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Three new works, including Broadway's The Inheritance, explore the impact of the virus on multiple generations
Playwright Matthew Lopez was 10 when he first learned about AIDS from the TV news. "That's how I discovered what being gay was, by simultaneously being taught that it also meant dying of HIV/AIDS," he says. Later, as a theatre-loving teenager wrestling with his sexual orientation in the early '90s, he saw how the epidemic was affecting art by watching the Tony Awards. Excerpts from William Finn and James Lapine's musical Falsettos and Tony Kushner's Angels in America introduced him to theatre about AIDS.
"It shifted my understanding of what is considered an acceptable and viable subject for the stage," Lopez recalls. Now 42, he is the author of The Inheritance, a two-part play about several generations of gay men in New York City set two decades after AIDS ravaged the community. An Olivier Award-winning hit in London that starts previews on Broadway on September 27, it is the highest profile new show featuring characters with HIV since the '90s.
The Inheritance is one of several new works that put the spotlight back on AIDS, both on screen and on stage. These also include Pose, the FX TV series starring Billy Porter about NYC's drag ball scene; a handful of documentaries about AIDS; and two plays that open this month Off-Broadway: As Much As I Can, running at Joe's Pub from September 12 to 16, and Novenas for a Lost Hospital at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through October 13.
Their existence provokes several questions. Why was there a gap of nearly a quarter of a century before new shows about AIDS graced mainstream stages? Why is it happening now? How do these works differ from landmark plays such as Angels in America, which Lopez calls "the urtext of my generation as theatre artists and myself as a gay man?"
Two important points must be made before attempting any answers.
The first is that AIDS is not over. That's made clear in all three new plays to varying degrees, most prominently in As Much As I Can.
"When some of the medication started working, well, we was thinking that it was over, that we could live and maybe things could change for us," says a character named Larry in that play. "Well it has and it hasn't. Most of us know that too many of our men are still getting diagnosed positive every day." Written by Sarah Hall and based on interviews with black gay and bisexual men in Baltimore, Maryland and Jackson, Mississippi, As Much As I Can dramatizes the current crisis in the African-American community. "Still got families don't want 'em, a whole society that don't see 'em and some crazy kind of shame," Larry says. "And some of 'em even still dying."
Meanwhile in Novenas, a character rattles off some sobering statistics: In 2016, 1.8 million people were newly infected with the virus worldwide, and more than 40 million are currently living with HIV/AIDS.
The second important point is that art about AIDS never really stopped. "A lot of us have been doing it all along," says Rafael Sánchez, a member of the artist-activist collective Visual AIDS, who's been HIV positive since 2002. Sánchez appears in Novenas by Cusi Cram about the history of St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, which shut down in 2010 after 161 years. The play juxtaposes the care the nurses gave patients during two different epidemics: cholera in the 19th century and AIDS in the 20th.
Sánchez is in Novenas's prologue, which takes place next door to the theatre in the garden of Saint John's in the Village. The site is significant because it's where the ashes of many people who died from AIDS are buried, and it's in sight of what used to be St. Vincent's before it was razed and turned into condominiums. While other ensemble members, dressed in doctors' scrubs or patient gowns, dance and play music, Sánchez performs a choreographed bathing ritual, an homage to a work by choreographer John Bernd, who inspired one of the characters in Cram's play. Bernd, who died at age 35 in 1988, was creating art about the epidemic as early as 1981, the very first year that cases of AIDS in the U.S. were reported.
Bernd was not alone. In those early days, Off-Broadway saw a series of shows about AIDS, including three by Larry Kramer between 1985 and 1992. As Is, a play by William M. Hoffman about the effect of the virus on a group of friends living in New York City, was the first AIDS play to make it to Broadway in 1985. Rent, Jonathan Larsen's 1996 musical about artists in the East Village living under the shadow of the infection, was the last new work on Broadway that had such a strong focus on AIDS.
"Everybody was wearing a red ribbon at the Academy Awards and the Tonys, and then suddenly for no reason, no specific explanation, people stopped wearing one," says Fidelindo Lim, a longtime AIDS nurse and a dramaturg for Novenas. "My personal opinion about the gap is it's most likely related to fatigue. No other disease in history has accelerated so fast." Also of note: The drop-off in attention came at roughly the same time as the introduction of protease inhibitors, antiviral drugs that turned HIV into a manageable condition rather than a death sentence for many of those infected.
Over the past decade, milestone AIDS shows have been revived on Broadway to great acclaim, including Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart in 2011, Falsettos in 2016 and Angels in America in 2018. Perhaps those productions set the stage for a new wave of AIDS-related pieces, but for Lopez the timing is entirely personal. "I was not ready to write this play before; I don't think I had lived enough," he says. "I am finally ready to tell the story both as a writer and a member of my generation."
Like Novenas, The Inheritance is not exclusively a play about AIDS. "I wanted to write about the lives of gay men in total, about the community as I have experienced it in my life," Lopez says. "I wanted to write about addiction, about love, about sex. There are so many stories. But it is impossible to tell the stories of gay men without telling the story about the epidemic. It was sort of the reason for writing the thing, but I also knew it couldn't be the sole reason for being."
Modeled after E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End, The Inheritance touches on AIDS in two compelling ways. It centers on a house in the country, where men with AIDS went to die in the '80s, that has become a place of healing. Also, during the course of the play, a character in his early twenties gets infected with HIV. Lopez created this character, he says, so that "a contemporary audience, and especially a young contemporary audience, can understand the connection between their lives and the epidemic, which occurred before they were even born."
A new generation coming of age may be another reason why theatre artists have a renewed interest in the topic. Kieran Turner, the director and co-producer of the in-the-works documentary Ghost Lights: Reclaiming Theater in the Age of AIDS, seems to think so. "We have interviewed over 100 theatre professionals for the series so far, and the one thing all of them say is that this generation doesn't know its history regarding the AIDS crisis," he says. "That's shocking to me, but the fact that they're curious and want to know is very encouraging."
Novenas playwright Cram offers two other possibilities for the timing of the new works. "Angels in America was probably the best play I've seen in my lifetime," she says. "It said what needed to be said. But there are new things to say. I think sometimes we need time to forget a historical moment, and those plays all came from the front lines."
She also sees "a parallel between the chaos and helplessness that was happening during the AIDS crisis in New York, and the helplessness that we feel now. The central question of my play is really: How do we care for each other in an impossible time? The activism and the caring at that time encourages us to feel there is a way out now."
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance on the West End. Photo by Marc Brenner.
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