Lukasz Leja and William Kapfer Source: William Kapfer

Out with Dr. Bill: NYC Narratives

Dr. William Kapfer READ TIME: 10 MIN.

My birthday month culminated in a thrilling exploration of art, theater, and advocacy. I delved into Brooklyn's vibrant erotic art scene, experienced a groundbreaking musical on Broadway, and attended GLSEN's inspiring Respect Awards.

Each of these encounters deepened my appreciation of how the arts catalyze social change!

A Visit to Lukasz Leja's Erotic Art Show in Brooklyn

Last Saturday, I kicked off my post-birthday celebrations by diving into the unapologetically erotic world of Łukasz Leja at his "Home is where hard is" exhibit in Brooklyn's Naruki Art Dojo. Despite being a New Yorker for over two decades and even being born here, I've never really mastered Brooklyn. But thanks to Google Maps and Citymapper, I was able to navigate the "L" train and reach the gallery in just 40 minutes.

The show was a vivid journey through Łukasz's life in New York City, resonating with the diverse experiences and connections he's forged. His art, characterized by raw human sexuality and profound vulnerability, captivated me deeply; each piece was not only visually striking but also stirred a rich dialogue about desire and physicality.

Lukasz Leja at his recent solo show in Brooklyn
Source: William Kapfer

Łukasz's work brilliantly captured the essence of his subjects through stark nudity and intimate depictions, reflecting the complexities of both his muses and his personal challenges.

This powerful exploration of desire invited me into a deeply personal realm where every brushstroke and color choice uncovered layers of emotional depth. The exhibition was more than a display of technical prowess–it was a testament to Łukasz'sability to weave significant emotional and psychological narratives, touching me with the beauty and sincerity of his expression.

Although visits to Brooklyn have been few for me, this brief excursion proved immensely worthwhile, with the unique atmosphere of Brooklyn amplifying the intense and provocative nature of the erotic art on display.

A scene from "Illinoise" on Broadway
Source: Michael Murphy

'Illinoise' Unleashed: Queer Themes Elevate Sufjan's Soundscape

Later in the week, the excitement continued, albeit with a shift from the erotic to the dramatic. When my friend Dennis, a Tony-nominated producer whose recent show "Lempicka," a musical based on the life of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, received three Tony nominations last week, including two for the performances of Eden Espinosa (Leading Actress in a Musical) and Amber Iman (Featured Actress in a Musical), invited a few of our Fire Island housemates to join him for the Broadway show "Illinoise," I knew I had to say yes. Dennis has excellent taste in productions, so anything he suggests is "a must-see." But, honestly, I was just excited to catch up with him and our other friends, Keith and Philip, regardless of the show we were attending.

Upon learning that the musical was based on Sufjan Stevens' album "Illinoise," which had been transformed into a musical, I was intrigued but realized I knew nothing about Stevens or his work. On my way to the theater, I quickly caught up on Stevens' "Illinoise," reading about the various songs and their lyrical richness and complex narratives. I couldn't see how they would fit for a stage adaptation, but who was I to judge?

However, the involvement of someone I had heard of, Justin Peck, known for his work on Spielberg's "West Side Story" and the 2018 revival of "Carousel," gave me a glimmer of hope.

The set to "Illinoise" on Broadway
Source: William Kapfer

Filled with anticipation, I joined Dennis and the boys at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, eager to see how the album would translate to the stage. As I entered the theater, the atmosphere was buzzing with electric energy, supercharged by an audience of genuine fans whose youthful enthusiasm filled the air. Their screams, sitting directly behind me, and vigorous clapping during each show-stopping scene reminded me of the frenzied excitement typically reserved for legendary bands like the Beatles, or a screaming baby across the aisle on a long-haul flight.

I was beyond surprised to learn that a musical based on indie folk music could ignite such fervor.

I ended up seated next to Philip, just a few rows behind my friends Dennis and Keith, and not far from my former boss, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and her daughter Bee Shaffer.

Philip shared that he was already familiar with Stevens' music and enjoyed it at home, adding a personal touch to our shared experience of the show. I felt uniquely unprepared, having never listened to "Illinoise" nor known much about Sufjan Stevens.

Experiencing the music for the first time in such a dynamic setting was mesmerizing, making the performance all the more impactful for me. I'm not going to review "Illinoise," but at a high level, the show tells the story of Henry, portrayed by Ricky Ubeda, who meets with strangers in a field to exchange stories as a form of improvised group therapy. The musical leans into the album's queer themes, grappling with childhood trauma, friend breakups, and more. The use of storytelling as the central narrative device was profound, highlighting the stories we share with others and ourselves and the power of such narratives to evoke emotional release.

To me, "Illinoise" was more than just a musical; it was an experiential spectacle that blurred the lines between a concert and a narrative ballet.

The show balanced haunting melodies with stirring lyrics, all woven together with evocative dance and minimalist, innovative staging. Ultimately, "Illinoise" was a sensory-inducing experience that redefined what I expect from musical theater, celebrating innovation and the power of storytelling through music and dance.

Nathan Lee Graham, William Kapfer and Wilson Cruz
Source: William Kapfer

Advocates for Change: Highlights from the 2024 GLSEN Respect Awards

My activities next brought me to the 2024 GLSEN Respect Awards, held on April 29 at Gotham Hall in New York City.

I arrived early so that I could chat with some buddies on the red carpet. It was like old home week, not only catching up with friends in the queue waiting to walk the carpet, but even my photographer friends, like my beloved Andrew Werner, who were there to capture the razzle dazzle of the star-studded evening.

The evening, dedicated to advancing justice and inclusion for LGBTQ+ students, was as inspiring as always. The event was hosted by Peppermint, and featured performances by The Scarlet Opera and appearances by notable figures like Billy Porter, Anthony Rapp, and Wilson Cruz. The awards themselves highlighted the importance of advocating for comprehensive support and policies that protect LGBTQ+ youth, particularly in educational settings.

For over thirty years, GLSEN has been emphasizing the development of visible and supportive educators, inclusive curriculums, and student-led clubs, among other initiatives.

Jennifer Allsop, William Kapfer, and Diane Cochran
Source: Andrew Werner

This annual gala not only serves as the organization's major fundraising occasion but also a platform to honor those who work tirelessly towards creating safer, more inclusive school environments across the nation.

This year's event recognized individuals such as Marcia Gay Harden, who received the Advocate Award, and JPMorgan Chase's Brad Baumoel, who was honored with the Movement Leader Award. Each year, GLSEN also selects a 'Student Advocate of the Year,' with Sophia T. receiving the honor in 2024 for her advocacy in inclusive sex education.

These efforts underscore GLSEN's mission to ensure every student can learn and thrive in a school free from bullying and harassment.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) was founded in 1990 by Kevin Jennings, a significant figure in advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in education. His journey to establishing GLSEN actually began in the late 1980s when, as a high school teacher in Concord, Massachusetts, he recognized the urgent need for safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ students.

Anthony Rapp, William Kapfer, Ken Ithiphol, and Ludwig Defrenne
Source: William Kapfer

This realization was partly spurred by his personal experiences of being bullied during his youth in North Carolina.

In 1988, Jennings took a pivotal step by helping to form the nation's first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the school where he taught. This initiative aimed to foster a supportive network among students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The success and impact of this GSA led Jennings to establish GLSEN. The organization was designed to promote an educational environment free of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, focusing on the protection and affirmation of LGBTQ+ students across the United States.

Under Jennings' leadership, GLSEN championed numerous educational initiatives and resources that supported both educators and students in creating more inclusive school climates. His contributions have been widely recognized, making substantial impacts that include leading legislative changes in Massachusetts to protect public school students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Jennings' efforts have earned him numerous awards and he has continued to be an influential advocate in various capacities beyond his tenure at GLSEN, contributing to broader civil rights and educational causes nationally and internationally.

William Kapfer and Peppermint
Source: Andrew Werner

Earlier this year, Kevin joined me for a panel discussion I moderated for Aspen Out called "Talks Like These," a panel focused on the future of the LGBTQ+ community and featured Kevin Jennings, the now CEO of Lambda Legal, along with Joe Nucci, a psychotherapist from Denver Minds; and Richie Villani, the creative director at the Tom of Finland Foundation.

During that discussion Kevin reminded me that we'd known each other, and that I'd been supporting GLSEN, and a partner on his mission to champion LGBTQ+ inclusivity and respect in schools, for over three decades.

Time soars and years sprint by when you're making a difference and impacting lives.

As the 2024 GLSEN Respect Awards demonstrated so vividly, our collective commitment to fostering environments of acceptance and respect not only honors the legacy of pioneers like Kevin Jennings but also propels us forward, ensuring that every student's right to safety and dignity in school is not just upheld, but celebrated.

by Dr. William Kapfer

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