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Review & Interview: "A New Day: Honoring 40 Years of HIV/AIDS—'Love Letters to Those We Lost.'"

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

By Elizabeth Gracen:

The Lineage Performing Arts Center is my ultimate “mother place”—a familiar creative home that welcomes one and all to experience and participate in the theatre, music, and dance that reverberates within its walls. The original productions created by Hilary Thomas and her many collaborators always, without exception, enrich my life when I attend a performance. I had participated as an actor at the new LPAC venue at 920 E. Mountain Street in Pasadena, CA, shortly after the pandemic loosened its grip to allow for tightly protocoled theatre attendance, but I had yet to sit as an audience member and enjoy a show until this past week. What a treat to see familiar faces on the stage and meet the new, talented performers who are now part of the Lineage family in LPAC’s newest production, A New Day: Honoring 40 Years of HIV/AIDS—"Love Letters to Those We Lost."

You may be thinking that a show about AIDS would be a complete downer, but you’d be wrong about this powerful production. From the opening bars of Janet Jackson’s hit song “Together Again,” sung by the extraordinarily talented Jana Souza, a flicker of friendly nostalgia pulls you back in time and eases you into an important part of this country’s history when the idea of a “Reagan Democrat” was such a thing and MTV was all the rave. It was a time when women pursued authority positions in the workplace and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice to sit on the Supreme Court. Cats was on Broadway, and shoulder pads, the power suit, big hair, and disco were all the rage, . . . and another insidious virus swept over the land.

A New Day gives voice to the real-life stories of performers and professionals who faced this crisis head-on. You meet frustrated physician Dr. Don Thomas, played with grounded intensity by Paul Siemens, as he watches the heroic battles of the many gay men he meets in the ER in 1980s Pasadena, CA. Years later, he witnesses the impact of the disease in the village of Malawi as they succumb to the disease and later benefit from the life-saving cocktail of drugs that will save them. Broadway performer Dan McCoy, played with aching delicacy by actor/dancer Aidan Rawlinson, struggles with his diagnosis, revealing the personal aspirations and dreams of the many performers during that era. A vibrant, extremely effective multimedia presentation firmly cements the historical facts into the timeline of the story, and music and dance fill in the gaps when words simply won’t do.

American actor, writer, director, teacher, producer, and activist Michael Kearns experienced the AIDS epidemic firsthand and has lived to tell the tale. His 80s television interview projects on the back wall, introducing us to Kearns as a brave young man diagnosed with HIV, one of the first men to come out as a gay actor, drawing much-needed attention to the hard truths and sweeping discrimination he and others like him have experienced because of their diagnosis. When Kearns takes the stage to share his journey and what he has learned, it is a poignant high-point in the production, both moving and inspirational.

Dancer Austin Roy, the Lineage Dancers, the music of Alan Geirer and Barbara Mullens-Geirer, and the extraordinary cast of actors, both young and old, stitch the big-picture story together, leading us through the truth of the times just like the ever-growing AIDS Memorial Quilt that was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987 and has now accumulated more than 50,000 panels to serve as an inspiring memorial to those who have died of the disease.

A hearty "well done" to Theresa Kennedy for her excellent curation of the Jeanne and Cliff Benson Family Art Gallery installation at Lineage that features the exhibit "Love and Loss in Words and Pictures." Not only does the exhibit further educate about the show and the topic, it is masterfully displayed with care and imagination.

A New Day is an extraordinary production, with the proceeds from ticket sales donated to the Phil Simon Clinic in Pasadena, a multidisciplinary facility providing comprehensive medical and psychosocial care for persons infected with HIV. There is one performance left on August 11 @ 7 p.m. If you are in the area and want an extraordinary night of theatre, please go see this important production.

I reached out to my friend and collaborator Hilary Thomas to talk about her incredible production, A New Day.

Photo: Brain Elerding

EG: Having just seen the performance, I want to congratulate you and the cast on a terrific show. As with all Lineage Performing Arts productions, it was moving, informational, and inspiring. There is something about the nostalgia of the 80s that seduces you from the very start of the show—even though the subject addresses the terrible history of one of the world’s most horrific epidemics: HIV/AIDS. And then you are struck with just how familiar and current the idea of a virus run rampant feels in our lives. Can you tell our readers a little bit about the production and what they can expect to experience seeing it?

HT: Well, now that we have performed it, I can answer that question a lot better than I ever could have in the creation process, because honestly the creation of this project happened about 80% in my mind. I added each little component until the very last week when we brought it together, because there are 15 different people in this show, and it's a series of vignettes all inspired by connections I've made throughout this research process.

I’ve interviewed people from everywhere about their experience with HIV and AIDs—from my own father, who was an ER physician in the early eighties to Ida Puliwa and Ted Puliwa, who are in Malawi. I also spoke with my own students, who are really just learning about all of this for the first time. Of course Michael Kerns has been an incredible force behind this project. I met him early on when we did a workshop, and we kind of fell in love right away. He has been such a supportive person in this process, always assuring me that whatever I am piecing together right now is important and needs to be heard. That is something I needed to hear along the way.

