A HISTORY OF AIDS: THE PAST AND PRESENT

With a conference, a quilt and a play, the legacy of a devastating disease returns to the spotlight once more.

Jeff Malet

In Washington, D.C., people talk about HIV-AIDS frequently, given the city’s notoriously high rate of infections — one higher than many African nations.

For the rest of this month, they’ll be talking about it a lot more. There’s a keen focus in Washington this month on HIV/AIDS, the devastating disease which has claimed millions worldwide since surfacing in the early 1980s. It struck America’s gay comminity first, lethally and dramatically — although it quickly became known as a disease exclusive to no group, gender, race or age.

Most prominently, the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) will be held at the Washington Convention Center, July 22 to 27, under the theme of “Turning the Tide Together,” featuring keynote speaker and former President Bill Clinton, pop star and humanitarian Elton John and philanthropist Bill Gates among expected 25,000 attendees. It is the first time in 22 years the conference will be held in the U.S.

On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, the AIDS Quilt has made a vivid re-appearance in Washington, including on the National Mall where it was a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in “Creativity in Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt,” under the auspices of the Names Project Foundation. Under scorching sunlight, accompanied by quilting bees, discussions and exhibitions, a large portion of the AIDS Quilt once again decorated the lawns of the National Mall with a colorful field of remembrance while visitors recited the names of those lost to the disease, as in days gone by.

Portions of the AIDS Quilt are also on display at the Kennedy Center where seven arts-related panels from the quilt will be on view in the center’s south gallery — including panels paying tribute to Alvin Ailey, Rudolf Nureyev, Howard Ashman, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and others, symbolic of the many AIDS-related losses suffered by the nation’s and the world’s arts communities.

At the Torpedo Factory Art Center, the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Quilt (and the 30th anniversary of AIDS itself) is also being marked with a display of the quilt with panels on exhibit in the main hall of the Art Center and outside on the Alexandria dock, July 21 to 25. The Alexandria Commission on HIV/AIDS will host a closing reception July 25 with Mayor William Euille serving as the honorary chair.

But to find and experience the emotional, the burning and hugely affecting human core of the universal history of the AIDS epidemic, you have to go to Arena Stage at the Mead Center in Southwest Washington, where Larry Kramer, the unrelenting AIDS prophet, town crier and activist, is seeing the first Washington production of his 1985 play “The Normal Heart” after a successful and Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway last year.

Around the production buzzes a beehive of AIDS activities at Arena through the course of the play’s run at the Kreeger Theater through July 29. Not only are more panels from the AIDS quilt hanging on the walls outside the Kreeger, adding poignancy to the drama on stage, but there are images from the HIV and AIDS related collections of the Archives Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. D.C. clinics and HIV testing providers have HIV-testing vans parked outside on select weekends, and there are panel discussions after selected matinee performances. On July 23, there’s a performance to benefit the Washington AIDS Partnership.

Before and after performances, there will be further opportunities to hear the alarm-sounding, passionate voice of Kramer, in the form of a one-sheet letter which begins by saying that “Please know that everything in ‘The Normal Heart’ is real. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died and are presented here as best as I could.”

When people come to see the play something rare in theater performance happens, and in various ways, it’s been documented by many people who have seen the production. A kind of risible, visible emotional power builds during the course of the play, and the affects become obvious in the audience with periods of sustained silence where people seem to have stopped breathing, with the sound of long, audible sighs, and sometimes sharp intakes of breath and, in the end, often sobs. This is not because the proceedings, although dramatic, are melodramatic, it is not because what is going on is maudlin or even sentimental. The reactions appear to stem from honest emotions, a response to shocking moments, a normal heart open to undeniable feelings.

It’s that way for members of the outstanding cast, too — for the audience it’s like a tuning fork in the dark.

“Oh yeah, you can tell how people are reacting,” said Nick Mennell, who plays the buttoned-down, but affably charismatic gay investment banker Bruce Niles, a key character. “It gets really quiet, it gets completely silent during that scene where Bruce is talking about taking the body of his lover home to Arizona.”

“It’s always a little different,” said John Procaccino, who plays Ben Weeks, the straight attorney brother of the manic, and sometimes maniacal, gay leader and activist Ned Weeks, who’s basically a stand-in for Kramer himself.

“It depends on the audience,” he added. “At matinees people, they’re older and a little uncomfortable at first, they’re slower to respond, they don’t know what to do. But soon enough — especially in the second act — they start to respond — you can hear them.”

People come out of the play as if they’ve just finished an impossibly long, and dangerous, theme park ride. They look and feel exhausted, there’s a mixture of both buzz and stunned silence.

“The Normal Heart” first appeared in 1985 when the AIDS crisis was taking shape vividly in American cities, in New York, in San Francisco and in Washington. Most see it as history: It’s been embodied by the death of movie star Rock Hudson, others in the cultural community, President Ronald Reagan’s stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge AIDS at its outset, the renaissance of plays about the disease (“Angels in America,” the Falsetto plays, “The Baltimore Waltz”, works by Harry Kondeleon and Robert Chesley and the pioneering book “And the Band Played On”) and the first appearance of the AIDS Quilt in Washington.

