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On Stage: adventures of the world's first AIDS celebrity

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As a gay journalist living in San Francisco in the 1980s, Randy Shilts could have written a book on the AIDS crisis from a very subjective viewpoint, with himself as a central character and his reactions to the deaths of his young friends as the focus of his story.

But Shilts doesn't generally go in for first-person journalism. "I think people tend to overdo it," says the 1969 graduate of West Aurora Senior High School. "Basically, I don't feel I'm that interesting. The information is what's interesting."

So when Shilts wrote And the Band Played On, he was startled to find that he had become what one friend at the World Health Organization dubbed "the world's first AIDS celebrity." The book, published in the fall of 1987, is the definitive account of the first five years of the AIDS epidemic--a stinging indictment of the American medical, political, and media establishments for allowing the epidemic to spread to devastating proportions. Working the radio and TV talk-show circuit to promote the book and, he hoped, get out the word about AIDS, Shilts found himself dogged by autograph seekers, cruised by star fuckers, and harassed by homophobes, all drawn by his overnight media fame.

"It was a very jarring experience," says Shilts, who first began covering the AIDS epidemic as an openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Writing about AIDS was such a solitary experience in the early years, often very alienating. Nobody really wanted to hear it. Now everybody wants to shake your hand."

In response, Shilts broke his own rule against first-person journalism and wrote "Talking AIDS to Death," a moving personal essay that's now the partial source of Shouts and Whispers, a program of one-act plays opening next week at Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park.

"I wrote it entirely for myself, thinking it may just read like madness," Shilts recalls. "I wanted to do it just for personal therapy. I wrote it and sent it off to Esquire, but if they'd called and said, 'This is terrible, we can't print it,' I'd have understood."

Published in the magazine's March 1989 issue, "Talking AIDS to Death" is alternately satiric and despairing, detailing the anger and anguish Shilts felt as he encountered seemingly endless permutations of bigotry and ignorance from talk-show hosts, call-in questioners, even well-meaning socialites at gala fund-raisers. Juxtaposed with Shilts's experiences is the gradual death of an AIDS-afflicted friend, and at the core of the essay is Shilts's increasingly difficult attempt to maintain self-control in the face of questions like, "What if a gay waiter took my salad back into the kitchen and ejaculated into my salad dressing? Couldn't I get AIDS then?"

Playwright James Sie of Lifeline Theatre discovered "Talking AIDS to Death" in the book Best American Essays: 1990. The theater was planning to stage a one-act play called The Way We Live Now, based on a short story by Susan Sontag, and Sie wanted a companion piece to round out the evening. The Shilts essay "was very funny and very moving," says Sie. "Where Sontag's story is a more universal look at people's reactions to the disease, Shilts is coming from a very specific and informed perspective. And his story telling technique is so theatrical it was perfect." Lifeline's production, directed by Steve Scott, has a single actor, Steve Totland, delivering the piece as a sort of lecture-cum-confession. (The Sontag piece, adapted for the stage by Edward Parone and previously presented at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, features a cast of five under Gregg Mierow's direction.)

The Shilts-Sontag double bill has been in the works at Lifeline since last summer; it's sheer coincidence that it opens fairly soon after basketball player Magic Johnson's announcement of his HIV-positive status, which has made him America's latest (and straightest) "AIDS celebrity." But Sie sees inevitable parallels between Johnson's situation and the one faced by Shilts, whose essay reflects the painfully diminishing hope that the information he presented in his public appearances could stimulate positive change in the government's response to the AIDS crisis. "This will die down too," Sie says of Johnson's high profile as an AIDS spokesman. "You get your time in the spotlight, then it gets shifted elsewhere. The Johnson hoopla heightened awareness, especially in the straight community, and that's good. But on a government level and a journalistic level, it's not going to generate much change. It sells papers, and that's the only thing they care about."

And Shilts, who's anticipating an HBO television film of And the Band Played On and is currently writing a history of homosexuals in the armed forces, confesses that "I'm sort of despairing over everything these days. Part of me is someone from Aurora, Illinois, who's very midwestern and very optimistic. But I've begun to really seriously question how much people do care. It's not just AIDS. When you look at homelessness, or our refusal to pay high school teachers a decent wage or provide health care--people are increasingly ready to step over the bodies on the sidewalk. When they vote, they vote for the guy who says he'll cut their taxes without regard to the rest of society. I think there's a lot of goodness out there that can be tapped. But I don't know if it's enough to solve the problems."

Shouts and Whispers: Talking AIDS to Death and The Way We Live Now is currently in previews at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood; it opens this Tuesday, February 11, at 7:30 PM for a run through March 15. Show time is 8 PM Thursdays through Saturdays and 3:30 PM Sundays, and tickets are $8-$15. For further info, call 761-4477 or see the Reader's Guide to Theater in section two.

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