Image source: Automatic Pilot.

Every day, for the past few months, I awake with the words from a play I saw thirty years ago echoing in the morning silence. That summer of 1986, when I had just turned 16, I played Rosalie in a production of The Children’s Hour at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama reimagines a libel case in Scotland where a child accused her female teachers of having “an inordinate affection” for each other. The language is creaky and mannered, the scenes melodramatic. But it concerns, at its heart, the toxic power of lies.

Upstairs, in the main theater with its red velvet seats, the other girls and I who played the young students ran our lines and learned the blocking. During rehearsal breaks, we wandered the halls and stared at the black and white glossies of the people who had worked at the theater since it opened. Most of the people in the photographs were in their 20s and 30s, with enough energy and hope to do theater for next to nothing.

One day, as we looked at the gallery, a woman came up behind us. She was angry. Perhaps we had been laughing? “You see these people?” She snapped, tapping her finger on one of the photographs, “Half of them are dead.”

The AIDS epidemic had been raging for five years, and it was in the news almost every day. Some San Francisco Chronicle headlines from those months: “Outlook for AIDS – Huge Toll, High Cost,” “AIDS Victim’s Family Sues S.F. Blood Bank,” “Talk of a Discovery That Could Lead To an AIDS Vaccine,” “Straight Women in S.F. Have AIDS,” “Blood of Alleged Cop-Biter Forcibly Drawn for AIDS Test.” Theatre Rhinoceros advertised itself as “San Francisco Queer Live Theatre.” Allan Estes, cofounder and artistic director, had died of AIDS two years before. Most cast and crew didn’t talk about it directly, at least not to us, but some must have been infected, or feared they were. Underneath discussions of dimmer checks and publicity shoots ran a black current of grief.

* * *

In the basement, in a room where we had practiced our lines, another show unfurled. The audience sat on metal folding chairs on a cement ledge. The scenes were lit by hardware store clip-on lights. On this bare floor, actors in jeans and T-shirts performed Unfinished Business, The New AIDS Show.

As the other girls and I watched through a gap above the last row of seats, scenes flashed by: a nurse of Ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital, the AIDS ward, exhausted by watching her patients die; a mother, only able to reconcile herself with her son’s homosexuality at his funeral; a slumber party where the men reminisced about the joys of fluid exchange. The skits seesawed from humor to sadness to outrage. In one monologue, a man with a wave of blonde hair remembered that when his roommate’s toenails started to fall out, he was so distressed he asked God to take him instead. The sick friend said, “You don’t mean that,” and he replied, “You’re right.”

Then, to God: “Take Nancy Reagan.”

The show was liquid, changing every night. And we kept coming back. Watching these scenes, crouched hidden, kneeling in my thin school uniform, was like stumbling into an electric fence in the dark. The writers felt for possible endings when no one knew what might happen. The fourth wall seemed painfully thin, permeable in places. The simple set and street clothes underscored that the actors and audience were just a handful of people in a room, trying to figure things out. And, though I loved the rich costumes and bright sets of The Children’s Hour upstairs, it was clear to me that this was what theater was for.

The New AIDS Show was a revision of an earlier play, commissioned for Theatre Rhinoceros by Estes. According to Darren Blaney, writing in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Estes imagined the original play, The AIDS Show, as street theater to be performed at the Gay Pride Parade and the Democratic National Convention. He didn’t live to see the opening. The first version, a collaboratively written cabaret by a group who called themselves AIDS (“Artists Involved with Death and Survival”) opened in 1984. The incarnation I saw, directed by Leland Moss and Doug Holsclaw, had been running for a year, still drawing audiences to the tiny basement space.

In one scene, Moss, fit and balding with a mustache, stood alone on the stage with a bench and a phone. The character had moved from New York to San Francisco and, in a sequence of monologues spanning several years, made calls to a friend back home. He began by exulting over California’s freedoms, and ended with the story of how he let a sick 27-year-old, who had been kicked out of his apartment, move in with him: “You are the first person I have talked to about this,” he said into the receiver. Then, enraged, voice bouncing off the basement walls, “Because nobody wants to hear, that’s why.”

And nobody did. Though 11,932 people died of AIDS in 1986, and unknown numbers were infected, the federal government responded painfully slowly. Funding for research was stingy, and for public health outreach and education almost non-existent. President Reagan himself barely mentioned the epidemic and remained silent while senators like Jesse Helms demonized those who were sick (in language so vile I won’t even quote it). In the face of such willful ignorance, the play must have felt like a life raft in a hurricane.

In Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, she writes, “It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.” Like the activists Solnit writes about, the actors in Unfinished Business couldn’t anticipate they would be part of larger artistic movement that included the AIDS quilt and Angels in America, that would force the country to pay attention and pay for the needed research.

I recently watched a VHS tape of a documentary about The New AIDS Show, filmed a few months after The Children’s Hour closed. In an interview, Moss talked about the play’s purpose: “This is an emergency, and how I behave now is what I will remember long after I die. And so… AIDS it not affecting me in a negative way. It’s a litmus test and maybe some people are not currently passing that test. But you see, that’s what the play is for.”

An obituary from the New York Times was taped inside the plastic case: “Leland Moss, 41, The Theater Director of The AIDS Show.” And the date, “January, 27, 1990.” I heard his words again as I tucked the tape back inside: “How I behave now is what I will remember long after I die.” And again, every morning. And then I get up.

Kim Todd

Kim Todd is the author of Sparrow (Reaktion Books), Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (Harcourt), and Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America (W.W. Norton). Her essay “Curious” appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015

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