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Lesbian Folk Singer Toshi Reagon Plays Joe’s Pub

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Thursday Jan 16, 2014

The New Year starts right when New York City's Public Theater honors folk and blues icon Toshi Reagon with five concerts at Joe's Pub, plus a special engagement at the Under the Radar fest. The shows, one of which will benefit the Astraea Foundation, are part of Reagon's 30th Annual Birthday Celebration, bringing together friends and special performers including her mother in what has become a New York performance tradition.

"We are thrilled to celebrate Toshi's career and success at Joe's Pub and Under the Radar," said Joe's Pub director Shanta Thake. "Her history and music are deeply rooted in the music of the Civil Rights movement, and she continues to use her voice to promote equality in all of its myriad forms. It's only fitting that these concerts begin on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend."

Reagon has been performing since 1996, sharing stages with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Ani DiFranco and Elvis Costello. She first founded these birthday concerts when she was 21, and kept doing them at big New York venues like Irving Plaza and smaller ones like the CBGB Gallery and Fez. She explained that these concerts differ, and will be more intimate affairs, each with its own unique stamp.

The Joe's Pub shows will include music written by Reagon while she was a 2013 Fellow with Brooklyn Philharmonic. This first concert is January 19 in The Public's Martinson Theater, where Reagon will perform "Sacred Stories," a retrospective of the composer's opera repertory. The evening features selections from Robert Wilson's "The Temptation of St Anthony and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter," as well as "Lines," an opera commissioned by Joe's Pub in 2011 as part of its inaugural New York Voices series.

"I will probably do four pieces from each opera, featuring a number of people who were in these operas, doing it with me," said Reagon. "There will be 12 singers, me and a couple of string players and my band, which has served as the chamber orchestra for 'Sacred Stories.'"

"Sacred Stories" includes twelve guest vocalists and the BIGLovely Orchestra, featuring Judith Casselberry, Adam Widoff, Robert Burke, Fred Cash, Stephanie McKay and Marcelle Davies Lashley. These guest vocalists for her five concerts include Stephanie Battle, Helga Davis, Carla Duren, Randy Jeter, Karma Mayet Johnson, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Josette Newsam Marchak, Stephanie McKay, Carl Hancock Rux, Jason C Walker, Christalyn Wright and Imani Uzuri.

An All-Woman Show to Benefit Astraea

On January 22, Reagon’s show presents, "All Women All The Time: All Women version of BIGLovely," featuring Allison Miller, Ganessa James, Alex Nolan, Elena Canlas, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Judith Casselberry and Stephanie McKay. This show will benefit the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

"I thought it would be nice to have an all-women show," said Reagon. "We are going to have a good time and play a lot of songs with a lot of great women."

Astraea is a New York-based philanthropic organization that works exclusively to advance LGBT rights around the globe. They give grants funding to marginalized lesbian, trans, and people of color communities throughout the world who challenge oppression and seed change. The group works for racial, economic, social and gender justice so that all people can live their lives freely, without fear and with dignity. It is a perfect fit for Reagon -- and not just because the head of Astraea is her longtime partner.

"We’re excited to celebrate with Toshi," said Astraea Executive Director J. Bob Alotta. "Toshi, as an independent artist, is generously donating proceeds from a night of hard work. Astraea understands that community is our greatest asset. Artists like Toshi don’t just show up to a gig but believe in creating the room you want to be in. And know, as we at Astraea do, this is how we create the world we want to live in. I’m honored she believes in the room Astraea is creating."

As the goddaughter of folk singer Peter Seeger [she is named after his wife, Toshi Seeger] Reagon is a child of the civil rights struggle. But while many in the LGBT community are rushing to the altar to avail themselves of the right to marry, Reagon said that she and Alotta have no such plans. Although they are not against anyone else’s desire to get married, both are concerned with keeping their eyes on the prize: continuing to work for women’s rights and civil rights here in the U.S. and in countries like Uganda, Russia and Nigeria, where people are risking their lives to change the status quo.

"It is all queer people’s job to keep forcing the issue and making it about human rights and planet rights and not let nasty people who are in it for themselves direct the conversation," said Reagon. "I’m disgusted by this bickering; we have got to stop that. Let’s get together and get feet on the ground to do the hard work that needs to be done."

The funds raised on January 22 will go to Astraea’s work with LGBTQI activists and organizations globally where the opportunities, the needs, and often the risks, are greatest. Funds will support LGBTQI human rights through arts and cultural activism, movement and network building and strategic regional connection among activists.

Singing With Good Old Mom

On Jan. 23, Reagon will present works from her fellowship with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, including a piece she created with a quartet (although only two of the members will appear). On the 24th, BIGLovely will be joined by Michael Arthur, a former artist in residence at Joe’s Pub. He will sit onstage and draw the show as it unfolds.

Reagon’s mother Bernice Johnson Reagon [founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock] will help close the week with a sold-out performance of their "Sacred Music Show." The two performed together at the White House in 2010. Special guests for the Jan. 26 show include Josette Newsam Marchak and Jason C. Walker.

"They get to be pretty powerhouse performances, and it’s just great to perform with her," said Reagon, who admitted that she treasured these times with her mother. "I think we’ll focus a lot on her material, on the songs she wrote. But the premise of sacred music doesn’t have to be religious; it can be any music that really gets you into your life and sustains you."

Toshi Reagon will play Jan. 19-26 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. in Manhattan. For tickets or information, visit http://www.joespub.com/ or http://www.undertheradarfestival.com/sacredstories/ For information on Toshi Reagon, please visit http://www.toshireagon.com/

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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