The show is a series of vignette stories. The dance and music are inspired by these stories. It’s all pieced together with some education, including some of my student’s research as well.

EG: Since I have firsthand experience with how quickly you and Lineage can take a kernel of an idea, germinate it, and bring it to life onstage, I’m curious about the process on A New Day. How did that begin? Did it unfold and develop organically into the current production, or was it something that was meticulously planned?

HT: It started with Peggy Burt, who has been part of Lineage forever. Peggy lost her very good friend Dan McCoy in the eighties to HIV, and she felt that it was time to tell his story as well as the story of that time in general. She came to me and asked if it was something I might take on. That was a year ago, maybe. I have to admit it has been something that's really been haunting me for a long time, because I just couldn't figure out how to tell the story. There's so much of it. There's so many facets. You can go down so many different paths. And yet here I was collecting voices and really wanting to make sure I had a diverse enough set of voices and that I was representing an entire pandemic properly. That was hard because it was a lot of pressure, but once I started working with people, one on one and started testing little ideas and hearing more stories, as it so often happens at Lineage, it just started to click in this beautiful way.

Photo: Brian Elerding

EG: One of the most surprising realizations I had as I watched the show was that what happened to gay men, and anyone who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 80s, is now simply a historical reference to most people—especially young people. This show truly lifts up that part of the historical timeline and examines the emotionally complex, interwoven horrors of the disease and the incredibly harsh discrimination that was foisted upon those diagnosed with HIV by the U.S. government and most of the population of our country. Seeing the younger cast members, Lucas Stanton and Marco Tacandong, narrate the show and take us through the history and facts, step-by-step, was so important. It connected the history of the disease to where we are now. How and why did you decide to include these young actors in such important roles?

HT: I am a seventh-grade life science teacher, and I teach all about human sexuality. We address HIV, of course. What has been surprising to me in recent years is how much the younger generation just does not understand how devastating HIV was, yet they are incredibly woke, young students who are happy to talk about varying pronouns, about gender, about identities. They have so much maturity and understanding and confidence and empathy, and it seemed to me that so much of what happened in those early eighties, especially with HIV and with young gay men in particular—people like Michael Kearns—kind of paved the way for what ended up happening later in terms of this revolution of sexuality and identity. That was something that was really special to see because I’m a sex-education teacher, and it felt like it was a part of my own voice that I could add to this show.

So, I’m able to speak about what my students learn and what their experiences of HIV are at this point and how different it is from what my experiences of HIV was their age. When it was a new, mysterious virus, I was totally terrified. I also just felt like these young actors who can speak about such mature and intellectual topics are incredibly compelling to watch.

EG: In the written program for the show, you talk about how influential Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent was to you in sparking a deeper interest in HIV and its devastating effects. If our readers are familiar with any of the articles you’ve written for Flapper Press, they know that this musical has touched your life in profound ways and continues to inspire you. Why has Rent struck a chord in regard to HIV/AIDS in your life and in the world in general?

HT: I mean, Rent was the very first time that anyone had ever included HIV-positive characters in a show on Broadway. And that to me was compelling enough, just in terms of being so groundbreaking. At the same time I always love the deep, dark, tragic shows, and this was definitely that. HIV just happened to be the tragedy in this particular show. It was just something that for me was really key. Rent was such a part of my life as I was developing my own identity. It was the background score for that. It all kind of gets woven in.


EG: There are so many talented performers in this production who embody the amazing true stories of people who had and still have a direct connection with HIV/AIDS and its history. Can you talk a little about the players, their stories, and their performances?

HT: The number of ridiculously talented people involved with this show is kind of a reflection of where Lineage is now. We have this group of beautiful players, singers, actors, storytellers, dancers. I wanted to bring in as diverse a crew of different ages and different perspectives as possible. Together we have learned so much about history from these stories. I think that has been really powerful.

EG: As an artist, you are motivated by the human experience and how to bring it to life through music, dance, and theatre. In particular, you are a fearless adventurer in terms of “going deep” into the more challenging aspects of what it is like to deal with physical and mental adversity. I’m sure I’ve asked you a version of this question before, but here I go again: why are you compelled to deal with these subjects? What do you hope to accomplish with a show like A New Day? What do you hope that people will come away with from seeing this wonderful production?

HT: You know, I don’t know what I was hoping to accomplish with this show. As an artist, it's necessary for me to address important issues even if they are painful. I have learned that there is a lot of unprocessed grief related to AIDS. Also there are so many parallels between what happened with HIV and what happened with COVID. Certainly now with monkeypox, we seem to be repeating history—that’s a crazy situation. So, we need to learn from history and really understand it. Education was really at the heart of what I wanted to do with this, but also to connect with others and to give people an opportunity to process. I think that processing through art is the most powerful way we can do it—and connecting with one another through these stories. It's just been amazing how many people have come to this show and recognized people on the gallery wall or discovered that their friends were mentioned in the show. It’s a wild and very small world.

I hope to accomplish more connection amongst humans, more empathy, more understanding, more deep thinking. I think that we need to learn how to talk deeply with one another. That's what I keep seeing amongst a very multi-generational cast, and I really like that.


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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