Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Evening in the West Village: Sabrina Johnston in Pridefest's final hour

We're glad we were able to get away to at least the final hour of Pridefest, the annual LGBT street fair that's now in its seventeenth year. Although we saw a few of the Gay Pride Day parades in the 1970s, and more in the mid- to late-1980s when we spent our summers on the Upper West Side, we'd never been to Pridefest before.

Of course, this day and week consist of the parade, the rally, the dance on the pier (still going on as we write this), last night's Rapture on the River, and dozens of official Pride and unofficial events, many of which draw tourists from all over the country and world. But this year we just caught the end of Pridefest and a great performance by our much-loved Sabrina Johnston.

Hudson Street between 14th and Abington Square was closed to traffic, and there were lots of vendors and the usual street fair food and other businesses with tables aqnd booths lining the street. We were there at the tail end, since it had started at 11 a.m., and we went right to the performance space at the north end, finding a seat at the back of the crowd. Most people were going in the opposite direction from us as we walked from the subway, but the remaining group were enthusiastic and the wildly diverse sea of humanity you always see at New York gay pride events.

Forty years ago, in June 1969, we'd just turned 18 and registered with our draft board at 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. We were taking our first class at Brooklyn College that summer, Poli Sci 1 in our major, but it wasn't till August that we began keeping a daily diary we've kept every day since. Like on August 3, 1969, we wrote in our childish way
I went to Kings Highway to get the Village Voice. It seems there was a real big gay power demonstration in Sheridan Square.

That was about five weeks after Stonewall, which we learned about largely through the Voice - we'd have to go to the newsstands at either the Junction or the Kings Highway (Brighton line) station to get it.

Fred W. McDarrah for The Village Voice

It was pretty much the only media outlet that had decent coverage of what happened 40 years ago tonight and in the days that followed.

From New York Times coverage:

The Voice was a lifeline, probably, for more than one messed-up outer-borough teen who didn't realize the articles themselves were homophobic (a word that didn't exist) enough to cause angry Stonewall rioters to march on the Voice office itself.

Later, we'd spend the much of the winter of '74-'75 working at the Voice as a $2-an-hour messenger in the display advertising department, and ten summers after Stonewall, pioneering gay Voice columnist Arthur Bell would say nice things about our first book.

But 40 years ago we were just one of those hippie-ish kids hanging out by the fountain in Washington Square Park. Here's a pic we took that summer of Stonewall, in August 1969:

Anyway, that was then, this is now. One of the co-hosts, Tyra Allure, is asking for all lesbians to raise their hands and shout out. The couple next to us, and lots of others do so.

Then she asks all gay boys to raise their hands and shout out, and a lot of people do. Then Tyra asks for bisxuals to do the same. More hands up and shouts. "You know they all lyin'," Tyra say. She asks for police officers to raise their hands and shout out, and a young white guy in a T-shirt blocking our view and others do. "I love a man in uniform," Tyra says.

Then she and her co-host, Vanessa Veltre, say this is when, traditionally, they call for a moment of silence for all of those we've lost, "but we're not gonna do that this year."

Instead, "I want all of you cops and everyone else to shout out . . . Hey, I'm just a little black girl from Trinidad, but I want, for all the the people you lost and sometimes didn't tell anyone . . . I want you to scream so loud that they hear you!"

We scream as loud as we can.

Then Sabrina Johnston is introduced, with of course a nod to her 1991 hit "Peace in the Valley," and to much applause, Sabrina comes onstage with two women dancers in bright red wigs and red outfits come on. They play around, Sabrina mocks being upset at the dancers, and she sings "I'm Free."

She's really great, and the dancers are too. It's buoyant and exuberant and appropriately celebratory. We hear bouncy standards like "Dancing in the Street" and "Respect." The teen girls near us and the thirtyish gay male couple are dancing around, as are many others. At a poignant moment, Sabrina shouts out, "Michael Jackson, can you hear me?"

Sabrina Johnston has a new album coming out this September, and she did a couple of new songs:
Free Free Free, by Sabrina Johnston

She starts to wrap things up with "Peace in the Valley":
Peace in the valley, peace in the city
Peace in your soul yeah-eh

Peace in the valley, peace in the city
Peace in your soul yeah-eh . . .

Yeah I'm talking about a love (love)
It's deep in your heart, I know it's there
The love was giving so you can't survive
It's the part of us that keeps us all alive . . .

Now's the time, look in your soul (your soul)
Are you happy with the thing that you were born
It gets better, that's for sure
Look to God and he will bless you with more . . .

"New York, thank you," Sabrina Johnston says. "I promise you one thing . . . I'll be only positive . . . we'll have peace in the valley, peace in the city, peace in your soul!"

There's a terrific segment with the two dancers, doing all sorts of amazing splits, somersaults, breakdancing. One's red wig falls off, and she's got nice real natural reddish hair; she tosses the wig into the audience where a big man catches it and eventually the other dancer rips off her wig too. The crowd seems giddy with a mixture of weariness and buoyancy.

Then Sabrina Johnston comes out again for her finale and exits to lots of shouts and applause. The co-hosts come out, Vanessa says they've been told they shouldn't be polticial but that's bullshit. New York State Senators need to stopping messing around. "Hey, Barack Obama, if you can hear this, we're going to get married whatever you say!" Pridefest co-chair Fran Rolan is introduced.

Other Pridefest workers come onstage. "We all stand here together!"

Tyra Allure says the transgender community gets misunderstood: "To me, it's really not your concern. Look at us and see us as we are. Don't question me: I'm a woman. Don't question her - oh wait [laughter]. . . When you talk to friends, go to your Bible - as I do - no one taught you to hate. . ."

Fran says it takes a community to put on Pridefest, "and it takes a village to clean up." She asks us all to take our chairs and put them on the side, at the designated places and to help clean up.

As the Pridefest staff goes offstage to applause, someone says, "We are proud, we are here to stay, make some noise!"

We walk down Hudson Street and lots of people are still buying food and walking around even though things are staring to close down.

The diversity of the crowd is remarkable when you compare it to pride events 25 and 30 and 35 years ago.

After we take this pic below of the rainbow balloon arch at the end of the street fair, we walk back to the L train via Eighth Avenue.

As on our subway trip out, a lot of the people in our car are GLBT. We all have to get off at Lorimer Street; for us, at least, it is home.

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