‘The Normal Heart’ Historicizes AIDS Crisis

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This November, students can learn more about the history and struggle for gay rights in UC Santa Cruz’s live theater performance “The Normal Heart,” showing Nov. 1-10 in the experimental theater.

“The Normal Heart,” a drama written by Larry Kramer in 1985, first premiered in the Public Theater in New York during the AIDS crisis. The play follows the journey of gay rights activist Ned Weeks — the fictional representation of Larry Kramer — starting an organization to raise awareness for the unknown disease eventually known as AIDS.

In the play, Weeks helps establish The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which later becomes one of the biggest AIDS organizations in the world in the 1980s.

He eventually is kicked out of the organization and starts a more radical nonprofit called ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. From there, the play follows the journey of the organization and the lack of government involvement in the gay community.

“Being a young gay guy in 2013, it’s easy to forget all this happened,” said fourth-year and director Adam Odsess-Rubin. “There’s so much talk about gay marriage or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. [With] all these things happening, it’s easy to focus on the progress in the gay rights movement and it’s easy to forget where we came from, and that AIDS decimated the whole community in New York, San Francisco, across the country and eventually the world, and people were and still are being killed for being gay.”

UCSC first premiered “The Normal Heart” in 1990 during the AIDS crisis when thousands of people were dying, notably in San Francisco, due to the city’s sizable gay community. For many people today, the play serves as a serious reminder.

“This play does have special significance to me,” said outreach coordinator Angelica Marcial. “I have a close family member who is living with AIDS and every time I hear the statistics, I think about how fortunate I am to still have him around. Because of him, this play is a lot more to me than just another production.”

One physically unique aspect of the play is how the experimental theater’s stage is outlined with pink paint in the shape of a triangle.

“The experimental theater is amazing because it gives us the flexibility and the creativity to do whatever we want,” Odsess-Rubin said. “The audience [sits on] both sides of the pink. On one side is progress and on the other side is the work we still have to do. In concentration camps during the Holocaust, gay prisoners were forced to wear the pink triangle with the point facing down. Later, ACT UP reappropriated the emblem of the pink triangle and had it face up with the slogan ‘silence equals death.’ That became the symbol of the AIDS movement in the ‘80s, and I think it’s powerful that the audience is literally at the perimeters of the triangle — it’s such a powerful symbol.”

After the theater department selected “The Normal Heart” for production in May, the play’s production team worked non-stop with rehearsals, media setup and community outreach.

“It has been some shoes to fill, but the perspective is familiar and cathartic,” said fourth-year and lead actor Sean Draper. “The text is rich with striking moments and everyone feels representative of larger ideas. Several themes resonate — the death of your closest friends, the struggle to be heard and the acceptance of your identity.”