AIDS Plays Out

Alas, the lowly AIDS play. Originally built in the face of a crisis, AIDS plays have lingered as a subgenre of theater, one that has withered as science and society have found ways to address the crisis. There are notable exceptions: Angels in America, of course; and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, which last year enjoyed a popular New York revival (a current local production is reviewed here); William Hoffman's gorgeous As Is; and arguably Rent, an AIDS play by default because one of its characters is HIV-positive. (I still contend that the most interesting thing about Rent is that it prompted Sarah Schulman to throw another of her public hissy fits, this time in the form of a book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, in which she claims that Rent's story was appropriated from one of her novels.)

For the most part, early AIDS plays tried to either educate audiences about HIV or pay homage to friends, lovers and family members who had died of AIDS. These first-generation AIDS plays tended to be political and angry, and usually centered on gay male characters. Most of them, therefore, never made it past off-off-Broadway black boxes and went undiscovered by mainstream audiences. It's tough to sell any stage story, but who wants to see a play designed to enlighten audiences about a virus? Who will be entertained by a diatribe, no matter how cleverly crafted it is?

And so AIDS theater, despite its rich legacy of education and art-as-therapy, has remained largely underground, where much of it will go unnoticed and may one day be forgotten. Because without at least an off-Broadway success to his name, who will remember the amazing contributions of Michael Kearns, co-founder of Artists Against AIDS and one of the first artists to produce AIDS theater in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s? (Kearns likely will be remembered only as the late-'70s teen idol who played John Boy's college roommate on The Waltons.) Who, 20 years hence, will remount Tony Valenzuela's recent The (Bad) Boy Next Door, an amazing documentation of a young, Latino, HIV-positive gay man's struggle with AIDS? Valenzuela's twisted tale of the dangers of barebacking will seem quaint and obsolete in another decade. Who will remember Jeff Hagedorn's One, a monologue on HIV performed in Chicago gay bars in 1983?

While the advent of a new, more resistant strain of the virus might make plays like The Normal Heart seem newly relevant, it's our need to be reminded that the worst isn't behind us that makes these plays germane. AIDS theater may one day be viewed as a souvenir of a more naive era; another quaint subgenre of live entertainment. In the meantime, it's a powerful reminder that the need for dignity and care remains, and that the fight isn't over.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela