Friday, February 22, 2013

Campus Event: The Normal Heart at Berea College Theatre Laboratory

I had the opportunity to watch a powerful performance here on campus. The play tells the story of the very early days of the epidemic that would be known to the world as AIDS through the eyes of a group of gay men and a doctor researcher in New York City. Nowadays people take for granted that AIDS can be treated, or at least kept somewhat under control with various drugs. But back in the early 1980s, it was a new disease that seemed to only attack gay men. This brought forth a lot of ugly prejudices from religious zealots like Jerry Falwell, who is mentioned in the play, to disregard and arrogance from the medical community to flat out governmental neglect at all levels-- city, state, and federal.

In the play, the medical establishment's "debate" on the issue was well portrayed by the characters of Dr. Emma (portrayed by Ms. Victoria Brown), the doctor caring for these new patients,  and the Examining Doctor, (portrayed by Professor Shan R. Ayers), representing the arrogance and infighting of a medical establishment more interested at times in glory and fame than helping people. I think the fact that the Examining Doctor is unnamed only adds to the cold, impersonal and really uncaring nature of the medical establishment at this time when it came to gay people and the epidemic. This scene was a powerful moment in a play that has many moving and powerful moments.

Once the play starts, the audience is riveted for the performance as the actors take us back to the New York City of the early 1980s. The cast puts forth a solid and passionate performance. I want to specially highlight Mr. Robert "Chip" Plummer as Ned Weeks, the passionate, headstrong write and activist who tells it like it is with no apologies. We can also note Mr. Joseph Cross, portraying city health worker Mickey Marcus, who does a great job showing us and exposing the divisions in the gay male community. He also showed us the frustration of being a health worker in the front lines of the new deadly epidemic and not being able to provide help due to lack of information and bureaucratic obstacles. Together with the rest of the cast they bring the play and its times to life. If this play and this production do not move you and make you think, you are probably not paying attention. The AIDS epidemic continues to rage on around the world, and those who suffer it face ignorance, discrimination, and neglect. Thus the play remains as relevant as ever.

On a brief technical note, there was good use of lighting. Plus the use of selected 1980s musical pieces enhanced the production's ambiance.

Overall, this is an excellent production right here in Berea that should not be missed. I highly recommend it. To those of us who saw the rise of the epidemic, it will bring back memories and remind us that there is still much to learn and do. To those who have only known a time with AIDS being there all the time, the play offers a valuable lesson.

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Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart runs this week from Tuesday February 19th to Saturday February 23, 2012 at the McGaw Theater on Berea Campus. Performances are at 8:00pm. I caught the Wednesday evening show.

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Since I am a librarian, I have to recommend at least one book. A very good treatment of the early days of AIDS is Randy Shilts' book And the Band Played On (link to my very brief review on GoodReads). The book as I recall particularly brings to the life the infighting and constant attempts to jockey for position in the medical establishment, their petty squabbles and flat out refusals to cooperate at times when they could have saved lives for fear some researcher would scoop out another and steal the spotlight. And there is more in the book. Worth a look.

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