As AIDS activists mark thirty years since the first report of AIDS, the play “The Normal Heart” is enjoying a successful run on Broadway. It’s been nominated — along with “Arcadia,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “The Merchant of Venice” — for a 2011 Tony Award® for best play revival.
“The Normal Heart” is described by its creators as “the story of a city in denial,” unfolding “as a tight-knit group of friends refuses to let doctors, politicians and the press bury the truth of an unspoken epidemic behind a wall of silence.”
The play was written by Larry Kramer, and performed Off-Broadway in 1985 and 2004. This revival is directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe.
Like many in the Valley, I was mindful today of the many lives taken and affected by AIDS. According to a June 3 story from Reuters, the disease has “infected more than 60 million people and claimed nearly 30 million lives.”
But my thoughts turned as well to families affected by autism spectrum disorder, as I attended a benefit performance of a play titled “Like Everyone Else” — a joint venture of Phoenix Theatre, Arizona School for the Arts and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.
On either side of the stage, tall and narrow nooks looked like blackboards — each covered with dozens of colorful chalk words and images. Math problems. Movie slogans. Drawings of animals. Scientific formulas.
They hinted at the diverse but uber-focused interests of people living with autism, a theme mirrored in much of the play’s dialogue.
The work opens as three individuals living with autism share a bit about their unique struggles. But soon a loud chorus of voices on stage conveys a single message: “Everyone is special in their own way.” And a young woman says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
“Like Everyone Else” gives voice to the concerns, hopes, challenges and dreams of children and adults living with autism spectrum disorders — plus those of parents and siblings. Even friends, teachers and various community members.
A girl argues with her sister. A boy engages his brother in a lightsaber duel. A young man looks for a job. A young woman longs to leave home and live on her own. A SARRC professional helps with various services and supports, and the audience enjoys a filmed tour of the Center.
During one vignette, a young woman in a white labcoat stands in front of a white screen showing a picture of the human brain. She gives a brief but comprehensive overview of autism spectrum disorders, sharing common characteristics of people with autism and noting that 1 in 110 people fall somewhere along the spectrum.
The remarkable use of props and noise elevate the work to a truly rare blend of education and entertainment. Under Xanthia Walker’s direction, the work is warm and humorous rather than preachy. We get it, but leave the theater feeling like we’ve just been handed the most beautiful gift rather than a piece of social commentary.
I spoke with ASA head of school Leah Fregulia-Roberts after the show. She’s grateful that students from ASA’s Theatre for Social Change class had the opportunity to work with SARRC youth. “This must have been a life-changing experience,” reflects Fregulia-Roberts.
Laura Apperson, ASA arts director, hopes to secure funding for future collaborations tackling additional issues facing youth. I suggested depression, of course, since it’s my job to advocate for my own kids — and because experts cite its prevalence at 1 in 10 youth.
She’d also love to see “Like Everyone Else” performed again and again, to raise awareness throughout the community — and to continue showcasing the talents of the remarkable cast and creative team who put it all together. I suspect Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, agrees.
“It’s amazing,” says Harper, “what can happen when people come together and try to understand each other.”
Note: Click here for information from the folks of “The Normal Heart” about how you can “get involved.”
Coming up: “Annie” tales, Tony® meets AriZoni, From Sondheim to South Park