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Getting recharged with ‘The Normal Heart’ in the fight against HIV

After watching the Philippine production of ‘The Normal Heart’, John Silva recalls having lived in New York City with his lover in the beginning of the epidemic; and how he ended up looking after friends infected by HIV even when their families refused to do so. “In a way, the play, its rant, its polemics, is dated today. And it has to do with the likes of Larry Kramer, ACT-UP, and the sprouting of numerous AIDS organizations… which did turn the crisis of several years into some glimmer of hope,” Silva says.

By John Silva

The Normal Heart, which had a weekend run at the Romulo Auditorium in the RCBC building, was a non-stop intense play chronicling the beginning of the 1981 AIDS epidemic in New York and in the rest of the country (USA).

The main character is Ned Weeks (Bart Guingona), pretty much a biographical rendering of the acerbic and confrontational Larry Kramer who wrote this play and who around that period begins to form the AIDS organization (ACT UP) and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) to help people being struck by the virus, to demand the Reagan Administration fund the identification of the virus, and find a cure.

In the ’80’s, a gay lifestyle was very evident in the city. Lower Manhattan is a gay ghetto, there’s Fire Island for summer weekends, and the whole flourishing culture is about uninhibited, open and lots of sex, closely identified to gay identity.

The virus, yet unnamed is unknown as to how it infects and spreads, and Ned’s friend Doctor Emma Brookner (Roselyn Perez) who’s been diagnosing hundreds of AIDS patients can only advice unequivocally that gays abstain from sex for a while. She prods Ned to get that almost laughable message out.

Ned’s organization is stocked with a variety of gay activists. There’s Tommy (Red Concepcion), the Southern queen who constantly tries to patch the yelling matches between the haranguing Ned and the diplomatic Bruce Niles (TJ Trinidad) who is the group’s president. There’s Mickey Marcus (Nor Domingo), a city employee who writes brochures on explaining various community ills but is anguished for not knowing what’s killing gays.

Ned’s personal life includes a strained relationship with his straight brother Ben Weeks (Richard Cunanan) who is as affable and understanding of gay people as best he can. But the overly militant Ned demands much too much and things sour.

In the midst of all the rancor at the office, Ned is smitten with Felix Turner (Topper Fabregas) the adroit New York Times fashion reporter. We assume they have great bonding together until Topper must reveal that purple spot on his foot, the AIDS giveaway then.

The reigning Mayor of that period was Ed Koch, a bachelor and reputed to be gay, which as we all know about closeted gays, are the worse to get sympathy from. His gay assistant/spokesperson Hiram Keebler (Jef Flores) has to face and get a lot of shit from Ned and the group for the mayor’s intransigence.

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As the group’s membership grows, getting the publicity and a little more money, there’s a growing antipathy to Ned’s in-your-face approach which leads to his being expelled from the organization. His doctor friend gets rejected yet again from the National Institute of Health to study the virus; and the once lively Felix is morose, gives up and dies.

Death has, in the end, that redemptive quality. Tragedy brings hope and as the cast readies for its exit bow, statistic flash on the screen behind them showing the exponential growth of the AIDS infection here. It’s now 22 infections a day, a 500% growth from just five years ago, and its happening to our young.

Normal HeartOne marvels at the ability of seven men and one woman to recreate those hellish days with the same intensity and pathos that I recall very well having lived in New York City with my lover Jonathan in the beginning of the epidemic. There were the sketchy reports only in the gay papers, to watch out for purple lesions and night sweats. We hadn’t a fig of a clue how to protect ourselves then, though Larry Kramer’s shrill voice and Village Voice writings along with a few others pointed to the gay bathhouses as the culprits. We were wholly ignorant in reaching out to AIDS victims that when my best friend Juan Carlos got sick and we visited him at Bellevue Hospital, we entered his room with face masks and his bed area was under a plastic tent which only nurses and doctors could enter. When Juan Carlos was later brought back to their apartment by his lover Antonino to die, I thought him very brave to cuddle Juan Carlos in his arms that last night, singing tearfully to him over and over again the song Hindi Kita Malimot (“I Will Not Forget You”). All I could muster then was to stroke Juan Carlos’ cadaverous arm with my little finger being frightened, useless and heartbroken.

In a way, the play, its rant, its polemics, is dated today. And it has to do with the likes of Larry Kramer, ACT-UP, and the sprouting of numerous AIDS organizations throughout the country which did turn the crisis of several years into some glimmer of hope. Compassion and support for people with AIDS grew, the virus’ sexual transmission would be confirmed, and massive sex education and behavior modification occurred. A “cocktail” to stave the virus was found and has helped many people to live with HIV.

Despite the powerful dialogue and the forceful performance of each actor, the despairing angry tone of this piece which first showed in 1985, has been significantly muted by the advances of gay rights in the past three decades. In fact, I was watching this play which, a week before, had the United States pass gay marriage laws throughout all 50 states. In the olden days, when a person was sick with AIDS, his family would often find out too late that he was gay and had a lover . Depending on parental compassion, the lover would have little to no access to his sick friend. The Normal Heart is, therefore, a historical tribute to those who went out on a limb.

Maybe it was the large gay audience and maybe it is, happily, the times that when affectionate embraces and kisses occurred, there was not a peep, a nervous cough, or even squirming in the chairs. I’ve seen and heard the squeals and guffaws of movie audiences during a gay kiss. It most probably was the compelling performance played by the actors that immersed us in Ned’s and Felix’s lengthy and intense kisses. It felt so real.