“The Normal Heart” takes you back to the beginning of the AIDS crisis when it didn’t have a name, and deaths were few. But Ned Weeks has noticed some of his friends get sick and die in rapid order, and we see him with a friend at the offices of Doctor Emma Brookner, one of the play’s heroes, whose attempts to mobilize and get the aid of medical institutions and government officials proves agonizingly futile.

Ned, one of those people who have no verbal filters, starts a group to sound the alarm, to help victims, identify the disease, and spread the word in the gay community, which was experiencing what some are calling a golden age of sexual freedom and license and which Ned warns can be suicidal and dangerous. Difficult to deal with as a friend, or in conversation, Ned is a prickly, almost emotionally self-destructive radical when it comes to the subject of the disease, of love and relationships and of being gay. He enlists his skeptical, reluctant brother, he battles over leadership with the less flamboyant Bruce, a banker and former Green Beret who wears his three-piece suit like armor against coming out.

No one listens. The government (the Koch Administration in New York City, the Reagan Administration here) turned a deaf ear early on. Gay men began to die in ever larger numbers. A strange, almost awesome thing begins to happen. “The Normal Heart” can easily, and it has often been, be called a “gay” play, in terms of its concerns, in terms of the struggle, the characters and AIDS as a subject. But so vividly are the characters drawn, so close to them is the audience, that the frustrations, the guilt, the fear, the immense sense of loss, becomes ours. The play is one of those game changers — chances are that coming out you won’t be exactly the same as going in because what you’ve seen, felt and heard will stay with you.

It’s that way for the actors, too, only more so.

“It’s been an education and, I feel, an honor for me. I think it’s affected all of us,” Procaccino said. He and Mennell are sitting for our interview at the Mead Center, dressed casually, loose shirts, jeans, backpack and so on. Procaccino, 58, has performed all over the country, most recently for the Seattle Repertory Company, as well as a member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and in films and television. Mennell, 35, has divided his time between stage, including most recently on Broadway in “A Free Man of Color,” for director George C. Wolfe, who also directed this production of “The Normal Heart” and films, including a “Friday the 13th” remake.

Upclose around a table, the two are a study in contrasts — Mennell is 20 years-plus younger than Procaccino, of Italian-Hispanic heritage, dark-haired and casually handsome but almost intensely articulate, with a young daughter. Procaccino sports the speckled, spotty salt and pepper beard he grew for the part —“I kinda like it, I think I’m going to keep it,” he said. On stage, the two look oddly pillar-of-the-community alike in clothes and attitude. Procaccino, as Ned’s attorney brother, often sports New York attorney suits and Mennell, his hair Wall Street-slick, and his suit often fitted perfectly and escape-proof, looks defiantly not gay as suits worn by his character Bruce, who doesn’t want to come out to the world at large.

Ironies abound in this kind of setting. “You know what’s strange?” Procaccino says. “Back in the 1980s, and this made me think of it, I was offered a part in ‘The Normal Heart’, a gay character, and I turned it down because I had just played a gay man in another play. I was afraid of being typecast or seen that way. So, yeah, I can admit that as a young man that I was homophobic then. And being in this play, let me tell you, it makes you look at yourself.”

“I was just a kid in the '80s,” Mennell says. “So, I didn’t really know anything, you know. But I remember I was playing one-on-one basketball outside once with some guy, and he told me he was HIV-positive, as a kind of warning, like some basketball players did back then, and I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant exactly.”

Both men, though, are theater people, they’re playing parts — and they know that. Procaccino’s girlfriend is the director Pam MacKinnon. At some point in this play — they both note how draining and exhausting it is — something sticks, the people become larger than the issue. “It becomes very real, and the audiences play a big part in that,” Procaccino says. “I like to think that what we’re doing here, and how we do it is important to something larger,” he says. “The suffering in this play, the loss is a human loss, not just gay suffering and loss.”

With Mennell’s ethnic background, there’s not universal approval for being in this play from some of his relatives. “Some of them think what I’m doing is a sin,” he said. “I don’t understand that attitude,” he said. “But you know, because you don’t live in a void, I have to think about being an actor, what value it is for society in terms of society.”

“In so many ways, what we’re doing, I like to think, elevates humanity, makes us see outside ourselves,” Mennell said. “With this play, I see it every night or matinee. It makes you question the existing paradigm. Every night I listen to the play and hear things as if for the first time, and they resonate so deeply for me on a human level.”

AIDS is now — and has been for some time — a global epidemic affecting not just gays, but everyone, including women and children. The numbers of cases and deaths continue to climb, in Africa, and in our cities. But the talk in the nation is not so much about AIDS, but about the political battleground issue of gay marriage, which is referenced prophetically, if briefly, in “The Normal Heart.”

You come out of the play, and there’s Kramer’s letter.

It is, like the man and his play, passionate: “Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague”.

It’s full of some hard facts, too.

“Please know that, as I write this, the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of this play that you have attended begins, there were 41.”★

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