Thirty years ago, the AIDS crisis, with its attendant fear and paranoia, was at its height. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy intended to prohibit discrimination against gay military personnel, wasn’t in place, to say nothing of legal gay marriage.
It was in this climate that Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus was born.
This weekend, the gay men’s choral ensemble will celebrate three decades of music and activism with a concert at the Folly Theater featuring commissioned music for Maya Angelou poems.
Dustin Cates, the chorus’s artistic director and conductor, was just 5 when the group was founded, but he understands and respects the courage it took to create a gay men’s chorus in the conservative Midwest.
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“People were being rejected by their families just for coming out, or they had AIDS, so this family was created to support each other and create an affirming community,” he said.
“We’ve always fought for social justice, but the terms just change as we go. We still have guys who come out of the closet after being married with children and they divorce their wives, and the only family they have is the one they have on Tuesday evenings when they come to rehearsal.”
Randy Hite, who leads the baritone section, was a founding member of Heartland Men’s Chorus and remembers when his friend James Morache returned from a gay men’s choral festival in Minneapolis and was determined to start a group in Kansas City.
“San Francisco was the first city to have a gay men’s chorus in 1978. So here this was 1986, eight years later,” Hite recalled. “It was time for us to catch up with what was happening in some of the other cities.”
Hite says that in the early years, almost all the concerts’ audience members were gay. News about its shows were spread by word of mouth and advertisements in gay newspapers. Hite doesn’t recall any negative reaction from the community, except when Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church picketed a concert long after the ensemble was established.
Any tension actually came from inside the group.
“At the very beginning, there was a real difference of opinion about what the chorus was,” Hite said. “Some, like myself, saw it as a way to help gay people gain acceptance, as something to be proud of, and other people didn’t want us to be quite so open.
“That was a discussion we had in the early years, and it got quite heated because people had different opinions about that.”
It wasn’t until 2001 that the group started marketing itself as “Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus.”
“We were telling people who we were, but that took 15 years,” Hite said. Today, former mayor Kay Barnes is a board member and the current mayor, Sly James, has been a guest on one of the group’s concerts.
For its 30th anniversary concert, the chorus will look back at its history and also look forward. The centerpiece is “I Rise,” a musical setting of Angelou’s poetry, which the group commissioned from Kansas City composer Mark Hayes.
The work will be accompanied by a chamber orchestra and includes original choreography performed by dancers from the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.
Cates discovered that musical settings of Angelou’s poetry were almost nonexistent. After going through the grueling process of acquiring permission from Random House and Angelou’s estate, Cates turned to Hayes.
“We’re incredibly lucky to have Mark in Kansas City,” Cates said. “He’s done lots of work for Heartland Men’s Chorus over the past 30 years. I would say we’re probably one of his top commissioning ensembles. We’ve put lots of furniture in his house.”
Hayes worked with four of Angelou’s poems: “On the Pulse of Morning,” which Angelou read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Equality” and “Still I Rise.”
“This might be the first published choral score that’s available for the world to sing of Maya Angelou’s poetry,” Cates said. “I think that’s a really cool thing.”
The first part of the concert will be a retrospective of the group’s history with some of the Heartland Men’s Chorus’ greatest hits, including “Brothers, Sing On.” And founding members, like J. Kent Barnhart, who is now artistic director for the Quality Hill Playhouse, will share their memories.
In addition to “I Rise,” the second half of the concert will feature other new works, like “Harriet Tubman,” which Cates joked “we picked before we knew she was going to be on the $20 bill.”
The concert will conclude with “Dust in the Wind” by the rock group Kansas.
Heartland Men’s Chorus also recently hit the road. The Testimony Tour is spreading the group’s message of goodwill and tolerance to towns in Kansas.
The tour’s name comes from a song by Stephen Schwartz, composer of “Wicked” and “Godspell,” that is in the chorus’s standard repertoire. Cates said it is a moving piece of music that talks about life getting better for LGBT teenagers, who are at risk for suicide.
“We thought this is a really appropriate message to take out to these small towns in western Kansas, because while we live in an affirming community that supports us, that might not be the case in smaller communities where they may feel like they’re the only gay kid in town,” Cates said.
The first leg of the tour happened in late March with concerts at churches in Hays and Salina. Cates said the concerts were well-attended and the feedback was positive. The second leg of the tour will happen in July, on the way back from Denver’s International Gay and Lesbian Choral Festival.
“Since it’s Fourth of July weekend, we’ll probably do some patriotic songs,” Cates said. “I know one of the first stops we’re going to make is on the lawn of Equality House that sits directly across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Also the Eisenhower Museum and then a place near Bob Dole’s house in Russell, Kansas.”
No longer just a “gay” group, Heartland Men’s Chorus continues to broaden its audience and its message of inclusion.
“We have definitely had an impact in Kansas City,” Hite said. “We’ve established ourselves as a legitimate organization in Kansas City that is contributing to the betterment of the whole community of Kansas City, not just the gay community. We like to entertain people, so we’re benefiting the whole arts scene in Kansas City, just by being who we are.”
Reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org.