The Puget Soundworks choir — the latest local addition to the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses — brings together humor, great voices, and a purpose grounded in social justice. Their current concert, Home Is … , considers notions of home and homelessness. It’s a harmonious, thoughtful, and often funny show. The closing show of the one-weekend-only run is today in Bellevue.
About a year ago, some long-time members of the Seattle Women’s Chorus and Seattle Men’s Chorus left their former choral homes and helped start up a new one: Puget Soundworks. The upstart has since gained recognition as the area’s third GALA Chorus. Its second-ever run of concerts, called Home Is … , is on now, with one show remaining (in Bellevue) this afternoon.
With the change-up came some familiar faces. One is Eric Lane Barnes, composer and former long-time Associate Artistic Director for SWC and SMC, who is now the Artistic Director, conductor, and a composer for Puget Soundworks. Barnes, a prolific composer, headed up the humorous ensembles Captain Smartypants (with SMC) and Sensible Shoes (SWC), and his humor and easy rapport with singers and audience members shines through in the Puget Soundworks concerts. He’s also an exacting conductor, which likewise comes through in the choir’s precision and the quality of harmonies they produce.
Jane Abbott Lighty, a long-time SWC and SMC supporter, was a founding member of SWC along with her wife Pete-e Petersen; she sang this weekend with Puget Soundworks as well as sharing her story of home. (On Friday, Pete-e watched from the front row, and stood up to wave to the audience to raucous applause. Besides being SWC founding members, Jane and Pete-e were the first couple in Washington State to receive a marriage license when same-sex marriage was finally legalized here in 2012, after some 35 years together.)
In starting Puget Soundworks, founder and Executive Director Vanessa Grose (also a past SWC member) sought a chorus “that would be LGBTQ-friendly yet open to everyone. A place where I could use my voice to drive intersectional social justice and radical inclusion.”
To that end, there’s something powerful about Puget Soundworks’s decision to perform its concerts in churches. Although All Pilgrims Christian Church (the Capitol Hill site where the Seattle performances of both Home Is … and Snowflakes were performed) has long been welcoming to queer people, it’s no secret that a great many churches have been the sites of deep pain inflicted on queer people instead. To have queer-led and queer-centered performances within church walls is a special kind of affirming.
Grose also notes that from the outset, the idea was that Puget Soundworks would not only create great music from the chorus, but also focus on social impact by engaging with the audiences and community.
It’s in that spirit that the group conceived Home Is …, which considers individual experiences with both home and homelessness. Most of the first act was dedicated to funny songs on quirks of the Northwest, interspersed with more serious moments, with the second act turning to a focus on homelessness.
In the first act, at several points between songs, choir members told their own stories — in a reminder that queer folks often have to fight hard to make homes for themselves, whether through physical homes or acceptance. Like the one who was kicked out of home after coming out as a teenager some 40 years ago (It never felt like home there anyway); worked while homeless until she caught a break; then went on to work with at-risk youth with support in the process of getting a GED, higher education, and setting out on a career path. Or Jane, the choir member who had made a home with her wife for 42 years, most of which the law refused to recognize them as an official family unit, and describes as home, Anywhere that Pete-e is.
It was a nice, more serious, way to break up the songs of the first act, which consisted mostly of humor. Witty songs — largely composed by local artists Barnes, Lisa Koch, and others — poked fun at Seattle’s quirks, from neighborhood parking possessiveness, to geoducks, to the incessant sounds of windchimes and wildlife further up in the San Juan Islands, to excessive sunshine recently, to all the things that have closed down in Seattle that old-timers remember for better or worse. (The line, “Weep for Lusty Lady” in the song “Our Old Seattle Home” was a nostalgic favorite for me personally — as a little kid, I used to wait for a bus transfer with my mom on 2nd Avenue, right in front of the establishment and its ever-colorful marquee out front.)
With ‘Vera’s Voices’, composer Michael Owcharuk recognizes that communities usually only hear one side in the discussion on homelessness — the side of the housed, those with power to the channels to share their stories.
In the second act, attention turned to songs crafted from the stories of people experiencing homelessness. The choir sang selections from a larger series called Vera’s Voices, named for series composer Michael Owcharuk’s aunt, who has experienced a long duration of homelessness in New York, and whose early writings were included in the selections. Owcharuk is a composer, arranger, pianist, and theatre artist, whose work has appeared just about all over town (from 14/48 shows to radio to festivals to the biggest theatre houses).
With Vera’s Voices, Owcharuk recognizes that communities usually only hear one side in the discussion on homelessness — the side of the housed, those with power to the channels to share their stories. By sharing the stories and feelings of those actually experiencing homelessness, the series aims to cultivate empathy and understanding. Importantly, they also pay them for their work in contributing to the series.
Since the words and flow speak best for themselves, what follows is a collage of snippets from this segment of the second act, centered on four songs performed from the series Vera’s Voices.
Putting luck on my side
And a lot of love, too
[By introduction, Owcharuk noted one of the most crushing aspects of homelessness is the loneliness]
Wrong place, wrong time
This can’t be my whole life
Yearning for so much more
[The sequence pointedly asks, What about us? of those in power who overlook those experiencing homelessness, when the choir performed the song by Pink]
What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
What about us?
What about all the broken happy ever afters?
[The choir performed Brazilian folk song A Lua Girou, and told the story of a great poet who was experiencing homelessness and found a worldwide following when his art was publicized]
[Early writings by Vera, who has been homeless in NYC for three decades, resistant to assistance, and for whom the project was named, as she realized something with her mind was changing.]
Trying to hide the fact that I got a worried mind
But I know the sun will shine again
Home Is … is only the second concert from Puget Soundworks. Its first, the cheekily-titled Snowflakes (a nod to both the season and the supposed dig aimed at political leftists), was this past December. The Snowflakes show had a more diverse blend of musical styles, which I liked, without feeling disjointed either. Home Is … , in contrast, was more narrow stylistically but had a more obvious engagement with social justice, resonant with the choir’s mission. (Speaking of development, social justice, and diversity — Puget Soundworks would do well to emphasize better representation of races, ethnicities, and ages among its member recruitment efforts. While not homogeneous, its current group does skew White and older, which is reflected back in attendees, too.)
Both Home Is … and Snowflakes were great shows at any stage — but starting-out efforts, they were outstanding ones. NWT can’t wait to see what’s next for this new group. The current show, Home Is … , is memorable, rich with vocal talent, and effectively layers both humor and moving personal storytelling.
And on a personal note — the show felt a special kind of homey to this reviewer, too. That singer who was kicked out of home some 40 years ago? She was my advisor at Shoreline Community College 17 years ago, back when I was one of her “at-risk youth,” getting my GED and trying to find myself, too.
Sometimes, finding home takes a little while. I think we’ve both done pretty well for ourselves.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org. He believes home is where the dog is. Geographically and by birth, Seattle is home, but Hartford, CT and Durham, NC — where he attended school after Shoreline — are runners-up. Someday, he hopes home includes a beach house on the Oregon Coast.