A Visit to the African American Museum

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National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The building design was based on a traditional West African hat style.

Saturday, Feb. 17, 55 local residents traveled by bus to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on a trip organized by Sumner Hall. It was a striking and memorable experience – a powerful reminder of the stark history of African Americans and of the enormous contributions they have made to our nation.

The bus pulled out of the parking lot in Chestertown a little after 8:30 a.m. The weather was good — cold but sunny with a blue sky– and we were at the museum in less than an hour and a half, arriving in Washington in plenty of time for our 11 a.m. appointment.  That gave the group  over five hours to explore the exhibits – and eat lunch – before the 4 p.m. return trip. While that may seem plenty of time, it was barely time to scratch the surface of this incredible rich institution.

The museum was packed – like all Smithsonian museums, admission is free, and the African American museum has been enormously popular ever since it opened not quite a year and a half ago in Sept, 2016. Going to the museum will give you a clear indication just how rich and complex the African-American contribution to our society has been. To draw on an area I happen to know a fair bit about, my first reaction in walking around the musical exhibit that occupies much of the top floor was astonishment at just how much the museum has packed in. Here’s Chuck Berry’s bright red Cadillac convertible, as well as one of his guitars; here’s footage of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing “Hot House” on a 1952 TV show; here’s the gown Marian Anderson wore at her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial; here’s the Mothership that the funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic used in stage shows; here’s Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar; here’s a photo of Robert Johnson I didn’t know existed – and that’s just scratching the surface. The mind boggles!

Dizzy’s horn

Then I began to notice what wasn’t there – or at least what I didn’t find in the hour or so I walked through the musical exhibits. Was there anything about Lester Young or the Mills Brothers or James P. Johnson or Nina Simone – or did I miss it? And then I realized there just isn’t room for all that – they’d need a building bigger than the one they have, just dedicated to the music, and they’d still have to pick and choose to get in a representative sample of the subject matter – and there’d still be gaps in the coverage. That brought home even more powerfully the impact of black Americans on music. And if that’s true of one area, what does it say about the museum as a whole? The same has to be true of its coverage of writers, athletes, painters and sculptors, and all the other areas where African Americans have made an impact on our national culture. Ultimately, I came away even more impressed with what the museum has done.

That was especially true of the historical displays, which make up the bottom three floors of the museum, covering a range from the earliest days of slavery through the modern era. The exhibits present detailed, often intense, documentation of the African American experience in the New World – full of historical maps, documents, archaeological artifacts from Africa, Europe, and the Americas, with ample audio-visual material to put them all in context. An entire slave cabin from the Carolina coast sits in the middle of one floor; one of the Tuskegee Airmen’s planes hangs from the ceiling as you go up the ramps between floors; life-sized statues of historical figures are spread around the exhibit. Seeing it all in a single visit is literally impossible – even if you take in only the surface aspects. A good idea on your first visit – an opportunity we missed, but will probably take up next time we go – is to follow around one of the docents guiding tour groups. But again, to really appreciate it, you need to plan more than one visit. It’s well worth it.  There’s even a section on African Americans and the Chesapeake Bay with a display about the Eastern Shore of Maryland including black watermen and the seafood industry.

Upon our arrival at the museum, the group split up into smaller groups, each exploring on their own, at their own pace. A few who had been to the museum before were helpful with their recommendations of things to seek out. Many groups met up again around lunchtime in the museum cafe, where the menu features dishes from the various African American communities — catfish, fried chicken, grits, gumbo, the whole range of American soul food –an important aspect of the culture the museum documents. (Also note — outside food can’t be brought into the museum, so you might as well enjoy the cafe.)

Even in our five-hour visit, we saw far more than one article can possibly include (we plan to do several follow-up stories in the Spy to try to do the museum justice). But a few vignettes stuck out, A young man stood by the statue the  of the 1968 Black Power protest at the Mexico City Olympics, raising his fist in emulation; a group of Naval Academy cadets in uniform toured the museum, solemnly taking in the history; teenagers took in the exhibits, for once looking at something other than their cell phones. And at almost every turn people could be heard responding to what they were seeing.  It wasn’t a loud crowd. People were speaking quietly, respectfully.  And they were polite and considerate, moving aside for people, offering to take pictures for each other.  Neither was it a completely somber atmosphere.  The history exhibits were unflinching in their stark and honest portrayal of slavery, segregation, and oppression but they also showed how enslaved peoples managed to find love and joy in their lives, despite the constant hardships. The culture sections on music, arts, and sports literally had people dancing around, excited and laughing as they came across artists they remembered from their youth or saw some new, beautiful work of art.  Displays on African Americans in the military and as entrepreneurs were inspiring and enlightening.   A truly involving experience for everyone!

Airplane flown by the famous Tuskegee pilots in World War II

We noted above that the museum is crowded. This is good, in that people are making an effort to learn about and understand this vital element of our history and culture. But it makes for a challenging experience at times. For some displays, standing in front of the exhibit long enough to absorb all the information felt awkward when there were lots of other people waiting to get a look. When that happened, we just walked ahead or dropped back to find an uncrowded exhibit. Be aware that there’s a lot of walking to see everything but there were also frequent benches where you could take a quick break as well as escalators and an elevator. You’ll definitely want to go back several times to really get all this museum has to offer. Several people on our tour had been before and still were eager to go this time and commented on how much they enjoyed a repeat visit, seeing things they hadn’t before. The next time we go, we’ll try for a week day, when crowds are likely to be a bit smaller.

The weather had been very good in the morning when we left, but snow and sleet had been  predicted and it showed up right on time for the trip home.   Joe, our Jor-Lin bus driver, was an excellent driver and guide.  The trip back took over two hours and we saw several cars in the ditch on 301 on this side of the Bay Bridge.  But we made it back to Sumner Hall without incident – thank you, Joe! – where most of us trooped inside to feast off a sumptuous spread of hors d’ouvres, desserts, and some fabulous chicken salad with  wine and other drinks on  hand.   All this in honor not of the bus trip but for the reception before author and Patrick Henry Fellow Will Haygood’s speech at 7 p.m., which some of the more indefatigable members of the bus trip stayed to attend. (More to come on Haygood in future Spy articles.)

All in all, it was a wonderful day at the museum.

Tickets for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though free, must be ordered in advance — go to the museum’s website. The museum is sold out until June, so plan ahead — and try for a weekday, if you can, to reduce the crowd pressure. It’s well worth waiting for.

Photo Gallery by Peter Heck and Jane Jewell

Chuck Berry’s Cadillac Eldorado – a favorite place to get your picture taken

The P-Funk Mothership AKA The Holy Mothership – a key feature of the stage act of the Funkadelic and Parliament bands’ concerts.

Statue of 1968 Olympic Protest

   Henry Highland Garnet – born in Kent County – escaped slave, civil rights activist, and first Black minister to preach in congress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chester Gras — Party On!

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Linda and Phil Dutton – founders and leading lights of Chester Gras.  Phil is also musician extraordinaire as he sings and plays keyboard with his band the Alligators.

