VCU investigates the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis with a Staged Reading Series
I love that VCU has a Humanities Research Center. Researching human behavior; asking the big questions; framing those big questions as they effect Richmond. Tough questions for tough topics: race, prejudice and gay rights.
This year the Center has devoted itself to inspiring conversations about the social history of HIV/AIDS .
Dr. Richard Godbeer is the Director of the VCU Humanities Research Center and his small, but hard working, staff organizes the multi-disciplinary array of live and filmed events which investigate, analyze and brainstorm solutions using every medium at their disposal, including Theatre.
Dr. Godbeer made contact with Interim Theatre Chair Ron Keller and Director of Graduate Studies Dr. Noreen C. Barnes. As it happened, in the 80’s Dr. Barnes was a member of the San Francisco based theatre group “Theatre Rhinoceros” which was the oldest gay and lesbian theatre company in the country. At “Rhino” some of the first and seminal HIV/AIDS plays were produced. This lucky coincidence informed Theatre VCU’s commitment to produce four staged readings.
Graduate Directing students were assigned. Casts were selected. Professor Keller reached out to the local theatre companies to serve as hosts for these events. Firehouse Theatre, Richmond Triangle Players and Virginia Rep all signed up.
Graduate student and wonderful actress Tyra Robinson (who I recently loved in For Colored Girls) was fortunate enough to be cast in three of the four staged readings. She has a special interest grounding her commitment to this project having spent time with a person who was suffering from this virus.
Her last performance was in Before it Hits Home, Cheryl L. West’s play about a black family surviving through their son’s crisis.
Playing the Mother, Ms. Robinson had to reconcile her own (as well as the Mother’s) strong religious faith against the medical needs of her flesh and blood. She admitted to being enriched by the experience but more than that she relished the opportunity to open up avenues of communication, which she believes is the strongest path to the solution of any problem.
The plays span the history of the epidemic. The first plays were realistic in nature. The problem was faced head on and accepted. After a decade or so, stylistic treatments opened the discussion using comedy, farce and absurdism, exploring the dark fringes only after the center was exposed.
Unfortunately, the first three of these VCU Staged Readings have already been performed. I am late to the party, but still glad I came.
As Is, written by William Hoffman and Directed by Alex Paul Burkart, concerns a Manhattan-based writer who falls victim to AIDS.
Virtually abandoned by friends and family, he is looked after by his gay lover, a photographer. The play wisely avoids editorial comment on the principals’ lifestyle, nor does it wallow in the tragedy of the situation.
In Mothers and Sons, written by Terrence McNally and Directed by Alexis Black, McNally is chronicling the revolutionary changes he has seen in the lives of gay Americans. The piece is, in essence, a debate play with fraught emotional underpinnings as a woman who lost her son to AIDS 20 years ago now visits her son’s partner, who is now married to a much younger man. The two attempt to reconcile.
Before it Hits Home, written by Cheryl L. West and Directed by Ian Watson, was actually staged in Richmond in 2013 as a co-production between the Richmond Triangle Players and the now defunct company, Sycamore Rogue. This was one of America’s first plays to dramatize the African-American family dealing with homosexuality and AIDS. This play symbolizes the life cycle — diagnosis and death — of the AIDS epidemic.
The Baddest of Boys, by Doug Holsclaw and directed by Brandon Sterrett is the last in the series and has yet to be seen. It will be performed at The Firehouse Theatre on April 19th and 20th at 7:30 p.m.
The Baddest of Boys deals with denial of the disease both within the communities directly affected by it and those who saw it from a distance. The play sits in the dark corners of farce. It deals candidly and irreverently with just about every taboo you could attach to its subject. The director’s note points out that “[w]hen the cures for AIDS were as bad as the disease, the public at large was willfully ignorant, and entire communities were in denial of their peril, Doug Holsclaw looked beyond the taboo and found humor. In humor, he helps us find the will to deal with things as they are.”
The Baddest of Boys will be presented on April 19 and 20th at the Firehouse Theatre, each performance beginning at 7:30.
Next school year Dr. Godbeer intends to deal with Gay Rights focusing on the 1974 rejection by the VCU Administration of the first gay organization’s attempt to be registered with the University.
The case made its way to the United States District Court in Richmond. The Gay Alliance of Students, an association of students at Virginia Commonwealth University, sued the Board of Visitors and certain administrative officers of VCU, seeking to obtain registration as a student organization and the attendant privileges of registration, which it alleged it was denied by the Administration.
Sounds like another fascinating subject.
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