This past July I went back in time; not literally of course, but through the wonder of theatre. With the remarkable productions of National Theatre’s Angels in America and Lincoln Center Theater’s Falsettos, I revisited the early 1980s and the explosion of the AIDS crisis in America. (I am grateful to National Theatre’s NT Live production of the live London staging of Angels and to Live from Lincoln Center’s presentation of Falsettos, which allowed me to watch both shows in Seattle. The good news is that the Angels production is moving to Broadway in 2018 and PBS is showing Falsettos this fall.)
The visit back to my childhood, though, was not the same as I experienced the first time around. Growing up in Reagan’s America in a conservative town in a Pentecostal church, I was quite a bit removed from Prior’s New York City and Trina’s Falsettoland. We lived in a silo, caught up in church life and latching onto the Religious Right and Moral Majority. Unbeknownst to me at the time was how much that life was hypocritical and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. We easily judged people like Marvin and Whizzer as morally depraved, while glossing over our own failings of greed and gluttony. Even when our leaders encountered their own sexual scandals, they were quickly forgiven and we all moved on; but in our minds Marvin and Whizzer were still sinners.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t completely removed from the world that I didn’t know people affected by HIV/AIDS. In the spring of 1985, my 8th grade history teacher called in sick one day…and then the next day…and then the next…and then for the final few weeks of the school year. Later that year I found out that he had died of AIDS. Some years later a former pastor at this siloed Pentecostal church would also succumb to the disease.
Over time, I gradually became disenfranchised by church life and its incongruities—a process that took over 20 years. During this transformation, I realized how wrong I had been to judge people and point fingers. We claimed to be morally superior and identified as sinful any behavior that we deemed inappropriate. The truth, of course, is that we weren’t morally superior and Marvin’s and Whizzer’s behavior is not inappropriate.
Pondering the shows, I suppose I most closely identify with Joe in Angels. Though unlike me in that he was a Mormon and a closeted gay man, I identify with him because he too was devout in his faith and in conservatism. But through the course of the play, he struggles with who he is and what that means for his life, his work, and his marriage. By the end, he is isolated and alone—he’s lost his mentor, his wife, and his first gay partner. Yet, in losing all of that, he has become free to be who he really is, a transformation that is both freeing and scary. (I wish the play gave a hint at what happens to Joe, but perhaps it’s best left unknown.) In many ways, I am not the same person that I was in 1985. Not just because I grew up physically, but also because I eventually left a faith and political belief system for what is truer to my heart.
I am not ashamed to admit that watching both productions this summer aroused a visceral reaction inside of me, one of guilt and shame for who I was and how I treated people, and one of pure sadness for people who experienced great loss and pain and for the most part were shunned by society. I feel anger toward those who would judge Whizzer and Prior and say they had brought that dread of a disease on themselves, even anger for the younger me who lived in that camp. Perhaps that’s why I cried both times during the final scene of Falsettos—I was reminded of a hateful past.
Like it does so often, theatre turned the mirror on me and revealed areas in me that are upsetting. Sure, I could stop going to these shows and only go to those that make me laugh or have a kicking cast album. But I need both types—comedy and tragedy—because essentially that is life. And sometimes life is not what you thought it would be, especially as a kid growing up in the ’80s.