Chester Gras, Chestertown’s celebration of Creole cookery and New Orleans style dance music, defied the elements  on Saturday to raise funds for needy Kent County kids.  Phil and Linda Dutton founded the festival five years ago and it has been sponsored by Peoples’ Bank right from the beginning.

Held on Saturday, Feb. 10, in a large heated tent on Spring Street outside the Peoples Bank entrance, Chester Gras drew a large crowd despite a steady downpour that caused a last-minute cancellation of the street parade. But not to worry – Phil Dutton and the Alligators got people’s feet moving with their hard-rocking music, and the party hardly missed a beat. In addition to Dutton on piano and keyboards, the Alligators are Pres Harding on electric guitar, Marc Dyckman on bass, and Ray Anthony on drums.

Kent County Marching Band – Chester Gras 2018

While the Alligators were on break, the Kent County Community Marching Band, undaunted by the cancellation of the parade, came into the tent and played several numbers appropriate for the occasion, including “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” A few other parade entrants also drove past the High Street reviewing stand before the rain drove everyone indoors.

The food lineup offered gumbo from ten local restaurants, plus red beans and rice from chef (and Peoples Bank President) Ralph Dowling’s kitchen as well as Mardi Gras-style king cake — all that along with hot dogs and Texas sausage for those with less adventurous taste buds. Peoples Bank personnel ladled out the gumbo, which came in a variety of flavors with chicken, shrimp, and spicy Andouille sausage. Food was provided by Lemon Leaf Cafe, Uncle Charlie’s Bistro, KB Market, Chester River Yacht and Country Club, Barbara’s on the Bay, The Kitchen, Chester River Sea Food, Fish Whistle, Luisa’s Cucina Italiana, Crazy Rick’s Food Truck, Kreuz Market and Little Village Bakery.

Good food – Cajun-style! – Chester Gras 2018

In addition to food and music, a costume contest was open to attendees who dressed for the occasion. Leslie Sea of WCTR radio served as announcer, and winners were chosen on the basis of audience applause. About a dozen children and a handful of adults — and one stylish puppy! — took part in the contest.

Best costumes – Stephanie and Dorian – kids division  – Chester Gras 2018

A photo booth was set up near the bandstand, with Rich Newberry snapping pictures of the attendees. A table of masks and hats was available so guests could put on their best Mardi Gras look for the pictures. Lisa Newberry, Rich’s wife, helped attendees with their costume choices. Later in the afternoon, Rich and Lisa recruited volunteers to move the booth away from the edge of the tent, where running rainwater was encroaching.

Bill Blake, auctioneer, Chester Gras 2018

A live auction, conducted by veteran auctioneer Bill Blake, offered half a dozen items: a pair of Orioles tickets; a half day fishing trip for a party of four; a custom-made 8′ by 10′ indoor rug; a goose hunt for a party of four; an original oil painting by Dan Kessler; and a weekend of pet sitting by Mary Simmons. All told, the live auction brought in more than $1,400 for the cause. A silent auction featured a variety of items donated by local merchants and organizations. Prizes included a backyard bird feeder, a ukulele, a basket of wine, artwork, and much more.

Proceeds of the festival went to the Kent County Community Food Pantry’s backpack program, in conjunction with the Local Management Board. The program provides backpacks carrying weekend meals for local students in need of nutritional support. Almost 50 percent of students in the public schools qualify for the program, according to the food pantry. Anyone wishing to donate can send a check, payable to Local Management Board of Kent County, to The Peoples Bank, P. O. Box 210, Chestertown, MD 21620. Donations are tax-deductible.

Phil Dutton and the Alligators rocked the tent! Phil Dutton on keyboard, Pres Harding on guitar, Marc Dyckman on base, (Not in picture Ray Anthony on drums) – Chester Gras 2018

The festival continued Saturday evening with a sold-out dance party in the Mainstay in Rock Hall, featuring the Dixie Power Trio playing New Orleans style jazz, zydeco and rhythm-and-blues stylings. Masks were available for guests to get in the Mardi Gras mood. As with the Chestertown event, proceeds were donated to the backpack program.

Sound reinforcement was provided by Kabam Entertainment group.

Photo gallery by Peter Heck and Jane Jewell

William Brown, Sr.; holding William Brown, Jr. with Maleah and Naruyah Brown in front at Chester Gras 2018

Lisa Newberry helped out at the photo booth at Chester Gras 2018

A selection of hats, masks, boas and other accessories were available by the Photo Booth at Chester Gras 2018

Photo booth sponsors – Chester Gras 2018

A basket of wine was a popular item in the Silent Auction – Chester Gras 2018

Chester Gras 2018

Patti Maynot Dowling – Chester Gras 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Gras 2018

Rev. Jim Van de Wal getting in the Chester Gras spirit! –
Chester Gras 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Krew” at Kreuz Market included Brittany Rue, Jennifer Teat, Kathy Barnhart, Tanya Brilz, & Lisa Jefferson – Chester Gras 2018

Heidi Manning and Brandy Clark of Luisa’s Cucina Italiana restaurant

Chester Gras 2018

All net proceeds went to buy food and backpacks for kids in Kent County – Chester Gras 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Council Members Weigh In on Bay Bridge

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Chestertown Councilmen Marty Stetson and Ellsworth Tolliver

At the Chestertown Council, meeting Feb. 5, several council members commented on the possibility of a new Bay Bridge coming through Kent County.  Councilman Marty Stetson said he had attended a meeting at the Chestertown Firehouse at which members of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance presented information on the project and encouraged residents to oppose it.

Observing that the meeting was “packed,” Stetson noted that nobody in the audience had expressed support for a Kent County bridge. He said the meeting organizers had suggested three ways for residents to express their opposition to the project – writing to the Maryland Transit Authority, putting up a yard sign, and telling friends and neighbors about it – and that he had done all three. He said that during his time as a Maryland State Police trooper, he had seen an increase in crime on Kent Island, which he attributed to the bridge.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he had attended a Super Bowl party at Bethel AME Church, where several attendees had asked him about the possibility of a bridge. “People see growth and economic development as a plus,” Tolliver said. “A lot of people seem to support it in Ward 3,” he said. “Some see it as the future of Kent County.” Tolliver, who was also present at the firehouse meeting, said he hadn’t made up his mind about the bridge.

Councilman David Foster said that residents curious about the bridge project who were unable to attend the firehouse meeting would have a chance to see Elizabeth Watson, who was one of the presenters at that meeting, at an upcoming meeting of the Community Breakfast Group, which meets Thursday mornings at the Holiday Inn in Chestertown. Foster said he had moved to Chestertown to escape urban congestion. “But I think people need to weigh the pros and cons and not just dismiss it,” he said. He said opponents of a bridge need to find ways of providing other economic opportunities for the community.

