Members from the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Senior Services program recently turned West Hollywood Council Chambers into a cabaret venue for a two-night run of NewStages’ Heroic Lives show.
At 91, Janet Devaney was the oldest of the 18 cast members whose five minutes of storytelling and songs focused on heroic figures in their lives.
Devaney shared with the audience the joy she experienced in the 1950s when she and her brother both realized they were gay.
“Being gay in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s was a struggle—especially for my brother Jack who worked in the business world,” Devaney reflected. “Things have gotten much better and it’s allowed me to marry the love of my life and to continue on and to live a good life.”
She then made clear she’s still looking ahead to the future as she launched into the classic Broadway ballad Before the Parade Passes By from Hello, Dolly!
“Before the parade passes by, I’ve gotta go and taste Saturday’s high life,” Devany sang with conviction. “Before the parade passes by, I’m gotta get some life back into my life.”
The seniors rehearsed twice each week for two months to perfect their numbers for the seventh edition of the annual NewStages show that brings LGBT stories to life through the performing arts. NewStages is a Los Angeles-based arts program for LGBT seniors that emphasizes music, storytelling, and theater; the performance was part of the City of West Hollywood’s One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival.
While Devaney kicked off this year’s show with remarkable energy and enthusiasm, tissues were passed around later after Belita Edwards performed a stirring rendition of Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father.
Her singing followed a heartbreaking monologue about her gay father who died of complications from AIDS in 1991 just as he was about to retire.
“He was truly happy for the first time in his life,” Edwards shared. “The way he embraced his gayness, it was a joy for all of us. He started dating and he planned the rest of his life.”
But he kept his family in the dark about his illness and felt he was protecting them by keeping a physical distance.
“I felt cheated because I never had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye,” she said. “I’ve always admired my father—he’s my hero. He’s the one. I always admired him for what he did.”
Meeting Mother Teresa
Another performer, Cassandra Christenson, shared why Mother Teresa is her personal hero.
Christenson was working as a chaperone for couples in TV’s The Dating Game in the 1980s and accompanied one of the winning couples to Bermuda. She temporarily lost track of the couple at the airport and as she searched for them, she spotted the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Catholic nun and missionary.
After discovering that Christenson had trained as a nurse, Mother Teresa strongly encouraged her to work with people suffering from AIDS. Soon after returning home, Christianson became part of an organization whose volunteers would hold people as they died from AIDS.
“I learned about love and I learned about myself,” she told the audience. “I have the most wonderful life now because I learned about love.”
Matthew DuBois, part of the show for a third year, sang the moving ballad Time Heals Everything after sharing with the audience how he has tried to cope with the death of his husband of 20 years less than six months earlier.
“Every time I would introduce him as my husband or say we were married, I felt proud,” DuBois said before his song. “I felt like I was standing up for myself and my community. And loving him made me a better man.”
Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was honored by Herbie Taylor as his personal hero. Rustin was a leading strategist of the Civil Rights Movement, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., and the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
The leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) did not want Rustin, a gay man, to receive any public credit for his role in the march. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond also railed against Rustin on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Taylor made his statement mostly through a lengthy version of Bridge Over Troubled Water but said of Rustin before beginning his song: “Though he faced so many obstacles in his journey to accomplish equality, he never faltered in his mission.”
Between the individual performances, cast members took to the stage in groups of four or five to perform spoken word tributes to LGBTQ heroes in history including Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, Ellen DeGeneres, RuPaul, and Matthew Shepherd, among others.
“These people are just jewels”
Heroic Lives was directed by Mark Salyer and Kay Cole with musical direction by Debbie Lawrence.
“It’s an uplifting program, it can be heartbreaking,” Salyer said before the opening night performance on June 22. “These people are just jewels. The lives they’ve lived are really so important for us to be hearing and for them to be doing. It’s a generation that started their lives really being criminals for being who they were and for who they loved. They’ve seen such an incredible journey happen before them.”
Salyer, who has a long list of regional theater credits, has been directing the annual show for seven years. Among the most memorable of those years was in 2015 when during final rehearsals the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
“It was an incredible emotional experience to be with these people,” he said of the production that year. “A lot of them thought it was never going to happen. For younger LGBT people to know what their journeys were, how heroic their lives were, is just vitally important.”
Broadway veteran Cole comes in near the end of the process and describes herself as “a little bit like the icing on the cake.”
“I put it all together and finesse it so that we have a performance,” she said. “It’s important to create an entertainment that is not only informative but is also inspiring.”