When it comes to race, gender and culture, Washington is getting cooler all the time, putting paid to its staid gray image. But don't tell the Republicans in Congress, who leave town on the next plane home after the last vote. They are totally clueless to the cheerfully subversive vibe, the awakening in the air. Let them be.
To wit, I had a scintillating Mother's Day brunch with a gay couple in broad daylight. None of us are mothers, but guess what? Nobody seemed to care! I count it as progress that no total stranger wished me a happy mother's day. Thank you for that.
See what I mean at "Show Boat," the classic musical at the Kennedy Center, lavishly staged by the Washington National Opera with a cast of a hundred singers and dancers. "Ol' Man River," the song about the mighty Mississippi, pays homage to the constant character in the story, which has several shades of melancholy. Never has it been sung better than by bass Morris Robinson, hushing the full opera house. The river knows everything that comes and goes, ebbs and flows, the program notes. His character Joe, a worker on the boat, tells us it is so in one of the greatest songs in the musical canon.
Up on the third tier, my father and I fell under the ebullient spell of the 1920s musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Yet, make no mistake, "Showboat" is not a happy journey through the American rural South up into Chicago. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, it grapples with the American heart of darkness: race. The magic of seeing theater on a river steamboat, the Cotton Blossom, cannot erase the stain from life under Jim Crow.
Things get ugly when a Mississippi sheriff boards the boat to investigate talk of a mixed marriage. It's against the law, and company players Julie and Steve are to suffer from it, as a light-skinned Negro woman married to a white man. The song, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun' goes with the shattering of their lives.
Just because there were laws against racially mixed marriages doesn't mean there weren't any. Quite the contrary. A government can't entirely prevent love under the law, but it can sure make that life miserable. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, the marriage ban law was on the books until not long ago, within living memory.
Also across the river is the Pentagon, by the way, which was built with lots of bathrooms in order to keep men and skin colors segregated in the 1940s. This is the same Pentagon that has now lifted the ban on openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. The Pentagon is palpably a better place to work, more open and socially tolerant. It's leading the way, actually, on that home front. President Obama, they can't take that away from you.
Over at the majestic Folger Shakespeare Theater, meanwhile, spring romances wax in the light comedy, "Twelfth Night," which the Bard wrote just before his greatest tragedy, "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." Director Michele Osherow believes the play is a woman's world, written in 1600, centuries ahead of its time. It skips and hopscotches across gender lines in the character Viola, who disguises herself as a man, Cesario. As such, s/he attracts head-spinning admiration from both sexes – the kind of love that dared speak its name, apparently, in Elizabethan England.
For me, the most telling moment in the fantastically shipwrecked set was when the Duke Orsino finds himself irresistibly drawn to Cesario, not knowing that he is also she: Viola. That to me is the home truth of love: it's the person inside the human skin we're all trapped in.