Also at the meeting, the council approved a letter of support for the LaMotte Company’s application for Enterprise Zone benefits in connection with a new building the chemical company is undertaking. The 9,000 square foot building would be for the production of a new water testing product. Kay MacIntosh, the town’s economic development coordinator, said the company expected to hire at least 15 new employees to work on the new product. She explained the Enterprise Zone benefits, which include a 10-year tax credit for new construction and a $1,000 hiring credit for each new employee, a figure that rises to $6,000 if the employee is from an economically disadvantaged group.

Kay MacIntosh (left) and Jamie Williams explain benefits of the Enterprise Zone at the Chestertown Council meeting, Feb. 5

Jamie Wiliams, economic development coordinator for Kent County, said that LaMotte has already added 35 new employees as a result of the new product.

The council unanimously approved the letter of support, which Mayor Chris Cerino read into the record.

At the end of the meeting, Jeffrey Carroll of the Fish Whistle restaurant told the council about a fishing tournament he is planning for this summer, with substantial cash prizes to the winners. He said he hoped to have 100 boats taking part. He asked what permits he would need to get from the town to put on the tournament, which would have its headquarters at the restaurant and adjacent town-owned marina.

“How much money will I win with my 15-pound rockfish?” asked Mayor Chris Cerino. Carroll said he hoped the top prize would be $10,000, assuming there were enough entries. He said he was talking to an underwriter about the possibility of an even larger prize if any of the participants catches a state record fish. The contest would be open only to rockfish and catfish, and prizes would be awarded on the basis of weight.

Cerino said Carroll should meet with Town Manager Bill Ingersoll to work out details. Ingersoll and Town Clerk Jen Mulligan were absent from the meeting on account of illness. Discussion of several items of business, including the possible sale of a town-owned property on Calvert Street, was postponed until the next meeting to allow Ingersoll to provide detailed information.

The next Mayor and Council meeting will be held Tuesday, Feb. 20, because the Presidents Day holiday falls on Monday.

Chestertown Marina: Full Speed Ahead!

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The first roof truss swings over into position on the new Chestertown Marina store and interpretive center.

Have you looked at the Chestertown Marina lately?

There’s a lot of activity going on, and it promises to make the town-owned marina a far more attractive — and functional — facility than it has been for a number of years. The new marina store and interpretive center is taking shape along the Front Street side of the marina, with roof beams and siding installed in just the last few days. Along the riverfront, the old marina building has been demolished, and the former fuel pier has been removed. On Tuesday, workers from High Tide Marine Construction of Ocean City were removing the last pilings from the old dock to prepare the marina basin for dredging.

Worker nails cross bars onto trusses during Chestertown Marina construction

The new marina store, originally planned as a two-story building, was redesigned as a single-story building when bids for its construction came in at $1.9 million, nearly double the town’s budget. The low bidder, Yerkes Construction, agreed to take on the project and renegotiated the contract at a price of about $1 million less than the original bid. Mayor Chris Cerino said at a council meeting in November that the town had about $480,000 on hand for the marina building. He said plans were to complete the foundation and shell and raise some $500.000 to finish the project. The store replaces an older building which was purchased and moved to Iowa by a Kent County resident who owns farmland in the midwestern state.

The upgrade to the marina, which the town purchased in 2012 for just over $2 million, is being funded almost entirely by state and federal grants. The town council decided to purchase the property to avoid its being acquired by private owners who could convert it to condominiums and restrict public access to the river. The property had come on the market because the previous owner was facing financial difficulties following the Great Recession of 2008.

One of the reasons the town decided to move ahead with building the shell of the marina store is that the issuers of the grants are reluctant to extend more funds until the town has used up the funds it has already received. So getting the building started is a necessary step to getting the funds to complete it, Cerino said.

Cinder blocks on the site of the demolished marina office.

Workers from High Tide Marine Construction remove debris after old dock and pilings are removed – Chestertown Marina construction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Feb. 5 town council meeting, Councilman Marty Stetson said he was impressed by the new store building. He said the one-story design was better in scale with the existing buildings in the area. He also said he was pleased that the town was saving $ 1 million on the project.

Removal of the old marina store creates an open space that can be used for concerts or other public events. The space will be named “Grassymeade Plaza” in honor of  Michael Lawrence of Grassymeade Farm near Comegys’ Bight on Quaker Neck, who donated $100,000 toward the marina upgrades. Also, some $200,000 the town received from Washington College as part of the agreement by which the college obtained the Chestertown Armory, was used to repair the bulkheads.

Removal of the old fuel pier is a preliminary to dredging the basin to a depth a six feet, which will allow larger boats to use the slips along it. The basin has silted up over the years to a depth of no more than two feet in some areas. The ability to dock larger boats in one of the keys to making the marina more attractive to visitors and bringing more tourist trade into Chestertown. Also, the replacement pier will extend an additional 75 feet into the river, compensating for the fact that the current three piers will be replaced by two and providing deeper slips for large boats. The Cannon Street pier, where schooner Sultana and the Echo Hill boats regularly dock, is also scheduled for extension.

The Fish Whistle restaurant is next door to the Chestertown Marina. The two share the parking lot.

Fish Whistle

In addition to the work currently under way, the town plans to replace bulkheads and walkways along the river side of the property, and to raise the level of the parking lot some two feet to mitigate flooding of the property during high tides and storms. That project will also benefit the Fish Whistle restaurant, which shares the parking lot with the town. The Fish Whistle has announced plans to extend its waterfront porch, including installing a new crab deck, in conjunction with the marina work — adding another attraction for both locals and out-of-town visitors.

Already completed are an upgrade to the boat ramp — now doubled in width — and replacement of the walkways and bulkheads on the downriver side of the marina. The boat basin on the south side of the marina was also dredged early in 2017. New floating finger piers are to be installed along that side of the marina, as well.

Much of the current work is expected to be completed or the start of this year’s boating season.

Photo Gallery – Photography by Peter Heck and Jane Jewell

Chestertown Marina construction – removing old pier and pilings

Chestertown Marina construction – old pilings from piers

Chestertown Marina construction equipment – with waterfront condos in background

Workers from High Tide Marine Construction remove debris after old dock and pilings are removed – Chestertown Marina construction

The new interpretive center under construction – Chestertown Marina

Over to its place on the roof – Chestertown Marina construction

Up goes the roof truss – Chestertown Marina construction

Down comes the truss into place on the roof of the new marina building – Chestertown Marina construction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kenny Award Honors Landskroeners!

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Everyone loves a winner — and Kent County’s arts community proved it Friday night, as they gathered at the Garfield Center to applaud and show their love to Jim and Diane Landskroener, winners of the 2017 Kenny Award.

The Kenny Award, created by the Hedgelawn Foundation and the Kent County Arts Council in 2006, recognizes leadership and contributions to the arts in Kent County. This year’s recipients have been appearing onstage in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties for 30-plus years, as well as directing, teaching, designing — pretty much everything to do with theater in their community.

