Review: Play about New York AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s seeks to be relevant in PHL

October 19, 2015 9:22 am 

By Azer N. Parrocha

MANILA, Oct. 18 (PNA) –- When “The Normal Heart” by American playwright and activist Larry Kramer was first staged in 1985 Off-Broadway in New York and later won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, nobody knew that it would someday be staged in the Philippines.

Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play tells the story of a man and his loved ones’ response to the rising human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic in New York before the disease had a name and before its patients received support from the government.

The play’s protagonist, Ned Weeks, is a gay writer and activist who co-founded an HIV advocacy group. Conflicts escalated when he and his associates disagreed on how to raise awareness and receive funding for an unidentified disease which seems to be killing off a specific population — gay men.

Weeks struggles to convince his associates, his brother, and even his lover, to go by his aggressive strategies to meet their goal. However, he is backed by his doctor friend and polio survivor, Dr. Emma Brookner who pushed him to put his big mouth to good use.

With this story so well-written, that begs a question: Why would local theater company The Necessary Theater bother staging the same play about a 1980s New York HIV epidemic in 2015 Philippines?

New York in 1981 is so much like the Philippines in 2015,” The Normal Heart director Bart Guingona said during a press preview at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

Guingona, who also plays the role of Weeks, said that while he did not expect the production to be well received by the Philippine audience, he said that what mattered more to him was the message that he wanted to deliver.

“One of the most important messages (in the play) is that our health is a political issue and there are people who are engaged in it,” Guingona said. “Some are engaged because they have no choice—they’re in it.”

“These are the people living with the disease, the people fighting every day to get recognition, to get funding, to get people to realize that they are not pariah or lepers,” he added.

Guingona stressed that the play isn't just a story of sick people fighting for health care. It also captures a sense of hope, not just in HIV patients' struggle, but that any person, is fighting for a cause.

One review in a daily broadsheet described Ned Weeks as the Antonio Luna of the gay rights movement simply because like Luna, Weeks was not likable but admirable for his burning desire to get things done.

Theater veteran Red Concepcion, who plays four different supporting roles, said that since the play had such a timely message, it was a big responsibility for actors to be able to deliver.

“Personally, what I want to leave (the audience) with—whether or not you like the play—you get out of this theater and make a point to be more informed on the state of HIV cases in the Philippines,” Concepcion said.

“I hope that at least some of us here find in our hearts to do something and most just talk about it,” he further said.

TV and first-time stage actor TJ Trinidad said that he did not think twice about accepting the role of Bruce Niles, the president of HIV advocacy group he co-founded with Weeks, because of the mere fact stating the quick increase in the number of HIV cases.

“When I was asked to do this role, a message still needs to be spread around. Purely it’s not getting any better,” Trinidad said.

“We just need to do our part. I think the first step is to get yourself tested. That’s probably the most difficult thing,” he added.

Data from the Department of Health (DOH) showed that from January to August this year, HIV cases in the Philippines reached 5,209, a 33 percent increase compared to the 3,908 recorded in the same period last year.

Out of the 5,209 cases, 319 cases developed into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There were also 178 deaths recorded. With this, the DOH encouraged Filipinos belonging in high-risk populations to get tested.

The Normal Heart was re-staged on Oct. 2 to 11 after its first and limited run in the Philippines last July 3 to 5 which starred Bart Guingona, Roselyn Perez, Topper Fabregas, TJ Trinidad, Richard Cunanan, Jef Flores, Nor Domingo and Red Concepcion.(PNA)



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