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Surviving AIDS

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There are (at least) two AIDS exhibits in New York City right now. One is part of a larger exhibit about activism in NYC and the other focuses on the first five years of the disease in NYC. Both of these exhibits are limited in their focus rendering them both effective. To create one exhibit that tells the 30+ year story of the disease, the social impact & history, the science and politics would be daunting and possibly not very meaningful. Historians and curators are familiar with this phenomenon if they’ve ever struggled with how to tell the story of something that changed everything. It’s best to narrow the focus to help people experience the story on the most intimate level.

It’s remarkable (and worth noting) that exhibits about AIDS have moved beyond a quilt exhibition. While nothing will mitigate the devastation, loss and shameful politics of the period, it is exhilarating to consider how far we’ve come. There is now an entire generation who has come into their sexuality without fear of death. The anxiety of HIV/AIDS testing is a distant memory for most. In the past, people would debate the trip to the doctor/clinic, not convinced that they actually would want to know. Weeks were spent waiting for the results, which could only be given in person. Today, like ovulation, pregnancy, and blood sugar, HIV testing can now be done at home. There is still no cure and there is still stigma, but boy have things changed, and that is a story worth telling.

Back in the early 1980s people started getting a rare form of cancer. The fact that it seemed to be striking gay men caused doctors to create the name GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). A year or two later the name changed to the more accurate AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and a few years later (1986) HIV was identified. In those first few years there was little information and as is often the case, rumor and fear filled the void. All that was really known was that homosexual men were getting very sick and dying. It was not known how exactly the disease could and could not be transmitted. Was it airborne? Could you get it from touching skin, sharing food, drink, or smoke? Patients were quarantined and communities were panicked. Things only got worse when a dormant period of the disease came to light. People who looked and felt perfectly healthy became concerned. Film and movie sets grew tense seemingly overnight. Few actors were ‘out’ in the early 1980s but friends and colleagues suspected (or knew firsthand). You couldn’t tell who might be sick (or harboring the disease) and therefore everyone (who seemed gay) was suspect. Some actresses refused to do kissing/sex scenes. Some actors refused as well (there is very sad and painful footage of Rock Hudson trying to avoid kissing Linda Evans). People in real life changed their behavior as well. Some people were concerned about their hairdresser. Should he be touching clients? Waiters drew public concern as they touched the tableware. Homosexuals, a group profiled since the dawn of time, were now seen as potentially dangerous, even lethal.

Devastation often brings people together, and the disease did. Gays (and lesbians) came together to support, fight and care for the ill. They took to the bedside, the streets, the stage and made their presence known. They drew attention not just to the disease but also to the deafening silence of political leadership. It’s impossible to separate the political stance and funding allocation for AIDS with the perception of it being a ‘gay disease’. In the later 1980s very public evidence of the equal opportunity of infection came to light. Ryan White’s mother sued the Indiana Department of Education in late 1985. Ryan, a hemophiliac had AIDS and wanted to attend school. Elisabeth Glaser died from AIDS in 1984 after receiving a tainted blood transfusion. (Both of her children died shortly thereafter.) She was married to a very popular actor at the time. And disgusting as it is, it’s true; a child and a celebrity spouse made for a better cause than homosexuals.

One could certainly argue that the disease galvanized a movement and a visibility that has birthed today’s civil rights progress. But oh what a price was paid. Entire communities were lost (particularly in the arts.) An inconceivable amount of people has died from AIDS (25 million) worldwide. People are still contracting the disease all over the world, the worst infection rate is in sub-Saharan Africa. Prevention in these countries is incredibly challenging. Here at home there are many many people of all backgrounds and orientation experiencing a degree of sexual freedom that would make 60s love-in participants blush. It’s likely that safe sex is not often practiced. AIDS is no longer seen as a death sentence, but something for which you can take a pill (and not a regime of dozens of pills at specific times of the day). But it is still a helluva disease with no cure and it’s most certainly best to avoid it.