John Schratwieser, Executive Director of the Arts Council, served as Master of Ceremonies. And he was at his prime as he introduced guests, told anectdotes about Jim and Diane, and generally got the crowd in the mood.  He opened by relating how he, former KCAC Director Leslie Raimond, and Judy Kohl of the Hedgelawn Foundation developed the Kenny Awards to honor those in the community who “help us live better, happier and healthier” through their work in the arts.

John Schratwieser, Master of Ceremonies, yes he was!

The Chestertown Ukulele Club opened the entertainment portion of the evening with two lively songs, including “Better Together.” Melissa McGlynn followed with a humorous skit from Parallel Lives, in which she portrayed a peasant farm wife doing a tampon commercial. Then, in what Schratwieser said was a key element of any awards ceremony, the crowd was treated to a video message from Jen Friedman, in which she portrayed a space alien trying to explain “goosebumps.” And Schratwieser, with Stephanie King on piano, sang Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” from the musical Company.

The ceremonies then moved to a recreation of the old TV show, “This Is Your Life,” with Kate Schroeder Moskowitz and a series of guests recalling the Landskroeners’ impact on the local arts community. They promised that, unlike the original “This is Your Life,” people such as your elementary school teacher would not jump out from behind the stage to relate every detail of your life.  Instead, they came from the audience, with wonderful tales of how much Jim and Diane had meant to them over the years.

“I can’t recall a time there wasn’t a Landskroener in my life,” Moskowitz said. The reminiscences began with a production of “Alice in Wonderland” at the 1976 Tea Party festival, went through Jim and Diane performing at Washington College and their participation in innumerable theater groups — most notably Actors Community Theater, created in collaboration with Leslie and Vince Raimond, and the Garfield Center, of which Jim currently serves as Chairman of the Board.

Kate Schroeder Moskowitz rememebrs it all!

Joining Schroeder onstage were Leslie Raimond, Bonnie Hill, Kate Bennett, and Steve Mumford, along with McGlynn — and, of course, the guests of honor. The group spun tales of theatrical productions including Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, directed by Hill, for which Butch Clark recreated his Worton store onstage. Raimond showed an amazing slide show of the Landskroeners — and others — in scenes from shows over the years. Mumford recalled meeting Diane during dance classes at Washington College. And the Landskroeners added their own memories of plays and actors from years past.

Melissa McGlynn, Steve Mumford, Jim Landskroener, Diane Landskroener, Leslie Raimond, Kate Bennett, Kate Schroeder Moskowitz, Bonnie Hill

Finally, Judy Kohl of Hedgelawn Foundaiton joined Raimond and Schratwieser to present the award, a sculpture by local artist Merilee Schumann. The award ceremony was followed by champagne and sweets in the theater lobby.

Judy Kohl, Leslie Raimond, Diane Landskroener (holding the Kenny), Jim Landskroener

The Landskroeners join an elite group of Kenny Award winners, including Senator Barbara Mikulski, Leslie and Vince Raimond, Carla Massoni, Tom McHugh, Andy Goddard, Butch Clark, Judy and Ben Kohl, Keith Wharton, RiverArts, Lester Barrett Jr., The Chestertown Jazz Festival, Mel Rapelyea, Marc Castelli, John Wilson, Lani Seikaly, and Pam Ortiz, Robert Earl Price and the cast of Red Devil Moon.

Photo Gallery Photography by Jane Jewell

 

Butch Clark, Leslie Raimond, both previous year Kenny winners

Melissa McGlynn performing sketch from “Parallel Lives”

Melissa McGlynn performing sketch from “Parallel Lives”

 

 

 

 

 

Ukulele Club

Ukulele Club

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julie Lawrence displays the Garfield’s “Golden Ticket” raffle to win a theater weekend in Philadelphia

Melissa McGlynn, Jim Landskroener, Karen Smith

Carol Neimand, Lolli Sherry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Opioids–What to Do?

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Tim Dove, Rachel Goss, and Rani Gutting on the panel at the Community Opioid Crisis Forum at Washington College on 25 January 2018 from 1:00-4:00 pm.

A panel discussion Thursday, Jan. 25 at Washington College’s Hynson Lounge brought together some of the key players in the effort to combat the opioid crisis.

Organized by WCTR radio, the panel included Tim Dove, the Local Addictions Authority for Kent County Behavioral Health, Peer Recovery Specialists Rachel Goss and Rani Gutting, Jen Moore of the Local Management Board, Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, Police Chief Adrian Baker, and Ginger Gregg of the Kent County Office of Emergency Services. Leslie Sea, general manager of WCTR was the moderator.

Sea opened proceedings by introducing Chrissy Chisholm, executive director of Foundations of Recovery and a recovering addict. Chisholm told how she had become an addict in her early teens on Long Island, ending up in treatment for the first time at age 15. “I had no intention of staying sober,” she said, recounting how she was jailed, expelled from school, and kept relapsing despite all efforts. At age 23, she was still living in her parents’ basement, trying to get through college. She was “barely functioning,” she said. One night, driving in pouring rain to try to get drugs, she ran off the road and crashed. She woke up in the wreck, with airbags deployed, going through DTs. The police put her in the hospital, charged with driving under the influence.  This was the turning point for Chrissy.

Chrissy Chisholm, founder and executive director of Foundations of Recovery and a recovering addict

Finally, Chisholm said, she turned her life over to God and began getting better. She stayed away from her old friends and stayed sober. Moving to Kent County, she began to put her life back together and decided to do what she could to help others do the same. Realizing that recovery is a lifelong process, she opened Foundations of Recovery and Mission House – so others in recovery can support and encourage each other. “I’m tired of watching people die,” she said; “I want to be part of the solution.”

Sea said the opioid crisis has two prongs, street drugs like heroin and prescription pain-killers. She called attention to the sign near the corner of Washington Avenue and Morgnec Road listing the number of overdoses and deaths; “We want it always to be at zero,” she said. She then turned the microphone over to Dove.

Dove said the word that resonated in describing the opioid crisis is “insidious,” especially in terms of its effect on families. “You can’t erase the trauma” of overdoses or multiple trips to the emergency room. He cited the Maryland overdose statistics for 2016, the last year for which there are complete records for the state; 2089 overdose deaths were recorded, he said. That’s the equivalent of all the passengers and crew of five Boeing 747 airliners dying in crashes in one year – and that story would dominate headlines if it occurred in the state. But it is swept under the carpet because of the stigma of overdoses, he said. “We need to work to create sympathy” for the victims of the opioid epidemic – to treat it as a public health issue.

Heroin has been a problem for decades, but it was “a dirty word until it hit the middle class,” often as a result of built-up tolerance to prescription painkillers. When prescriptions for the legal painkillers run out, or the cost gets out of reach, many patients begin to turn to street drugs like heroin to manage the pain. Some of them have a genetic susceptibility to becoming addicts, he said. And that’s when they find themselves dealing with the risk of overdoses. The big killer, he said, is fentanyl, which drug cartels intentionally add to heroin to increase its potency – but which is 100 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanil, another opioid, is10,000 times more potent than morphine.  So it does not take much to overdose.  The amount that would normally just get you high now will kill you.

