“Why didn't I fight harder! Why didn't I picket the White House, all by myself if nobody would come. Or go on a hunger strike.” Thus begins one of the final moments in the stage version of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart. It is a question many LGBT activists of the early activists must have asked of themselves as their friends, family, and lovers dies around them.
The Music City Theatre Company (MCTC) will be bringing The Normal Heart to the Vibe Entertainment Complex on Church Street for Nashville audiences April 9–18, 2015, in what promises to be one of the most poignant community theatre events of the year. The cast includes Matt Smith as Ned, Memory Strong as Emma, and Daniel DeVault as Felix, along with Chuck Long, Daniel Vincent, Doug Allen, Daniel Morgan, Chris Malone, Brian Sullivan, and Fernando Ochoa.
The Normal Heart centers around the rise of the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 1980s. Ned Weeks, the protagonist, is a gay man and founder of a prominent HIV advocacy organization, who comes to believe that the only way to raise awareness of the crisis and motivate a helpful response is to use confrontational methods that keep the crisis front and center. This leads to disagreements with his friends, the organization he helped found, and his lover Felix.
Dr. Emma Brookner, the physician in the play who becomes concerned as she sees more and more cases, helps us understand Ned’s brusque way. Brookner’s own advocacy too is continually stymied in her own attempts to raise funding for research and promote awareness, despite the mounting evidence she presents. A sense of slow despair builds that makes Ned’s confrontationalism easier to understand and calls into question the meeker approach taken by his contemporaries.
One wall in the original production contained a passage about Jewish American attempts to bring attention to the Holocaust, highlighting two available strategies: “cooperate with the government officials, quietly trying to convince them that rescue of Jews should be one of the objectives of the war, or … pressure the government into initiating rescue by using embarrassing public attention and rallying public opinion to that end.” The passage went on to show that Jewish Americans had done the first, and “They were still trying to persuade the same officials when the war ended.”
What Kramer attempted to do in has play, like in his other activist work, was to bring into the public sphere a disease that shame and social mores kept in the dark. Joseph Papp, who produced the 1985 premier of The Normal Heart, once wrote, “In taking a burning social issue and holding it up to public and private scrutiny so that it reverberates with the social and personal implications of that issue, The Normal Heart reveals its origins in the theater of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare.” Projecting HIV/AIDS into the public eye, Kramer shows that it is not the victims of the disease, or the LGBT community then associated with it, who should have been shamed into silence. It was the government and local communities who should have been shamed into action against this disease.
Eventually, through a long fought, uphill battle, those early activists did make headway toward the goal of public awareness, and the level of crisis has diminished. But HIV now affects populations on just the scale those early activists feared. They foresaw the escalation of the crisis, and tried to prevent it by giving voice to the dying, but what they were facing most immediately was not a global epidemic, or at least not merely a global epidemic. What they faced was immanent destruction of entire families, friend groups, and communities.
It is this element of the original production of The Normal Heart, the sense of dread and growing despair shared by author, actors and audiences, that it next to impossible to recreate. And yet the play remains a profoundly timely work. It poignantly documents the ravages of a disease that many in a younger generation have come to view as merely chronic. “In the South,” said Memory Strong (Dr. Emma Brookner), “we had the largest amount of new cases of HIV in the country in 2013…. We've gotten lax in our protection and education efforts and the consequences can lead to death. It's true that people are now living with HIV longer than in any other time in history, but that doesn't mean we no longer need to be vigilant.
The Normal Heart also speaks to us about the continuing importance of fighting for ourselves, of refusing to be silenced and hidden. “I’m so glad The Normal Heart exists,” said Chuck Long, who plays Mickey Marcus, co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, “because it reminds us to never forget our past, no matter how painful. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis members were warriors of the soul, and fought against preposterous opposition.”
Music City Theatre Company announces 'The Normal Heart' (includes show dates and times)