In 1985, writer and activist Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart” premiered in New York City at The Public Theater. At the time, it inspired mixed reviews from critics and assorted reactions from audience members. It is, after all, a play about something most people don’t want to think about, much less get emotionally involved in. It is a play about AIDS, a frightening and little understood disease, especially back then.
The outbreak of the epidemic had shaken New York City (or, rather, those in New York City who were directly involved or paying attention to what was happening in the world of gay health) only a few years before the play’s premiere. No one knew what to think about the spread of this devastating illness or the work of art that addressed its emotional and political turmoil head on. But everyone could agree on one thing, no matter what they thought about AIDS: The play was powerful and fearless in a time when the gay community felt powerless and fearful.
It follows the semi-autobiographical story of Ned Weeks, a gay writer in New York City whose friends are dying of an unknown sickness, inspiring him to co-found of one of the first gay health advocacy groups, The Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). While a single doctor tries to understand the “new cancer” and fight for federal funding, Ned and his loved ones must learn how to stand up to the government, the media, society, and each other to save lives. “The Normal Heart” is a call-to-arms for both the general public and the gay community. It is both a screaming temper tantrum and a love story. It is both a bold political statement and a work of art, considered by some critics to be one of the top 100 most important plays of our time.
And now, thanks to director Tom Trudgeon, “The Normal Heart” is coming to Louisville. It will premiere at the new gallery and performance space Land of Tomorrow (in the St Francis Building at Third and Broadway) this evening in conjunction with World AIDS Day. Across the globe on this day, people will commemorate those we have lost to the disease and commend the progress that’s been made in raising awareness and working toward a cure through marches, conferences, faith-based events and artistic endeavors.
Trudgeon has enlisted an inspiring coalition of local artists to help bring the play here, including the talented performers of Actors Saturday, Open Doors artist Tara Remington of the Louisville Visual Art Association and, well, me. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I do video. And when asked to create the background video projection for the performance, it took me about about two seconds to say yes. Why? Well, it’s not just because I need the money (although that is an added bonus). It’s not just because I appreciate the outspoken political voice of the play (which is just as important today as it was in the 1980s). It’s not just because I am fascinated by live performances and the actors who bring them to life on stage (how do they remember all those lines?). It certainly is not because this is an easy or fun topic to address. And it’s not just because I’m gay. I wanted to be involved in the creation of this work because I share the playwright’s moral obligation to inspire passion and honesty, and because letting people fall into the numb, day-to-day sleep that allows things like the AIDS crisis to go unnoticed is not an option for me. “The Normal Heart” is an example of the loud-mouthed, uncomfortably truthful and unapologetic world of art that is meant, at its heart, to heal our world.
This was a benchmark work of art in 1985, and its relevance has only grown along with the epidemic. It’s been 25 years since its premiere, and the play still relays a powerful and much-needed sense of urgency. It confronts the audience with the rage, sorrow and fear involved in the unjust treatment of AIDS patients and activists in a time when love was needed, as in all times, the most.
For more information about the play, tickets and showtimes, visit www.thenormalheart.info.