and an opinion on almost everything. Money and fame won’t change you, and he was allowed to live like that and ultimately be who he was.”

For Faison, Bernstein was a contrast to Alvin Ailey who “didn’t enjoy that ultimate freedom, although other people certainly benefited from what he did. Today, Obama is part of the equation, and I was fortified by the fact that he did make a statement. But I was more fortified by what I heard in 1963 from a young John Lewis, who said that we will shatter the South and put it back together. Thank God he’s still there in Congress after all these years, fighting for the same civil rights, like when he did the Freedom Ride and got beat and bloodied.”

Faison refers to his partner of decades, Tad Schnugg, as “a definite blessing in my life. What I get involved with is so crazy and intense that it is definitely wonderful to have someone I can always lean on at the end of a hard day.”

The incomparable Patti LuPone appeared at Richard Frankel’s new cabaret, Below 54. | RAHAV SEGEV

June was a real cabaret feast. Below 54 opened in the notorious basement of Studio 54, which, in its heyday as the ultimate disco, was known for its darkness, stacked liquor boxes, secret drug caches, funky mattresses, and wild-ass action that went on there. Set designer John Lee Beatty has transformed it into a comfortably glossy 1920s speakeasy facsimile. Though there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house, owner Richard Frankel told me on June14, “You should talk to the six irate people I just spoke with” and agreed with me that every club needs a Siberia anyway.

The headliner that night was Patti LuPone, who, for my money, taught such relative whippersnappers as Kristin Chenoweth and Jane Krakowski –– who’d just done okay-but-not-earth-shattering concerts at City Center and Town Hall, respectively –– how it should be done. Backed by the best band I’ve ever heard, LuPone’s miraculously undiminished powerhouse of a voice, with its oboe-like undulations, nearly blasted the new paint off the walls on a splendid variety of songs, many of them with a seafaring theme.

“Sing ‘One More Look!’” some patron, obviously clueless about LuPone’s famous contretemps with and lawsuit against Andrew Lloyd Webber over “Sunset Boulevard,” yelled. “You mean ‘With One Look’?” she snarled, as she mimed strangling Lloyd Webber. “Not in this lifetime!” She lets the audience tweet their encore requests and the selection that night was Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” “I hope I remember the lyrics,” she muttered. “If I forget them, I’ll sing ‘With One Look’ for you. KIDDING!”

She was lyric-perfect and ferociously tore through this ultimate show power anthem. I couldn’t resist it and screamed, “Again!,” at the end, which cracked her up. She actually started to sing it again, before stopping and saying, “What clown yelled that?”

Pride Week and Judy Garland always go hand in hand, and there was no better way to celebrate both than at “Night of a Thousand Judys” on June 18 at Playwrights Horizons. A benefit for the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and social services to homeless LGBT youth, it was brilliantly hosted by Justin Sayre, whose wonderful “The Meeting” regularly enlivens the Duplex with its quirky, camp sensibility, and proved to be the best Garland tribute I’ve veer attended.

Sayre opened it with “Howdy Neighbor” from “Summer Stock,” with a posse of deliciously swishy dancers, helping him put the number over with the élan of Kay Thompson herself. He later delivered a marvelous, serious sermon, invoking Garland’s imperishable generosity of spirit, as well as, pointedly, the need for more of same in the gay community, so obsessed with gym narcissism, judgmental exclusionism, and dehumanized Grindr hookups. This was followed by a heartfelt “A New World,” the melting Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin ballad introduced in “A Star is Born,” which Lena Horne later took up as a Civil Rights anthem.

Darius De Haas has the right –– and the right stuff –– to sing “The Man that Got Away.” | STEVE VACCARIELLO

The other talent on hand was impressive, indeed –– Howard McGillin, Ashley Brown, Nellie McKay, Jessica Molaskey, John Pizzarelli, Molly Pope (who did a dead-on Judy that made me yearn to see her in a full gig), Tonya Pinkins, who killed on “By Myself,” and Darius De Haas, who is the only guy I ever want to hear singing “The Man That Got Away,” because godammit, he can! Sayre also wrote a reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz,” adorably told through the eyes of Toto, in which Frank DeCaro, as an on-the-money Lion, and Jenn Harris, having the cackling time of her life as the Witch, hilariously stood out.

I was seven years old, looking through an encyclopedia when my eyes fell on a picture of Marie Antoinette, done up to death in big wig and panniered gown, an image which probably immediately turned me gay. “Who is that?” I asked my Aunt Mary, who said, “She was the queen of France who had her head cut off.”

A lifelong fascination was thereby born, and, on July 13, the best film ever made about her is coming to the Angelika, “Farewell, My Queen” (See Steve Erickson's review, “Saphhic Indulgences as Ancien Régime Stormed,” to be posted on July 12.) Directed by Benoit Jacquot, it tells her story at the terrifying outbreak of the French Revolution over a few days, as seen through the eyes of her servant, a girl whose official function is to read to her. You are thrillingly swept right into the middle of the action in Versailles, and the film delivers a rich feast, visually, historically, and emotionally.

I spoke to Jacquot, who professed his fondness for the lavish 1938 film, “Marie Antoinette,” with Norma Shearer as the Adrian-bedecked Queen: “I saw it more than 20 years ago, but it’s very amusing, very free, with the spirit of MGM and Hollywood. It’s almost a fantasy version of what could have happened, very imaginative, and it really has that MGM quality, which was perfect for portraying that time and court.”

He’s less fond of the French 1955 “Marie Antoinette”: “very academic, too scholarly. Michele Morgan was a very popular actress, but she was too old and not really a great actress, which you need for Marie.” As for Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”: I really do like the film, but it is one I would be totally incapable of making myself. I thought that it’s a film that comes across very snobbish and very insolent.

Diane Kruger is simply magnificent in Jacquot’s film: “My first decision was that the actress had to be a foreign actress, foreign for France, because Marie Antoinette [an Austrian] was called the Foreigner. So the actress had to come from another place and had to be a native speaker of another language. I had three or four actresses –– Diane was one of them –– and when I met her, she had such a desire to play this part. She made it seem that it was very important for her, and there were certain signs. She was about the same age as Marie Antoinette, her mother had the same name as Marie Antoinette’s mother, Marie Therese. Diane was born on July 14, when the film takes place. She’s German and speaks German and she’s blonde, so it was obvious that she was the one to play the role.

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