We can be grateful that the fear has lifted and for the medical progress that has been made. But it’s vital that men and women who have no memory of 30 years ago be told the story. It’s not about making people feel badly it’s about giving them roots. Knowing where we came from and how far we’ve come is empowering. When we feel strong and relevant we engage in less risky behavior.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Assembled Parties – Review

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Anyone who has even suffered the slightest twinge of real estate envy should stay away from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Assembled Parties. The play, set in a lavish 14-room apartment on Central Park West (designed by Santo Loquasto) would make even the 1% pea green with envy. This imperfect play by Richard Greenberg takes place in two discreet times periods; 1980 and 2000, on the same day. At times the two acts even feel like two discreet plays. This is not a unique theatrical phenomenon and can work, but it’s a terrific hurdle to clear. Recently, the device was used in Clybourne Park and there wouldn’t have been a play without it. The key to its effectiveness is to create two acts, or time periods of equal force.

The first act is a rapid and rotating collage of a family assembled on Christmas. Christmas could easily be replaced by Thanksgiving or Passover for this Jewish family, as it’s just an excuse to gather and overeat. The curtain rises on Julie (Jessica Hecht) in the kitchen (the size of most living rooms) with her eldest son’s friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). Jeff is young and socially out of his league in the presence of the glamorous (former movie actress) Julie. She speaks in a cadence not usually found in nature and is dressed in a jumpsuit created by her mother (a renowned designer.) Julie teases Jeff with obvious affection and Jeff seems on the edge of pinching himself throughout. He is a first-semester Harvard Law student, the son of first generation Jews and he’s spending Christmas at the captain’s table. Julie’s husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) appears and we learn of another (much younger) son who is upstairs with a cold. The set then starts its rotation and the apartment and the family dynamics unfold. We meet Julie and Jeff’s two sons; Scott (Jake Silberman) and Timmy (Alex Dreier). Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light) arrives with her husband Mort (Mark Blum) and her lumpish daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Director Lynne Meadow has the women characters use pronounced accents & Ms. Blumenfeld’s is beyond enjoyable. Shelley grew up (and stayed) in Roslyn, an unambitious and perhaps intellectually challenged 30-year-old single woman. Her blank face and very low center of gravity is a wonderful counter to the rapid fire speech and movement of her extended family. And the first act does move. Just when we’ve learned something new, the set rotates once again and more story unfolds. Faye is not happy, in that; “I miss Miltown” way. Ms. Light (as we saw in Other Desert Cities) is superb at portraying complicated women entirely at ease with their shortcomings. She is splendid and is given an embarrassment of riches of one-liners with which to work. You could create a fabulous twitter feed out of her zingers (both English and Yiddish) and pronouncements. This is not to suggest that her performance relies upon these quips. Not at all. But one does wonder if Mr. Greenberg wrote these gems with Ms. Light in mind.

That niggling little thought got in my way during the sedate second act. The curtain opens to a non-rotating large living room set that bares no resemblance to the fist set. We spend several moments wondering if the family (what little there is left of it) has moved. The husbands have died and Scotty (who looked a bit flush in the first act) died in 1981. Ms. Light delivers the line that informs us that Scotty died from AIDS; from a blood transfusion in a New York City hospital in 1981. Now it’s possible that if we combed medical records from 1981, this might have actually happened; but it probably would never have ever been identified as such. Scotty had just spent time overseas and could have easily been killed off by a myriad of diseases. That this implausible death was created and spoke of by Ms. Light (a longtime AIDS activist with a famed association with Ryan White) was distracting. There are other distracting theatrical devices that unfold in the second act which weaken the impact of what should be a moving play. One definite asset to the second act is Mr. Silberman; ill at ease as Scotty in the first act he flourishes as grown-up Timmy.

It’s clear in the first act that the character of Timmy is a device. His little boy self, ensconced in Star Wars sheets is ignored by his parents (on Christmas) and his existence is never explained (it’s not customary to have two children 20 years apart.) Yet the other characters or so wonderfully and fully formed. Mr. Greenberg captures the subtleties of middle-class New York Jews so perfectly and to utter delight. There are cultural conflicts and tensions beautifully and delicately rendered. None of these illuminations are delivered in a “The More You Know” public service announcement, but as real and integral dialogue.

There is much to love about The Assembled Parties. The performances alone are worth the very fast 2 1/2 hours.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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