Tim Dove, Local Addictions Authority for Kent County Behavioral Health 

Dove told about the benefits of Narcan, an easily administered nasal spray that can reverse the effects of overdoses. It’s like a miracle, everyone agreed–almost instantly restoring the person to sobriety.  Those who were unconscious, barely breathing, are suddenly conscious and breathing normally again.

Narcan works on all the opioids, including fentanyl. However, if fentanyl has been used, the recovery may last only a minute or two before the person relapses.  In these cases, Dove said, several doses of Narcan may be necessary, sometimes as many as four or five doses of Narcan.  This is one of the reasons why everyone should call 911 right away when trying to help a comatose person who has overdosed. If the first dose is not sufficient, emergency personnel should already be on the way and they will have more Narcan and other first aid equipment and treatments that may be needed.

Narcan is being distributed to local law enforcement and emergency response personnel and has already saved many overdose victims locally. Dove said anyone wanting training in how to use Narcan can contact him at the Whitsitt Center. It is now available at many local pharmacies.

Recovery is an attainable goal, he said, with a number of treatment facilities in the local area. Many people in respected roles and occupations are in recovery, he said.  All someone needs to do is ask for help. If they’re in the emergency room, they’ll be referred to the Whitsitt Center. He noted the availability of Vivitrol, an opioid antagonist drug that works for a month at a time, attaching to the opioid receptors in the body and preventing the person from getting high; at the end of the month, the patient needs to get another shot. This allows the patient to work on the psychological aspects of recovery. It is being used in the Kent County Detention Center and is available from three private treatment centers in the county.

Chief Adrian Baker of the Chestertown police and Ginger Gregg, emergency planner for Kent County

Ginger Gregg said that 911 teams responding to overdoses first administer Narcan, then deliver the patient to the emergency room, and then, if the patient is willing, take them to Whitsitt Center. But the patient must be willing to go to the hospital, she said. The paramedics will provide information about recovery, but they cannot take the patient in for treatment against their will.

Trish McGee, speaking from the audience, asked how accurate the numbers reported on the sign at the Morgnec Road intersection are. She said the community needs accurate numbers to respond effectively to the crisis. “Getting real numbers is part of removing the stigma,” she said

Dove said it’s difficult to get accurate numbers because different agencies are responding to overdoses. He said the number of patients transported to the hospital is the statistic he places most weight on. But the hospital doesn’t test for which substance is responsible for an overdose, so it’s not always clear whether a patient has been using heroin, fentanyl, or something else. Also, if a local person experiences an overdose somewhere out of the jurisdiction, that isn’t reported.

Gutting said Narcan is saving lives; many of the overdoses would result in deaths without it, she said. She said there were six overdoses the previous week, and she suspected all were caused by fentanyl.

Chief Baker said his department had looked into liability issues before issuing Narcan to officers. Once he was satisfied there would be no problem, he had his officers trained — it took about half an hour. “They were saving lives within a week,” he said.

Mayor Cerino said prescription opioids are a key ingredient of the epidemic. He said he was given an opioid after knee surgery and knows the relief it provided. He said he understands how legal drugs can lead to addiction. As mayor, he said, he is concerned about how addiction leads to crime sprees as addicts need to finance their habits. A few individuals can have a big effect in a small town like Chestertown, he said.

Baker said Chestertown’s reputation as a safe place ironically makes crime easier because people are negligent about locking doors or taking other safety measures. He said a spree of burglaries and break-ins last year was the result of a small number of addicts trying to find cash or things they could sell to get drugs.

Jen Moore of the Local Management Board

Jen Moore said that most clients in recovery programs have been in active addiction for 20 years, while a normal course of treatment lasts only 28 days. Some of those arrested for narcotics-related crimes “relapse before they even get out of jail,” she said. There’s a better chance if they go through long-term treatment. “they need two or three years of recovery programs and treatment to have a chance to get out of it. We need to close the gap between jail and the treatment center,” she said.

Dove said the different local agencies are meeting monthly on the first Wednesday of the month to deal with the epidemic. The meeting, which is open to all, is at the Kent County Commissioners hearing room at 400 High St., at 7:30 a.m.

Rachel Goss noted that there is a focus on reducing the stigma of addiction and offering support.  “We need to talk about it, get the message out to teachers and coaches” and other role models to stop it before it starts. “I met a lot of great people in recovery,” she said.

Moore said it’s far too easy for young people to get drugs. “Doctors will automatically prescribe if you tell them the right symptoms,” she said. “A lot of kids have figured it out before ninth grade.”  They know exactly what “symptoms” to tell the doctor in order to get the drug they want.  And then they tell other kids what to say in order for them to get drugs, too.

Goss said young people are exposed to drugs before they’ve developed coping skills to deal with the problems they face. She said she started using drugs and alcohol when she was 12. “The scare stories didn’t work, I tried it and it felt good, so I kept it up.”

Cerino agreed that it’s far too easy to obtain drugs. “You can order them on a cell phone.” He said it should be more difficult, at least requiring the buyer to talk to somebody.

Dr. Ben Kohl of Eastern Shore Psychological Services said from the audience that the availability of Vivitrol allows recovery on an outpatient basis. The good news is that insurance programs usually cover the drug, allowing patients to do rehab with less chance of relapses. “The whole community needs to support recovery,” he said. Jobs and housing need to be available for those in recovery. “We understand the brain a lot better, and how addiction and recovery work,” he said. “We need to emphasize the disease model” and remove the stigma from recovery, he said.

Maryland’s Good Samaritan law protects those helping an overdose victim or calling to report an overdose.

An audience member asked whether the recovery programs emphasize the spiritual dimensions of the process.

Dove said most rehab programs are built around the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step model, which is spiritually based. “There are many ways to find a spiritual path to recovery. There’s no wrong way — just get there,” he said.

Goss said that many churches support those in recovery.  The various recovery programs and personnel also refer users and their families to resources in churches and many spiritually-inspired or based programs.  “We know what’s out there and we offer it,” Goss said.

Gregg said Gov. Larry Hogan’s declaration that an opioid crisis existed in the state “opened up resources.” She said it “let us treat not just addicts but their families.” She gave as an example the van the county has acquired.  The van contains a mockup of a young person’s bedroom showing places an addict could hide drugs and other clues a parent could use to start a conversation about drug use. The van will be on exhibit at numerous community events in 2018.  Only those over 18 are allowed in, so it doesn’t give ideas to teens. She said anyone interested in having the trailer come to an event should call the sheriff’s office.

Moore said several projects are in progress to help raise public awareness of the crisis. Among them, she mentioned a state website,  BeforeItsTooLateMD.org, with resources for patients, families, medical professionals, and others. There is also a 24-hour crisis hotline, 1-800-422-0009, that anyone can call anonymously for help for themselves or another.

Leslie Sea and Brian Moore, owners and operators of WCTR radio in Chestertown, organized the Opioid Crisis Forum

Maryland’s Good Samaritan law protects those helping an overdose victim or calling 911 about an overdose.

