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'The Normal Heart' Movingly Captures the Fight Against AIDS, Then and Now

Posted: 04/30/11 01:55 PM ET

I recently had the great pleasure of seeing a preview of the new Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's challenging and controversial play, The Normal Heart, which opened to the public this week. The Normal Heart tells the harrowing and inspirational true story of a group of gay men in New York City who come together in the early 1980s to found the organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis, and fought largely unsympathetic political and media powers for funding and attention to address the burgeoning AIDS epidemic in America.

Back in 1985, Larry's extraordinary play tackled the difficult topic of AIDS when very few people were willing to speak out about an escalating public health crisis. Scientists were still searching for effective treatments, AIDS wards were full of dying people, and many politicians were more interested in blaming the sick for their illness than in finding solutions and funding preventions. The play helped to galvanize the gay community, inspiring many capable people to step forward and become a new generation of activists and community leaders.

So, what do we have to learn from a nearly 30-year-old play about the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic? Fortunately, by giving us a window back into those dark times, Larry's play shows us how far we have come in many aspects of addressing this now global epidemic. Thanks to artists like Larry, advocates like Sir Elton John, and the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor, and countless people in and out of power who chose to step forward and speak out, we have made great strides in terms of the public perception of HIV/AIDS. Scientific research has produced an arsenal of lifesaving treatments helping many people live longer, healthier lives despite their HIV infection. Organizations like the Elton John AIDS Foundation and its grantees are helping to bring the latest in HIV prevention methods, education, and treatments into under-served communities across the U.S. and the developing world.

However, while it is true that a great deal of progress has been made, it is nevertheless tremendously shocking just how much hasn't changed -- making The Normal Heart as timely today as it was in 1985. In fact, Larry Kramer was very much ahead of his time in artfully communicating the most insidious aspects of the epidemic. Many of the issues presented in the play remain hot button topics today. For instance, in addition to the AIDS crisis, the play also tackles the issues of same sex marriage and health care reform.

More importantly, even after more than 25 years of HIV prevention and public education efforts, stigma and prejudice against people living with HIV/AIDS still prevent progress in reducing the incidence of HIV infection. The Elton John AIDS Foundation and other organizations devoted to HIV prevention share a deep frustration over the mounting numbers of new infections -- around 56,000 in the U.S. every year -- especially when polls show that fewer and fewer Americans regard HIV/AIDS as a significant public health concern. Just like the early years of the epidemic, complacency and a lack of urgency about HIV/AIDS, both in the media and in the general public, are quietly and literally killing us.

It is vital that younger generations understand the history of the HIV/AIDS movement -- how dire things really were in the early 1980s, how progress was made, and what remains to be done. "The Normal Heart" dramatizes history in a way that creates a visceral connection to the early days of the AIDS epidemic in America. It is sure to inspire today's youth to get involved just as it did 25 years ago.

Aside from being a beautiful performance of a milestone play, this new production of The Normal Heart is a potent reminder of where we've been and where we need to go in the fight against AIDS. This is achieved with the help of a truly extraordinary cast. Ellen Barkin brings all of the magnetism, commitment, and courage she has displayed in her film roles to the Broadway stage. Joe Mantello gives a performance that transports the audience to another time and place. Under the co-direction of George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, this production powerfully connects theatergoers to the boiling cauldron of issues that emerged at the onset of the AIDS crisis and that continue to challenge us today.

On behalf of all those who are deeply committed to reducing stigma and reversing the AIDS epidemic in the US and around the world, I am profoundly grateful to Larry Kramer and the producers of The Normal Heart for bringing this important work back to the stage. I encourage everyone to see and support this courageous play.

 
 
 

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