A DANCE AGAINST DARKNESS
Afternoon Fine Arts League
at Reflections Theatre
The AIDS epidemic was rather late in hitting Chicago in full force, compared to its impact on other major cities--the result, mainly, of this not being an international seaport. Chicagoans were hearing about AIDS, both in the news and through creative arts efforts, before most of us felt we were living through it. Certainly in local theater we've seen numerous plays on the subject, both home grown .(beginning with Jeff Hagedorn's flawed but pioneering One, the first known "AIDS play") and imported (Larry Kramer's off-Broadway drama The Normal Heart and the San Francisco revue Unfinished Business, among others).
Now comes A Dance Against Darkness, originally produced a year ago in Washington, D.C., by the DC Cabaret troupe. As it happens, Dance arrives here at the same time as a huge upsurge in local AIDS cases--75 reported in May, a one-month record.
Given the lingering attitude of denial and avoidance that even now surrounds the epidemic--an attitude that allows people who should know better to brand concerned awareness as paranoia--one is inclined to support any show that makes an honest effort to stimulate greater understanding of the illness, especially its human dimensions. Still, that support can only go so far unless it is matched by an artistically compelling reason to see the show.
In the case of A Dance Against Darkness, that reason is music. A cross between a revue and a book musical, Dance showcases a collection of intelligent, appealing, well-written, and extremely well sung songs. Written primarily by composer Roy Barber and lyricist Bari Biern, with additional contributions by Paula Burns, these tunes have a strong impact on their own, apart from their context; the best of them, such as the moody, Ned Rorem-influenced "I Went" (based on a poem by Constantin Cavafy) and the wistful yet rousing ballad "I Wish You Had Known Him Then," speak on a universal level to issues of love and loss that affect us all. The score is well served in the current production by a company of honest, interesting singers--Fred Anzevino, Nanette Brown, Paula Burns, Chuck Munro, Rhomeyn Johnson, and especially the gutsy Valarie Tekosky--and by the skillful musical direction of pianist Bob Dale.
The script, however, is riddled with problems, despite--and in part because of--the authors' good intentions. Based on a collection of interviews, conducted by Fred Anzevino, Roy Barber, and Paula Burns, with more than 40 AIDS patients and their friends, family, and care givers, Bari Biern's text tries to present a wide spectrum of experience associated with AIDS, and in so doing reduces what should be intriguingly individual stories to numbingly generic narratives. The slim plot revolves around a group of AIDS patients living together in a group residence: David, a 26-year-old, white, middle-class gay man; Sheryl, a white prostitute; Janice, a black IV drug user who has given up dope for Jesus; and Andre, also black, also a drug shooter (though he may have contracted AIDS from a female prostitute). We watch as these people cope with their fear, pride, and shame in encounter groups led by Michael, a white gay man volunteering as counselor and "buddy" to people with AIDS.
We watch as a procession of experiences are paraded before us: Andre's initial reluctance to live in an AIDS residence with "a bunch of faggots"; Sheryl's defiant, vengeful refusal to give up turning tricks; Janice's embrace of Christian love over fire-and-brimstone moralism; David's rejection by his parents for being gay; and the hopeful but doomed romantic bond that develops between David and Michael. We watch, but we never believe; these characters and their concerns, though drawn from reality, never rise above TV-movie stereotypes.
Worse, A Dance Against Darkness perpetuates some very pernicious myths surrounding AIDS. One is that the disease's gay victims are white and its black victims IV drug users; this falsehood reinforces the already inhibited discussion of homosexuality in the black community, which makes AIDS education efforts in that community even more difficult. (In point of fact, in Chicago about 80 percent of AIDS cases in black adult males were traced to homosexual infection.)
Another myth is the response of religion to the AIDS crisis. One of the show's most vivid, but most wrongheaded, sequences is a gospel-style number in which Janice is ostracized by her church congregation because of her illness. In fact, after some initial reluctance, organized religion has led the way in calling for compassionate and forthright outreach to people with AIDS. No mention is made of that here; the religious issue is presented as a conflict between Janice's individual conscience and institutional bigotry. We are long past the point (if we were ever there at all) where AIDS can be discussed on the stage in such simplistic and divisive ways.