Drug Education Kit at the opioid forum had a display of drugs and various drug paraphernalia.

 

 

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“No Bay Bridge to Kent,” Say Residents

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Is a new Bay Bridge coming to Kent County? If a standing-room crowd that filled Chestertown Firehouse Thursday night has its way, the answer will be a resounding “No.”

The meeting, organized by the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance (KCPA), was meant as a way to inform residents of the process by which the state of Maryland will make its decision on a bridge, and to motivate opponents to get involved in stopping the route from coming through Kent.

Janet Christensen-Lewis opened the meeting by introducing KCPA board members and the elected officials in the audience. Present were Kent County Commissioners Ron Fithian and Bill Short, Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, Councilmen Marty Stetson and David Foster, Judge Harris Murphy, Clerk of the Court Mark Mumford, and representatives sent by Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Andy Harris. Christensen-Lewis then gave an overview of the mission of KCPA, calling the landscape of Kent County “a natural oasis” that must be preserved. She said the Maryland Department of Transportation is “using a 20th-century model” to solve 21st-century transportation problems. A bridge from Baltimore to Kent County would not be “harmonious with the land or the people,” she said, turning the county into a suburb of Baltimore.  Large portions of Kent County’s fertile farmland would be turned into roads with the inevitable strip malls–picture Kent Island on Rt. 50.  Housing developments would most likely follow quickly–picture Middletown, DE.  And once lost, once paved over, this beautiful and fruitful farmland cannot be restored.

Elizabeth Watson and Janet Christensen-Lewis of Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance

The idea of a bridge from the western shore to Kent County goes way back.  The first known proposal for a bridge to cross the bay was in 1907 but nothing came of it until the 1920s, Christensen-Lewis said. Plans were proceeding in 1927 but the project was derailed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent arrival of the Depression. A revived proposal, in 1938, had to be put aside when World War II broke out. When the idea again became possible, after the war, the route chosen went through Kent Island, taking advantage of roads already existing to serve the ferry service that previously brought passengers across the bay, The bridge was completed in 1952, and a parallel span was completed in 1973. But with the increase of traffic over the years, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) now seeks a way to reduce strain on the current bridge – and thus the call for a new bridge – which would not, she said, be a solution in the long run.

Christensen-Lewis stated that we can stop this, but “The time to raise hell is now,” she said.

Some of the standing room crowd at the firehouse meeting

Elizabeth Watson then took the microphone to outline theMDTA process and timelines for major decisions and ways Kent County residents can work to influence them.  A new five-million-dollar study sponsored by the MDTA is looking at possible locations for a new bridge across the Chesapeake Bay.  The study began in fall 2017 and will continue through 2020. MDTA is considering sites along the entire length of the Bay from north to south. The study will identify 10-15 possible corridors for the crossing by fall 2018. From these initial possibilities, MDTA will select a single location for a crossing, including a bridge plus approaches (access highways and bridges) on both the eastern and western shores of the bay. MDTA’s final decision will come in 2020.

Public comment will be accepted at all phases of the project, but once the choice of a route is made, it will be all but impossible to overturn it. Therefore, she said, it is essential to apply pressure while there is still the chance for it to affect the process.

There is a good possibility that a Kent County location could be the final choice as it is almost directly across from Baltimore. However, if the study concludes that the bridge should originate somewhere other than Baltimore, then other routes — including a third span parallel to the existing two between Sandy Point and Kent Island — become possible. That is what the MDTA study is currently working to determine and why it’s important for residents to make their opinions known now. Some southern counties, including Dorchester, have said they would welcome a bridge to their shores. In Queen Anne’s which has the Route 50 traffic from the current bridge, opinion is mixed, Watson said.

A map for a Kent County option (above) shows three possible routes connecting a new bay bridge to Route 301; one going through Kennedyville and connecting to 301 near Millington, another routed slightly up the Chester River from Chestertown, and a third downriver from Chestertown.  The above map, prepared by KCPA, assumes a  third span originating in Baltimore and ending near Tollchester in Kent County.

Watson said the MDTA had received some 400 comments by mid-December 2017, which she said the agency characterized as an “unprecedented” high number.  She said KCPA has prepared sample letters for residents who want to add their own comments. Attendees at the meeting were given the samples along with a pre-addressed envelope to mail the signed letter. They can be downloaded from the KCPA website.  It is not too late to send letters, she stressed.  A large volume of letters will definitely make both politicians and government officials take notice.  But, she added that Kent County residents have basically only nine months to make their opinions known as the three recommended routes will be announced next fall. The address to send letters about a new Chesapeake Bay bridge, pro or con, is “Ms. Heather Lowe, Bay Crossing Study, MD Transportation Study, 21310 Broening Hwy., Baltimore, MD 21224.”

Suggested wording for one of the sample letters reads: “Dear Ms. Lowe: Building another bridge to the Eastern Shore is the last thing the Eastern Shore needs.  New highways encourage more travelers; more travelers encourage more development, and more development will destroy the very nature of the ‘Shore that attracts people to visit.  As the Baltimore Sun op-ed article said, “Let the Eastern Shore be.” Don’t build a new crossing over the bay.  Sincerely,”

An online comment form that you can fill out is here.

While Maryland government sources list the bridge itself as an estimated 4 billion-dollar project, Watson said that it would probably be more like 20 billion when all the associated costs are considered, including buying the land and constructing the connecting roads.  If some landowners were unwilling to sell, then their land would most likely be acquired through eminent domain at an estimated fair market price.

Just inside entrance of Chestertown Fire Hall where the meeting took place, the old fire truck was decorated with “No Bridge” signs

The Kent County route has its supporters, who see it not only as a more direct route from Baltimore to Ocean City but as a quicker route for trucks headed north.  Those who favor a new bridge believe that it will also have the benefit of reducing wear on the current bridges, where truck traffic is 10 percent of the volume. It would also open up Kent County to development much in the way Kent Island has become a suburb of Annapolis. Given that some 57 percent of the county is prime farmland, that could be a disaster to the agricultural community that makes up one of Kent’s strongest components. On the other hand, the Baltimore Sun printed an editorial Jan. 2, this year, titled “Let the Eastern Shore Be,” that strongly opposed the Kent County route.

Watson listed actions residents opposed to the Kent County route can take,  In addition to writing letters, actions can include displaying yard signs – there were several at the meeting with the legend “No Bay Bridge to Kent” – donating to KCPA, and passing the word to friends and acquaintances who may be unaware of the threat posed by the bridge.

County Commissioners Ron Fithian and Bill Short tell about efforts to prevent a new bridge from coming to Kent County

Watson then invited public officials to comment, and Ron Fithian took the floor to list actions taken by the commissioners. Fithian said the commissioners testified against a General Assembly bill that would repeal a provision by which five of the nine Eastern Shore counties must approve any new toll road, bridge, or highway on the shore. He said state Sen. Mike Middleton, chair of the committee studying the bill, called it “a terrible precedent.” Middleton’s probable opposition gives hope that the bill would fail. “I feel good about the situation,” Fithian said, implying that he thought the bill to repeal the Eastern Shore counties right to approve or disapprove any new toll road on the shore would not pass.  He said that such a bill would unfairly silence the voices of those directly affected.

