As the Covid pandemic shuttered businesses and put community activities on hold, PRISM Gay Men and Allies Chorus of Metro Detroit, like so many other choirs across the country, shut its doors. It was a devastating blow for the choir’s members, and not entirely because the music stopped.
“When people come to PRISM, no matter who they are or where they are in life — or even where they are musically — it’s a space for them to belong,” says PRISM’s artistic director, Darin DeWeese.
DeWeese accepted the artistic director role in the midst of the Covid shutdown, tasked with shaking off the choir’s dust and emerging from those quiet days as the thriving, ticket-selling ensemble it had been. The pandemic was, by many measures, a low point, but on the climb back out, DeWeese found a few silver linings on the other side.
“I think it gave everybody kind of a newfound love or a newfound appetite for what they missed,” he says. “I think it brought to light just how treasured some of these groups are — not just choirs, but all queer groups across Southeast Michigan and what a role they play in our lives.” DeWeese says members were hungry for music “more than ever,” but also for the feeling of community and togetherness that comes with being a part of PRISM. The 2022 holiday shows marked a return to both normalcy and chosen family for many of the group’s members.
PRISM, like other 501c3 nonprofits, relies on patrons and grant funding. DeWeese says PRISM’s advocacy goals are always at the forefront. “We’re always looking at, ‘How can we push this organization forward in an advocacy way for our community, our members and for our patrons?’” he says.
Shane Dunbar, chairman of PRISM’s board of directors, says PRISM selects organizations to support each season, which has recently included a local food pantry. Soon, the organization will pair up with Stand with Trans and Ruth Ellis, supplying the new Clairmount Center, a housing community in Detroit focused on helping queer young adults, with personal care items. “It’s really our way to give back to the community, not just with our voices, but with our hard work and money, as well,” Dunbar says. “We’re really excited to get out into the community as much as we can and give back as much as we absolutely can.”
Jake McClory, who joined PRISM in early 2022, adds, “I’m so impressed with the direction the group is headed, not just musically but as a top-notch LGBTQ community organization. With increasing attacks on our community from far-right politicians and activists, PRISM isn’t just focused on gay rights. The group is standing up for reproductive rights and trans rights and partnering with local groups.”
As the choir prepares for its first show of the 2023 season, a disco-themed concert set for June 2, DeWeese is hard at work bringing together the talents of nearly 100 singers who come from a wide range of musical and personal backgrounds. The group is made up of queer men and allies from all over the Southeast Michigan area and represents multiple generations. The youngest member is around 19 and the oldest, in his 80s.
Some members are financially sound and make frequent contributions toward choir operations and the many charitable endeavors PRISM supports, while others are more often on the receiving end of such generosity. The choir includes professionals from the medical and legal fields, students, retirees, service workers and the list goes on. Dunbar says the generosity of choir members includes supporting operational expenses like the new music binders a member recently funded for the choir.
Intersectionality and diversity among the choir’s membership has evolved organically since PRISM was established seven years ago, but intentional inclusion has always been the beating heart of this group.
McClory shared his experience as a newcomer. “If you’re like me, walking into a space with dozens of gay men whom you don’t know can be daunting, intimidating, maybe even scary, especially when we were all wearing masks,” he says. “But my fears were short-lived, and I was touched by how many members went out of their way to welcome me in — inviting me to sit by them or to go out for drinks or to karaoke at Pronto! after rehearsal. For over a year, I’ve gotten to know queer men of all ages and walks of life. I’ve found a group of friends who share similar passions and love to have fun. And I’ve formed relationships that will last the rest of my life.”
DeWeese says new members are paired up with a “chorus buddy,” a veteran performer who knows the ropes. “We always have a sense of ‘No one left behind,’” he explains. “People do come in with some nerves when they’ve never been in a musical setting like that before, but I think they quickly realize ‘Oh, this isn’t anything to be scared of. I can figure this out and I’m gonna learn a lot along the way.’”
No longer a newcomer, McClory says, “I feel so fortunate to be part of such a supportive queer community. Recently, we unexpectedly lost one of our longtime members, and PRISM organized a memorial for friends and coworkers. Every single person who shared their memories spoke about what a safe place PRISM was for him — a refuge — from all the demons and turmoil he faced in life. And that’s exactly what PRISM is for me.”
Though DeWeese currently works as a real estate agent serving the Metro Detroit area, it’s his background as a high school and middle school music teacher that has distinctly positioned him to helm the choir. In many ways, he says, the unique mix of skill levels and backgrounds is similar to the groups of students he taught over the years. “There’s always people filtering in and out and all different skill levels. That’s a space where I feel I thrive really well in being able to cater to those who are singing and reading music at a super high level — making sure they are feeling musically fulfilled — but catering to the newer skill level, as well.”
Another way the group stays true to its goals for inclusion and representation is by evolving to reflect the many talents members offer in addition to singing ability. Lately, this has meant incorporating dance into performances. Dunbar says many of the members can “really move.” “We found out that we have many talented people who can dance,” he says, “And so, now we have more to offer in our performances for everyone. People really enjoy seeing us do things other than singing.”
One fan favorite is the audience singalong at the end of PRISM’s holiday concerts, when everyone in the venue sings “Silent Night” together. The holiday shows typically sell out, and Dunbar expects similar enthusiasm for June 2’s Disco Fever at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. “People love when the show is something familiar, and this one will have something for everyone,” he says.
DeWeese says PRISM’s diversity has helped guide selections for the Disco Fever show in an interesting way. “Our age range really plays to one of our strengths, because we’ve got people who lived through the disco era and the AIDS epidemic and everything that came with that time,” he says. “So, they approach disco very differently than our members under 30 approach disco.”
DeWeese says modern artists like Dua Lipa represent a new era for disco, but the distinct disco sound is as recognizable in that music as it was in the ’70s. “It’s just a modern take on disco, so that newer energy and perspective is represented here, too,” he explains.
In addition to Lipa, the choir will perform songs by Donna Summer, ABBA, the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and openly queer ’70s disco star Sylvester, who died from AIDS complications in the late ’80s. “It’s always important for us to have queer representation either by composers, arrangers or artists like Sylvester, one of the iconic, openly queer people of the disco era,” DeWeese adds.
DeWeese couldn’t reveal all the performance features audiences can expect in 2023, but says every PRISM show includes “surprise and delight” elements. “You’re gonna show up and you’re gonna hear great music, but we always have surprises up our sleeves,” he says. “We are really gonna dig into costuming and there will be incredible dance numbers. The surprise and delight meter? It’s going to be off the charts.”
Visit prism-chorus.org for tickets and to learn about joining the choir.