When it opened off-Broadway, some of the critics thought the content too “pamphleteering” with cut-out characters and little depth. This Manila rendering triumphed over that stridency and managed to give each actor a depth and nuance that made contretemps and shouting matches their very own. Bart Guingona (Ned) was a consistent ranter with a belligerence so true to Kramer’s form. The characters of the rest of the cast, based somewhat on real-life characters but not as publicly known, had to be “created” and each one shone in very gripping moments. Take Nor Domingo’s (Mickey) befuddled character figuring out what AIDS is about. In a very profound moment, he lays the contradiction of being gay centered on a sexual identity and celebrating it while a disease was directly attacking that identity fought for so long.

TJ Trinidad playing Bruce Niles, the prudent activist, was not just a flat one-dimensional foil to Ken’s unbridled manners; he gave the audience an important lesson in moderation and skill, and in every battle one gauges the next steps and move onward. We may owe Ned/Larry big time, but the Bruce Niles in every organization ensures its steady and continued existence.

Normal Heart in ManilaI was enchanted with Topper Fabregas’ character Felix. I probably think and live my life like him. A realist who can inject gay sensibilities and culture on the stodgy pages of New York Times at a time when that paper only printed the word “homosexual” – not “gay” – until 1985. Felix believably seduces Ned the whiner without being coquettish. When he is dying on the floor and eating junk food, he bitterly convinces me why he is getting off the merry-go-round of life. It must be terribly excruciating being a reporter for all that life-affirming culture and fashion facing a seemingly abrupt ending. But Felix’s efforts at having his paper tackle AIDS would pay off and today, this venerable paper that I subscribe to online still influences the world with a strong gay bent too.

Red Concepcion’s Tommy provides bemused relief to the otherwise serious tone of the play. He’s no gay jester, but with that Southern nasal accent reminiscent of Truman Capote, he plays peacemaker, mending fences between Ned and Bruce, and at one point warns (a warning to all social change organizations) that we won’t advance further if we keep fighting each other.

Roselyn Perez as Dr. Brookner is the anchor in those tempestuous times. She has to see the sick. She has to be thorough in her diagnosis and when she does, she has to tell it like it is. And she is shaken up every time, especially in those days when she could just confirm but not know how the virus got there. When asked by Ned, “…even kissing?” She answers in the affirmative because there’s suspicion in the sexual terrain and that’s all she could go by. There’s a riveting soliloquy at some point, exhausted by government’s rejection yet again for her proposal looking into AIDS. She would have enough of the indifference and let them have it. The audience was stunned at her righteous vehemence.

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I reserve my final plaudits for the secondary character Ben Weeks played by Richard Cunanan. Much as the appearances of Bart (Ned) and Richard as stage brothers invite doubt, a minute into their dialogue and we are suspended in judgment as Richard plays, so very hard, to prove his love for Bart who officiously rejects it. Richard uses his girth to acting advantage pulling off the nice bearish straight brother who’s got his limits. But, and this is his acting prowess playing, he manages to insinuate a deep love for his brother without saying it. It’s in the gestures, shoulders raised, hands gesticulating, and that sonorous calming voice way before and way after the requisite brotherly hugs.

When Ken painfully recounts the number of friends that have passed away in the midst of mass indifference, from the government to gays in denial, echoed by the others characters, that brings it back for me to an abnormal period in my life. I had headed the first Asian AIDS organization in San Francisco (GCHP) in 1987 at a time when the infection rates were increasing. And Asian Americans (including Filipinos) in their last stages were in hospitals and hospices. These were very painful times, with parents and loved ones coming to the bedside and learning only there and then that aside from the illness their sons were gay too. They would alternate between regretful, unending sobbing, to being stoic and spent. Sadder were those, and they were many, whose families abandoned them upon hearing their plight. Some of them who did not want a scandal, threw money at me, told me to make sure he was taken care of and disappeared.

It was the frequency of seeing clients we delivered food to, fed, cheered up, cleaned their apartments, and handle their affairs and then see them take their final breaths. First there were just a few, then a bit more and I remember saying to myself that at just age 35, I was cradling and saying many goodbyes and crying over too many bodies. It was a very hopeless period and, burnt out, I lasted not too long. I had witnessed not just heartless parents and siblings but churches who bluntly pointed at their sinful promiscuity rather than giving succour. I had to flee north and sought solace in the country. I hadn’t the rage of a Kramer.

At the end of the play, when the screen flashed the infection rates in the Philippines with a trend to an epidemic, I looked at the audience and the inspiring actors and was somewhat relieved that there will be a cadre of enlightened and compassionate people who will plan the next round of stopping this epidemic. In our days, there were fewer than the numbers in the theater and very much frightened over this unknown plague. We can do it and we have this stage production to thank and be recharged for the enormous task ahead.

The Philippine production of ‘The Normal Heart’ was staged from July 3 to 5 by the Necessary Theatre and Taal Vista Hotel, with special arrangement from Samuel French Inc., New York, New York. The artistic team was led by Bart Guingona (director), Baby Imperial and Coco Anne (set design), Mark Philipp Espina (projections), and Don Taduran (graphic design). The production team was composed of Dodo Lim, (producer), Mariko Yasuda (production manager), and Ronah Rostata (stage manager).

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