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From the heart

Michael Lyons' anti-post-mo history lesson from the guys behind The Normal Heart

10.12.2011

If there are people who think a play like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is irrelevant in 2011, they may keep in mind that Toronto has a democratically elected mayor who once said, "If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn't get AIDS probably," a sobering thought that goes hand in hand with things like the “post-mo” controversy and the continued debate about politically volatile groups within Pride. All gay community members must again take an active interest in their culture, identity and history to avoid finding it lost to an increasingly conservative society.
 
When Studio 180 Theatre founder Joel Greenberg approached Brendan Healy, Buddies in Bad Times' artistic director, with the idea of staging The Normal Heart, he asked Healy whether he thought young gay men would know who Larry Kramer was, or other historical gay artists were, or what the 1980s were like for gay men. Greenberg asked Healy, “'How many young people, particularly young gay men, will know their history?' and [Healy] said, 'Virtually none.' And I said that’s why I want to do the play.”
 
The Normal Heart, first performed in 1985, during the mounting AIDS panic, is a largely autobiographical work about an outspoken and abrasive gay activist, Ned Weeks, who struggles with organizing an information network to combat a mysterious, deadly disease that seems to target gay men. The play deals with issues of family, love, community and institutional discrimination, but most importantly, it deals with one man’s conflict in a society that is disinterested in taking action.

“It’s always ironic that minorities of all stripes seem to be very nervous about having internal conflict in a public forum,” says Greenberg, who admits that Kramer himself was a man heard as a minority voice on all sides because he didn’t have a side that would listen to him. Dora Award-winning actor Ryan Kelly, who will lend his talents to the cast of The Normal Heart, adds, “He was a minority even within his own community. Even his community didn’t want to hear him.”
 
Kelly admits his frustration with community members who don’t take an active interest in their history. “I think it’s important that people, gay men and women, see things like The Maids and see things like The Normal Heart and read books by Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano and Ethan Mordden,” he says. “Without it you get the post-mo mess, which really divided the community and made people angry at ‘the new gays.’ It gives you perspective. Without perspective you lose identity.”
 
Studio 180 Theatre’s mandate is to produce socially relevant theatre that encourages public discussion and engagement. Both Kelly and Greenberg stress the importance of sharing this story between those who lived through the AIDS panic and those who came after. On labelling The Normal Heart “an AIDS play,” Kelly says that “it’s only an AIDS play now. For the characters, it’s not an AIDS play. It’s Contagion, it’s Outbreak, it’s a mysterious virus. It’s a thriller about a mysterious virus killing everyone that we know.”

Greenberg believes the strength of the work lies in its ability to educate people beyond the gay community, saying it’s not only gay people who can stand to learn about gay history, but straight people as well. “That’s essential to the writing because that’s what Kramer’s cry is in the play.” Greenberg wants people to think about the relevance of the play today. “Make them think. Make them ask questions and realize there was a time, really not that long ago, that people died or people acted up and did what they did to make life today better.”
 
The Normal Heart runs Fri, Oct 14 to Sun, Nov 6, 8pm at Buddies, 12 Alexander St. PWYC-$35. buddiesinbadtimes.com
 
Michael Lyons is a writer, actor and photographer, and he does it all with beyond-normal heartedness.

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