April 29, 2011
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In 1981, I turned two years old and gay men started to succumb to obscure opportunistic infections that later became known as the hallmarks of AIDS. I have not known a world without the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And as a gay man HIV/AIDS has long been a part of my consciousness, yet I have had little intimate experience with it. I have done the requisite reading and viewing of And The Band Played On, Philadelphia, Angels in America, and others dealing with the issue, but even that has been academic, cold, and lacking the emotional connection to how it must have felt to be gay in the early 80s, when so little was known except that people were dying and very few people were taking action against it. Even survivors of that era are reluctant to talk about what they saw and felt because the memories were to fresh and raw and deep to repeat. A lot of that changed for me on Wednesday night. I had the amazing opportunity to attend the opening night performance of The Normal Heart, a play so visceral in its composition and so passionately demanding you can’t help but be left with a sense of urgency.
Larry Kramer’s play focuses on the early days of the epidemic and the founding of a non-profit dedicated to fighting on behalf of those who were forgotten by the mainstream. Many of the plays characters and plot come directly from Kramer’s own experiences as one of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The central character and Kramer’s autobiographical self, Ned Weeks, is a writer who becomes equal parts enraged and despondent when his friends start dyeing and no one seems to care. Veteran stage director (and alum of the original Broadway production of Angels in America) Joe Mantello returns to the stage in a ball of fire to personify Weeks with the urgency that Kramer’s barbaric yawp deserves. Yet he is truly mesmerizing in his interplay with his lover, Felix (fantastically portrayed by John Benjamin Hickey) where his arduous polemicizing is transformed into incessant love. He and most of the cast spend the better part of the play arguing in long tirades about the disease they are confronting, how and what to tell the gay men most affected by it, and the lack of response from government, the media, and the public, but under the direction of Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe each of the gloriously assembled actors imbue their characters with individuality and distinct fire that the perilously pedagogic script becomes fuller and fairer to each of them. Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, the perfect gay man who wants to help, but doesn’t want anyone to know he is gay, becomes consumed with fear so salient you know why he turns and runs; Patrick Breen’s Mickey Marcus manages to be angry that Weeks’s assertions that gay men must stop having sex and profoundly guilty that he encouraged the sexual freedom that might be killing his kin, and both at the same time; and Jim Parson’s Tommy Boatwright often gives the audience the campy comedy that they need to stomach the pain, but does so acerbically that you know that beneath his wit is man doing the only thing he can to not burst into tears. As the only woman in the cast, Ellen Barkin physically becomes Dr. Emma Brookner’s polio ravaged body and gives her the voice of shrill fervor of a doctor who is losing faith in the profession she chose. In each of their portrayals and those of the other actors I have not mentioned, there is a sense that they are not just performing, rather they are trying to pay homage to the men, women, and children affected by the plague. It is so truly personal that I wonder how the cast manages to be so raw each day only to do it again the next, except it is their need to give voice to a fallen generation that keeps them coming back.
You may wonder why I chose to write a review today when so many have already published their own. I must lend my voice to the chorus of people urging you to see the show if you can. No one, not even me, can capture what is happening on stage at the John Golden Theater and what it must mean to those who lived through the times depicted. I can tell you that I am a changed man. I can no longer pretend that HIV/AIDS has only touched my life tangentially. The world of gay men changed in those early days of the epidemic and too many people in my generation take their lives too casually. See this play and know who fought and died for you to have the life you have today. And protect your life and continue to fight for what you believe.
October 17, 2010
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Today we will take a random walk down the rabbit hole of history. If you can pardon my mixed metaphor, I feel you might learn some interesting things about this particular day.
2006 United States population reaches 300 million people
1989 Earthquake in San Francisco (6.9) cancels 3rd game of World Series, kills 67
1988 31 reported dead as Ugandan jetliner crashes in fog near Rome
1982 U.S.S.R. performs nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya U.S.S.R.
1978 U.S.S.R. performs underground nuclear test
1973 5-mo oil embargo by Arab states against U.S. and Netherlands begins
1972 Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-ling,” is #1
1970 Anwar Sadat sworn in as president of Egypt
1967 “Hair” premieres on Broadway
1967 U.S.S.R. performs nuclear test at Semipalitinsk, Eastern Kazakhstan U.S.S.R.
1943 Liberators sink U-540 and U-631
1933 Albert Einstein arrives in U.S., a refugee from Nazi Germany
1919 Radio Corporation of America (RCA) created
1918 De Kooy airport in Netherlands opens
1918 Yugoslavia proclaims itself a republic
1877 Henry Morton Stanley reaches Boma during trip cross Africa
1876 Henry Morton Stanley’s reaches Lualaba River
1871 Great Britain annexes Griqualand South Africa
1829 Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay Canal formally opens
1808 Political rights of Jews suspended in Duchy of Warsaw
1707 German composer Johann S Bach marries his niece Maria Bach
1691 New royal charter for Massachusetts, now including Maine, Plymouth
1651 Future King Charles II flees from England
1492 Columbus sights isle of San Salvador (Watling Island, Bahamas)
1469 Crown prince Fernando of Aragon marries princess Isabella of Castilie
1415 Jewish autonomy in Palestine ends, as Raban Gamliel leaves office
1404 Cosma de’ Migliorati elected Pope Innocentius VII
1387 Swells convent Windesheim initiated
733 Battle at Poitiers: Charles Martel beats Abd al-Rachmans Omajjaden
532 Boniface II ends his reign as Catholic Pope
That is all I have to report.