Short said the commissioners are doing their part to oppose the bridge coming to Kent County and said it was good to see so many residents at the meeting. Both Short and Fithian testified against the repeal before the Maryland Senate Finance Committee. All nine Eastern Shore counties have sent letters opposing the proposed Senate bill 34.

Clerk of the Court Mark Mumford said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers.

Mark Mumford, during an audience comment period, said he swore in the 1960s that he would be the first to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent any bridge from coming to Kent County. He said he was ready to do it again if such a route is approved. He urged residents to “get to your delegates” and let them know you oppose a Kent County crossing.

More details of the proposed bridge crossing and links to other relevant websites are available on the KCPA website.  Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, which organized the standing-room-only meeting, is a 501(c)3, all-volunteer, non-profit group. KCPA merged last year with Kent Conservation, which was founded in 1970 and has been a leader in local conservation ever since.  KCPA plans more meeting to keep residents informed.  An Op-Ed article titled A Bridge to Somewhere by KCPA stalwarts Judy Gifford, Janet Christensen-Lewis, and Elizabeth Watson published earlier this month in the Chestertown Spy, looks at some of the stated and unstated reasons for a third Chesapeake Bay bridge.

The current study–which will identify the recommended and two preferred-alternate routes for a third Chesapeake Bay bridge–is a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study.  The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) owns, finances, operates and maintains the Bay Bridge, officially titled the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge.  More information on the study, which is scheduled to end in 2020, can be found at $5 million Bay Crossing Study.

Correction: The above article was edited on 30 Jan 2018, to clarify that 10 to 15 possible bridge locations will be announced in fall 2018 while the final choice will be determined sometime in mid-2020.  As originally published, the article said that three possible sites would be announced in fall 2018.

Photo gallery below.  Photography by Jane Jewell

 

 

Professor John Seidel of Washington College urged audience members to take action now because it will be almost impossible to change it after a final location is selected.

Marjo Rasin (center) and former Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey (left)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Movie Theater Reopening Hits Snag

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The widely anticipated reopening of the Chester 5 Theater is not going to happen, at least in the near future.

The theater, which closed June 4, was originally anticipated to open in November, in time for the Christmas season, when many of the year’s top movies are released.

One of the partners in the Chesapeake Theaters group, which was behind the plans to reopen, spoke to the Chestertown Spy in September. He said that plans were to renovate the entire interior with new, more comfortable seats, an expanded concession area offering more substantial fare. The partners also planned to work with local youth groups to hold fundraisers to benefit children. However, those plans were delayed and rumors began to circulate that the deal was falling through. Those rumors were confirmed when the Spy spoke with one of the principals last week.

Mike Klein, a partner in Chesapeake Theaters, told the Chestertown Spy that his group “was not able to negotiate a favorable lease” with the management of the Washington Square mall. “We went in in good faith,” Klein said in a Jan. 18 phone interview. He said the partners had begun work on the interior, including removal of the old seats, on the assumption that they had an agreement with the landlord. “We wouldn’t have started renovations if it wasn’t good,” he said. They have invested quite a bit of money already in the project. He and his partners have been involved in theaters in the Baltimore area, though this would have been a separate venture, he said.

Klein said the landlord, Silicato Development of Millsboro, Delaware, made modifications in the terms of the final lease that they had not discussed in their initial negotiations.  The added terms would have made it too difficult to make a go of the theater. He said all negotiations with the landlord have stopped as of January. and he does not expect the theater project to go forward.  However, he said, if Silicato Development reached out to them, they would be willing to re-examine the situation.  

The partners also would be open to the possibility of an alternate location, Klein said, but the property needs to be suitable for the purpose. He said they would need at least 20,000 square feet, with ceilings high enough for a movie screen, and a rent that fell within their budget.

Klein said he met with Kay MacIntosh and Jamie Williams, the economic development coordinators for Chestertown and Kent County, respectively, to discuss ways to make the project possible, including the possibility of other sites, but he was unable to find anything that solved the problems.

MacIntosh said on Tuesday that she had discussed incentives related to the Enterprise Zone, a state-designated area where tax benefits are available for new or revived businesses. The benefits include possible abatement of state property taxes for renovated properties and income tax benefits for businesses hiring a certain number of new employees, she said. A possible waiver of a state tax on movie theater tickets was also discussed, although that would require the approval of the town council. Discussions of those incentives never got past the talking stage, she said.  But, McIntosh said, she and Williams were very disappointed about the stalemate and would be willing to work again with Chesapeake Theaters or any other parties interested in re-opening the movie theater. 

Klein said he was disappointed at the failure of the project to get past the starting line. He and his partner had come in good faith and they have already invested a good deal of money on the project.  He said he spent some time in town, talked to people, and ate at the Fish Whistle. He found people in Chestertown were friendly and welcoming and enthusiastic about the possible reopening of the movies.  This was the kind of town, he said, that they were attracted to and had hoped to open a movie theater in.

The representative of Silicato Development familiar with negotiations on the theater was on vacation and unavailable for comment until early next week.  We hope to speak with the Silicato representative in the near future.

Biloxi Blues: A Boot Camp Hoot!

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Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (John Haas, left) addresses his boot camp squad in Church Hill Theatre’s “Biloxi Blues” –  Top Bunk – Robbie Spray & James Rank; Middle bunk – Timothy Daly & Troy Strootman,  Bottom Bunk – Anthony Daly & Morgan Jung.  Photo by Steve Atkinson

Biloxi Blues, by Neil Simon, is a semi-autobiographical play about young soldiers undergoing basic training during World War II. Directed by Michael Whitehill, it is currently playing at Church Hill Theatre.

Set almost entirely in an Army training camp near Biloxi, Mississippi, the play focuses on six soldiers in one platoon and their hard-nosed drill sergeant. Like other comedies with a military setting, it gains much of its humor by contrasting the raw recruits — a motley crew with different backgrounds and personalities — with the Army’s demand for discipline and adherence to an apparently irrational set of rules.

Originally produced at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in 1985, Biloxi Blues ran for 524 performances. It is the middle piece in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy,” featuring a young Brooklyn Jew whose experiences roughly follow Simon’s own early life. The other two segments are Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway BoundBiloxi Blues won Tony awards for best play, best actor (Barry Miller as Arnold Epstein) and best director (Gene Saks); Miller also won a Drama Desk award. Others in the original production were Matthew Broderick as Eugene, Simon’s self-portrait character, and William Sadler as drill sergeant Toomey. 

A 1988 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, brought back Broderick as Eugene and featured Christopher Walken in the role of Sgt. Toomey.

