June 1, 2011
By Adam Bink
The Normal Heart is a play by Larry Kramer, the GMHC co-founder/ACT UP founder/longtime AIDS activist. I’m hoping to catch a production of it while in NYC soon, as it is on a limited run revival, and has already won 3 Drama Desk awards and is up for 5 Tonys. It’s a semi-autobiographical play in which Kramer takes on the institutions and individuals whom he feels are responsible for letting what was then known as “gay cancer” rage throughout the city of New York. To sum it up more aptly, here’s an excerpt of the review from Ben Brantley in the NYTimes:
When it first opened at the Public Theater, “The Normal Heart” sounded like a hoarse, relentless “J’accuse!” screamed directly at a gallery of blame-worthy individuals and institutions that included Mayor Edward I. Koch, The New York Times, the American medical establishment and the majority of gay men in New York City. Surprisingly, many theatergoers — even those at whom the play’s hectoring finger was pointed — felt that Mr. Kramer was beautiful when he was angry. A focal point for people searching for vicarious venting in those early plague years, “The Normal Heart” became the longest-running hit in the history of the Public Theater.
Many of the adjectives that were attached to “The Normal Heart” at that time still apply: fierce, angry, engaged, confrontational. But in the new incarnation of “The Normal Heart,” which opened Wednesday night at the Golden Theater, anger is only one note in a polyphonic chord.
Political outrage may be what shaped this drama, inspired (very directly) by Mr. Kramer’s early days as an AIDS activist. But what emerges so stirringly from this production — which follows the shaky emergence of a political movement among gay New Yorkers to deal with AIDS — is its empathy with people lost in a war in which they have no rules, no map, no weapons.
Kramer’s production was intended to shake people and institutions to grasp what was happening: tens of thousands were dying and no one was doing anything. Which gets me to today.
June 5th is the 30th anniversary of the discovery of what would come to be known as HIV. I’ve spent the last year doing a lot of reading up on the failure of institutions and individuals to aggressively stop the spread of the disease, including refusal of sexually active gay men to take the appropriate precautions, and refusal of the city’s health department, along with other government agencies in NYC and San Francisco, to take the appropriate public education steps.
And yet, 30 years later, we face controversies such as this (via Towleroad):
Australian Ad Company ADSHEL Reinstates HIV Prevention Ads After International Social Media Uproar
Australian ad company ADSHEL reinstated a tame HIV-prevention ad which featured two men embracing with a condom, and said it would replace them on bus shelters in Brisbane where they had been taken down.
In a statement issued this afternoon, Adshel said many of the complaints were part of an ACL campaign, and that it has reinstated the ads.
“It has now become clear Adshel has been the target of a coordinated ACL campaign,” Adshel chief executive Steve McCarthy said. ”This has led us to review our decision to remove the campaign, and we will therefore reinstate the campaign with immediate effect.”
Earlier today the ACL said the issue with the ads was about condoms, not homosexuality. ”I’ve been labelled homophobic. This has absolutely nothing to do with gay couples,” spokeswoman Wendy Francis said.”This has nothing to do with anything other than another condom ad in a bus shelter, where the children are catching buses to school and billboards where their parents are stopping at lights. I will continue to fight sexual imagery in our outdoor advertising until we can get it removed.”
An image of the fairly tame billboard is at right. A Facebook campaign started by one of the men in the ad quickly gained, as of this post, 71,000 followers pushing for public health education, outraged that saving lives is considered “sexual imagery.”
30 years later, and one realizes how very relevant Kramer’s play still is.