The seminal Larry Kramer play The Normal Heartwhich focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City in the early 1980s, through the perspective of the character Ned Weeksis the subject of a reading that will take place Saturday, Dec. 4.
This reading will be revolutionary in at least two ways. It will be virtual and it will feature a cast that is predominantly BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+; participants include Sterling K. Brown, Laverne Cox, Daniel Newman, Guillermo Diaz, Jeremy Pope and Jake Borelli, among others. (Also, Martin Sheen will read the W.H. Auden poem "September 1, 1939," from which Kramer obtained the play's title.)
Paris Barclaythe famed Black, out gay director who is a trailblazer himselfhelmed this reading, which actually took place earlier this year. He talked with Windy City Times about the play, Kramer and activism.
Windy City Times: Talk to me about the genesis of this project.
Paris Barclay: Well, it began with the ONE Archives Foundation. [Board Secretary] Chiedu [Egbuniwe] reached out to meI didn't know himand asked, "Would you ever be interested in doing a reading of The Normal Heart? We're getting the rights to it, and I think it's something that would be good for you."
I get a lot of requests to do different things from a lot of different organizations, but I do love The Normal Heart and I saw the off-Broadway production with Brad Davis back in the day, so I knew the play very well. So I said, "What the hell? I can do a full-time job as a producer and director of a network television show and pull together a reading on Zoom. I'll just reach out to people I know; it'll be easy." Of course, it proved to be anything but.
It was exhausting but, in the final week, it came together in a way that I think is quite beautiful and extraordinary.
WCT: And this took place in May, correct?
PB: Yes. We had been working on it for a few months before then. We started on ideas on who we wanted for our cast. We had a commitment to cast people other than what you may have seen in other productions; we wanted to choose people who were the essence of their character, regardless of gender or colorjust find the right people for the parts. So Sterling became the first person we cast, and we built the cast around him.
WCT: So the goal wasn't to have a cast that's BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+? It just unfolded that way?
PB: Well, I think we had that in mind, but we thought it best to cast the people who best related the essence of their characters. And we leaned into the fact that we'd do it differently than it had been done. We could've made the rule that, in , we'd only have gay people play gay characters, white people play white characters, and Jewish people play characters who were scripted as Jewishbut the future seems to be about casting people who are the essence of the characters.
So we built the cast out to be even more diverse and more interesting in our choices, while maintaining the essence of the characterslike Laverne being the essence of Emma Bruckner, or Sterling being the essence of Ned Weeks.
WCT: I'm sure there will be someone on social media who will say, "Why even have this reading? Why have this 'reboot?'"to which you would say…
PB: "Where have you been for the last year and a half? You would then notice that there's been a reboot of the AIDS pandemic with the coronavirus."
We're seeing a disease that's affecting everyone and people of color are being disproportionately affected. Many of the themes we see in The Normal Heart are repeating themselves, on a huge scale. So we thought not only would we present this piece of history to a new generation, but it's also relevant to today's world because we're still fighting the powers that beand a year and a half into the pandemic, we haven't really succeeded. Let's keep shouting, and let's use Ned Weeks' voice to keep shouting and to make it louder.
People will see the '80s and the AIDS crisis when they see this play, but there is still the same thing happening nowand there aren't enough Ned [Weekses] around, shouting about it. There are just people trolling.
WCT: As a journalist, I'm usually required to be objective. As a director, you can be an activist. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of that?
PB: That's such a good question that I've never been asked before. Well, the advantages are clear. I have an audience, although it may not be a huge one. I have people who follow me on Twitter; people I've worked with in the past; and people who recognize my name and my work. I have been the president of the largest union of all directors.
So there are people who know my voice means something. It would be a shame if I don't use it for the things that I think would help change the world for the better. If I don't use it for a positive good, I feel like I would be wasting my life. If I were to just stay quiet, with any influence at all, I would personally feel that I cheated myself and other people. I've worked with HIV and AIDS organizations for a long timeI've worked with Project Angel Foodand the thing is that you've got to help.
You're a human being, and other human beings are suffering. [Some] say, "I just want to make sure my groceries are paid for." That is not a decision I can stand by.
WCT: And the disadvantages?
PB:Some people won't like you. Some people will criticize you and say you should stick to your wheelhouse: directing. They will say you should direct episodes of Glee long after Glee has gone off the air. I say, "I can do thatand, even doing that, I want that to change the world, too." With Glee, a lot of people found themselves in those kids, and they found role models; they also saw that love and tolerance can actually work. So I would say that, yes, I get heat and people tell me to stick to doing what I do. But if you think I should not be saving lives, you are welcome to think that.
WCT: Did you ever meet Larry Kramer?
PB: I did. I met Larry several times. At one point, I was actually attached to direct the movie, back in the early 2000s. The rights had been bought by Anthony Edwards [best known for his role on the TV show ER] and his producing partner Dante Di Loreto, and it was going to be an independent film. So I went to New York and met [Kramer]and I had seen him in ACT UP meetings, and I obviously knew his story because I had been in New York at the time all this happened. Eventually, it didn't get made, and it wasn't made until Ryan Murphy did it [with his 2014 movie], but it wasn't for lack of trying; we met with actors and tried to cast the movie. So I had a little bit of history with it back in the day.
WCT: Windy City Times has been doing an "HIV at 40' series this year. I've heard from different people that Larry Kramer had plenty of vitriol, but that he could be generous as well.
PB: I saw the vitriol and public display, but I never felt that Larry Kramer's anger was unjustified. That's my feeling.
I thought his anger and vitriol [were] our own inner truth. I did not feel that there was a much ego involved as some people thought. I was in the same pain he was inand when you're in that kind of pain, you want to scream. People didn't understand and asked why he was screaming. I knew why he was screaming.
So, the public Larry Kramer, the letter-writing Larry Kramer was brutalbut it all came out of a broken heart. It all came from the pain and anguish of seeing something he thought could be prevented from happening over and over again. I'm on the pro-Larry side; it was about what was required.
WCT: Are you surprised there hasn't been an AIDS vaccine?
PB: I'm a little surprisedespecially after the speed at which a coronavirus vaccine was created. There's something a little mysterious about that. I don't know why, scientifically, that hasn't happened.
WCT: Ultimately, what do you want people to take away from this reading?
PB: Ultimately, I want people to start doing things. I want people to stop expecting me and others to tilt at windmills; I think we should all be activists when injustice goes on. I hope it empowers kids to say, "Wow. Look at that story, and look at what happened when nothing happened. People didn't listen to them to say, 'I'm going to be the change.'" I do see, with this new generation, a greater openness but less fear of the establishment. I'm hoping this wakes people upespecially young gay men and womento the fact that their voices are needed [regarding] the issues they care about.
The virtual reading will take place Saturday, Dec. 4, at 2 and 7 p.m., accompanied by a brand-new Q&A. See www.onearchives.org/normalheart/ .