On the train to boot camp in Biloxi! Photo by Steve Atkinson

While there is a great deal of broad, often profane comedy, the play also has at its core a serious story about growing up and learning about the world. The narrator, Eugene, has ambitions of being a writer, and he keeps a journal in which he writes his impressions of his fellow recruits and their experiences. Right at the beginning, Eugene says that he has four goals for the near future – to fall in love, to lose his virginity, (not necessarily in that order), to become a writer and to make it out of the army alive.  Like much comedy, the play draws its materials from events that may seem far from amusing to those caught up in them, but that with time and experience become funny even to those involved.

Recruits Arnold Epstein, Don Carney, and Eugene Jerome are berated by Sgt. Toomey.     Photo by Jane Jewell

At the center of the play is Arnold Epstein, a gentle misfit who draws the wrath of Sgt. Toomey almost from the minute he arrives in camp. Even though he considers Arnold his closest friend in the army, Eugene can do little more than watch as Epstein is assigned endless KP and latrine duty as a result of his failure to meet the sergeant’s standards. Epstein, for his part, continues to assert his humanity, even as other recruits mock him (and Eugene) for being Jewish.

The plot, on the whole, is episodic. We see the recruits’ first reactions to the demands of Army life and learn their backgrounds and quirks. We follow them through confrontations — one soldier in particular, Wykowski, is especially scornful of the two Jews in the squad — though that attitude softens somewhat throughout the play as the six recruits go from being strangers to being a unit, soldiers together.  We see the six going to visit a prostitute for their first sexual experience. Eventually, all of them — even the sergeant, who has a plate in his head where he was wounded in battle — gain a degree of humanity and sympathy by the end of the play.

Whitehill has assembled a cast dominated by young actors —  — just right, given the age of the characters they are portraying. He said after the opening night performance that the youngest cast member is only 13 while the oldest is in his early 40s,  most are in their teens or early twenties. Almost all have some previous theatrical experience, though this is the Church Hill debut for several of them. While there were a few first-night glitches, the performance was, on the whole, up to the high standards local audiences have come to expect.  Be sure to read the Director’s Notes in the Play Bill as he gives some interesting information on the production and using memoir as a narrative technique.

Whitehill also noted that he broke in the young cast by having them do push-ups as punishment for arriving late to rehearsals — 15 push-ups for each minute late! It was all good-natured, Whitehill said, with the young actors often running in just on time, pointing at their watches and shouting “I’m here! I’m here!” Not only did it improve promptness, it got the recruits in shape to perform push-ups at the sergeant’s command during the show! 

Troy Strootman, who has appeared at the Garfield Center and with Shore Shakespeare, makes his CHT debut as Eugene. He effectively strikes the balance between the character’s youthful naivete and his innate intelligence and insight into his fellow recruits — this is, after all, someone who is going to grow up to become Neil Simon. A good job in an important part.

Robert Spray takes the role of Arnold Epstein, in many ways the focus of the play’s main drama. He brings out the awkward recruit’s genuine distaste for the dehumanizing aspects of military training, and makes his confrontations with the sergeant appropriately comic.

John Haas, a CHT veteran, is well cast as Sgt. Toomey, who turns out to be a more complex and sympathetic character than the stereotypical drill sergeant he appears to be when the soldiers arrive at boot camp. Haas is convincing as the hard-nosed drillmaster, but when the opportunity arises for the character to demonstrate genuine concern for his men, he makes the switch believable – not an easy thing to do!

Daisy and Eugene dance at the USO. (Kendall Davis & Troy Strootman with Carney (Morgan Jung) and hostess Scarlett Chappell dancing in background)    Photo by Jane Jewell

Daisy Hannigan, Eugene’s love interest, is played by Kendall Davis, a 2o16 Washington College graduate who is appearing in her fourth CHT production. She convincingly projects the sweetness and innocence of the Catholic school girl who meets the soldier at a USO dance, winning him over with her knowledge of the literary world he aches to become part of. A very warm performance, given an extra dimension by Davis’s dancing.

Brothers Anthony and Timothy Daly play Roy Seldridge and Joseph Wykowsky, two of the recruits in the squad. The sons of Jeff Daly, who has many CHT credits in his own right, they give solid performances. Timothy’s character, at first a somewhat dim-witted anti-Semite, comes to recognize that he is part of a team, and all the members need to work together if they are to survive the coming ordeal of wartime. Anthony’s character thinks of himself as the comedian of the bunch, though he’s not as witty as he thinks.

Morgan Jung and Jeffrey Rank fill out the boot camp squad with portrayals of Don Carney and James Hennessy. Carney sings — off key! — in his sleep, to the annoyance of his bunk mates. and Hennesey, who is the oldest recruit and who claims to be part African-American, comes across as slightly more attuned to Army life.  Good jobs by both.

The boys are initiated in the mysteries of sex by the local prostitute Rowena , played by Christine Kinlock. Biloxi Blues Photo by Jane Jewell

Christine Kinlock, who has become a regular in the local theater scene, has a meaty if brief part as Rowena, a prostitute. Again, the character, who might have been a stereotype, turns out to have depths that Kinlock nicely brings out.

Scarlett Chapell appears as another USO hostess, dancing with the soldiers. The character is not in the original script, but Chapell, who is in her first show at CHT, makes good use of the opportunity to create a character without speaking a word.  Beautiful dancing in a shadowed background.

Given that the majority of the cast is in uniform for the entire length of the play, the only real chance for costuming flash is in the three women’s outfits — which nicely distinguish the three characters.  Both USO girls are wearing distinctive 1940s dress styles. Note that the recruits are all wearing realistic, WWII “dogtags” around their necks.

The sets are quite effective, creating a believable 1940s army camp and surrounding scenes. The main set is a surprisingly realistic two-sided unit with the soldier’s three-tiered bunks on one side and a latrine on the other. The set not only swings around to give two different scenes, it rolls offstage when a less specific scene is needed — for example the open floor of the USO dance.  A side portion of the stage is used for a train car, Toomey’s office, and Rowena’s bedroom. While not as spectacular as some of CHT’s past sets, it does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere of the time and place. Kudos to Whitehill and Brian Draper, who designed and built it.

Not surprisingly, given its subject and setting, Biloxi Blues has its share of adult situations and language — and a good number of the characters share the prejudices of the time and express them in the language of the era. Parents might think twice about bringing very young children to the production. But adult audiences, or even teens, will appreciate the larger message of the play — how growing up involves surviving harsh experiences and making something bigger than any one individual’s feelings or abilities. And there is plenty to laugh about, along the way.

Biloxi Blues runs through Feb. 4, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, with special prices for groups of ten or more. The audience was packed on opening night and there were also  sizable crowds for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee of the opening week.  For reservations, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website.

Photo Credits: Steve Atkinson and Jane Jewell

Biloxi Blues second side of reversible, rolling set.         Photo credit: Jane Jewell

At the USO dance.         Photo by Jane Jewell

Biloxi Blues – curtain call on opening night. Photo by Jane Jewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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