Categorized | Arts & Entertainment

“The Normal Heart” presents a universal view on activism

Holly Engel

A&E Editor

Love is something everyone deserves. Unfortunately, as W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” reminds us, honest-to-goodness love is hard to come by, that it  “Is true of the normal heart / ” he writes, “For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.” In the play by Larry Kramer, “The Normal Heart” (whose title was inspired by Audin’s poem), writer and gay activist Ned Weeks attempts to understand love as he fights for the rights of the gay community at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City. Based on true events, the play, which will be performed at the College from Thursday, Feb. 28 to Saturday, March 2, under the direction of Jimmy Noriega, not only reminds viewers that HIV/AIDS is an ongoing issue, but also inspires activism in response to the numerous unheard voices in today’s society.

Ben McKone ’19, who will be playing Ned Weeks in the Wooster production, says that he has learned a lot about the HIV/AIDS crisis and about Larry Kramer’s activism over the past couple of months. “In 1981, the virus hadn’t been identified by anybody. All that was really known was that it was a mysterious, very fatal disease spreading through NYC’s gay population,” he said. “My character is very closely based on Larry Kramer. Kramer was very frustrated by the fact that nobody seemed to care [about the crisis]; The New York Times wasn’t writing about it, and the mayor wasn’t taking any action. So, Kramer started doing activist work to get public attention on it, which he continues to this day.” 

As Kramer took on the role of activism in his own life, so does Weeks in the play. “He feels like the gay community places too much emphasis on casual sex and promiscuity,” McKone commented. “It’s not exactly that he doesn’t approve, but he feels like the best way to get understanding and help from the straight world … is to focus more on how gay people are the same as everyone else.”

Watching a play is one thing, but acting out a role can provide deeper, more emotional insights, especially when the play follows such a serious topic. In this case, the HIV/AIDS crisis became a lot more immediate to McKone as he took on his character. “Acting it out makes it a lot more powerful,” he said. “I’d say our main obligation as actors is not only to honor the script and what Larry Kramer has written, but also to honor that every character in this play is based on a real person, on people who fought and died to try and find a cure for this disease when no one cared.”  McKone also added that the crisis has not ended, which is why these themes are still so important today. “It’s is still a global pandemic. There’s still no cure, and it’s still a very uncoordinated effort. It’s very important to know that this was not that long ago, and that HIV/AIDS is still affecting millions and millions of people around the world.”

Louis Schwartz ’21 feels particularly connected to his character, Hiram Keebler, who is loosely based off Mayor Koch’s liaison on gay rights and the Orthodox Jewish community, Herb Rickman, despite how the role is sometimes emotionally difficult to play. “As this play pertains to a part of my identity, being gay and Jewish, I want to do this show the justice it deserves,” Schwartz said. “[However], the subject material is hard to do and to watch. For instance, my character denies that the HIV/AIDS crisis is going on at all, even though he knows that what he’s saying is a complete lie.”

Schwartz also strongly believes that the show pertains to the campus community.  “This play shows what could happen if people’s voices aren’t heard and aren’t taken seriously, but it’s also about LGBTQ rights and banding together to try to stop oppression,” he said. “I know that if something ever went horribly wrong on this campus, we would all rally together because that’s the type of community we are.”

Beginning on Monday, Feb. 25, twelve sections of the enormous NAMES project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be exhibited in Freedlander Lobby and Shoolroy Theatre. Started in 1987, the entire quilt is made up of over 48,000 separate 3×6 foot panels, each panel in memory of an individual who died of HIV/AIDS. Today, Quilt panels are displayed worldwide in hopes to raise awareness about the harsh reality of this disease. 

Director Jimmy Noriega hopes that the Quilt and the play will act as memorials and educational experiences on the importance of strong activism. “Larger activist movements like this represent — through symbolic love — those who died…naming people who were erased because of a lack of response from government and media,” he said. “We’re very honored to be hosting the Quilt here and hope that as many people as possible will be able to take part in this testimony to those lost to HIV/AIDS. We also strongly encourage photos and sharing on social media to expand the living history of this project.” The Quilt can be viewed from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily so people may learn, witness and pay their respects. 

Of course, the frustration of activists is not just limited to raising HIV/AIDS awareness. Today, thousands of people call for equality, for justice and for the simple right to live and love, and many are frustrated that their voices often go unheeded. “I would like people to know that “The Normal Heart” presents a very real story, a very immediate story. There’s a universal discontent [in today’s world]; there’s always people being stepped on, and there are always people being denied basic human rights. The play really speaks to that universal struggle, and I think that’s something we can all relate to.”

“The Normal Heart” will be performed in Freedlander Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 28, Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets go on sale Monday, Feb. 25 at the box office in Freedlander. Admission is free for students, $6.00 for staff, non-C.O.W. students and seniors and $9.00 for the general public. For more information about the AIDS Quilt and AIDS awareness, go to www.aidsquilt.org.

(Photo courtesy Jimmy Noriega)

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