October 17–24, 1996

noises off

Washington News In Review

Dunye, Denzel and more.

By David Warner

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Cheryl Dunye.

A filmmaker from Philadelphia has narrowly escaped being the latest scapegoat in the right-wing attack on the National Endowment for the Arts.

What did the would-be NEA-bashers use as a weapon? A review in City Paper.

The Watermelon Woman, the debut feature by innovative black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye, played to appreciative crowds at both the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema and the Phila. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival earlier this year, and won additional acclaim at festivals in Berlin and NYC. But according to a story by Mark Huisman in the October ’96 issue of the indie filmmakers’ journal The Independent, Dunye’s film was attracting a different kind of attention at the same time — attention that led to another congressional debate about the NEA’s funding of “controversial” material.

The flap began in mid-June when Julia Duin, a staff reporter for the conservative Washington Times, wrote a lengthy article about WatermelonWoman in which she questioned why the NEA had given a $31,500 grant to a film described as having “the hottest dyke sex scene on celluloid.” The source of that description? A short review by Jeannine DeLombard that ran in the City Paper during the Festival of World Cinema in May.

DeLombard also said the film was “fast, fun, breathless and beautiful,” but those adjectives weren’t inflammatory enough, I guess, for Duin (who didn’t bother to see the film for herself before writing about it, says Huisman). Duin got her story into the paper just in time for the House debate on the appropriations bill containing the NEA budget. Citing her article, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) called for a decrease in the endowment’s budget by $31,500.

Dunye’s story has a happy ending. Hoekstra withdrew his amendment, the budget was reconciled without the $31,500 cut, and, as Huisman told me in a recent conversation, “It was never brought up in the Senate.”

Barry Swimar, the producer of Watermelon Woman, says that three distributors have made proposals on the film, and that it’s slated to open commercially at NYC’s Film Forum in March.

Huisman hopes that the failure of this scapegoating attempt will send a message to anti-NEA forces. “Hopefully this will serve as some sort of hint to these people that they’re flogging a dead donkey.”

Still, he points out, the Washington Times is a widely read paper in D.C. And what it prints gets repeated: according to Swimar, City Paper‘s out-of-context blurb “was quoted all over the place” — in the newspaper, in Congress and on the radio. “One particularly vitriolic black AM radio talk show host in D.C. repeated [the phrase] over and over again,” Swimar said.

Which probably means that Watermelon Woman is guaranteed to do knockout business when it finally reaches Washington multiplexes.

Washington’s return…Denzel Washington’s fallen back into our clutches with Fallen. Even though shooting for the new thriller won’t begin until Friday, the sightings have already begun: he was spotted Tuesday morning at The Sporting Club, where he was walking the treadmill in a black T-shirt and a baseball cap.

Other Fallen stars to be on the lookout for: John Goodman (though probably not on the treadmill), Donald Sutherland and Embeth Davidtz. If you want to be in Fallen yourself, you’re a little late: Mike Lemon Casting has already completed their open calls for union and non-union talent, and are in the midst of making the final casting decisions for principals and extras. If it turns out they need to see more people, though, they’ll make an announcement to that effect on their casting hotline: (215) 627-1574.

If he can make it there… Michael LeLand, artistic producing director of Theatre Double, says he “definitely” is beginning to feel like a prophet without honor in his own city — or at least a prophet without props. Though “we haven’t got a good review in Philly yet,” the production of Medea which the company transferred to NYC’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe last month received a favorable review in the New York Times.

LeLand calls the production “a further evolution” of the version staged here earlier this year at the MTI Tabernacle Theater. An adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy by Philadelphia playwright Dennis Moritz, it attracted “one of the largest crowds in the Nuyorican’s history” on Oct. 5, the final Saturday of the run.

Double’s next local gig is a production of Dot Dot Dot, Moritz’s take on the Dorothy Stratten story, at the Painted Bride in February, and they’ll return to Nuyorican for a six-week run right after that.

Why so successful in NY and not in Philadelphia? It’s a matter of taste, says LeLand: “It’s not the kind of work that generally gets well-received in Philadelphia. We’re not a mainstream theater,” and Philadelphia, he says, is “a mainstream theater town.”

IT’s your roll… New plays are always a chancy undertaking. So Independent Theatre, aka IT, the Brick Playhouse’s dessert theater series, is doing the only fair thing — they’re letting patrons gamble for their tickets. If you take in one of the three performances in this month’s IT series (which runs Oct. 18-20 at the Playhouse’s space at 623 South St. and includes works by Mark Cofta, Walt Vail, John Dorf, Joe Paprzycki, Robert Christophe and Ben Beardsley), you’ll pay $10 — minus the roll of a die. (For a real gamble, though, we think Mark Cofta ought to invite Bernard Havard to review his play.)

Call her madam…The already sold-out Barrymore Awards gala takes place next Monday at the Annenberg Center. Look for a glamorous star soon to be appearing in her own show in a well-known Center City hotel cabaret to be the presenter of the awards for best supporting actor and actress in a musical. Let’s just say she knows her way around a support garment.