"The Normal Heart" and other Fall Productions
So sorry we have been off the map for a little while. Both of us had our fall productions in November, and as all arts teachers know, production time equals no time or energy for much else! There have been lots of things going on though, including some great theatre I’ve had the opportunity to see and bring students to…
The Denver Center Theatre Company and Broadway series have done some particularly powerful productions this fall. I was able to bring students to see Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” a true story about the refugee parents of the dynamic playwright of “She Kills Monsters.” My students loved this show’s humor, action and emotional impact. I also brought my high school classes to see the all-black production of “Oklahoma!” which relocated the story to an all-black town in Oklahoma in 1906 (did you know that those existed?) This was a highly entertaining production and we were able to participate in a very thought-provoking talk-back session afterwards.
Through our Broadway subscription series, Judd and I were able to attend the highly- anticipated “Dear Evan Hansen,” which very much lived up to its expectations. I loved the music and the technical aspects, however I will say that some elements of the story were a bit problematic to me (another blog post-worthy discussion). We also most recently got to see “Come From Away,” which told a very compelling and true story about a group of passengers from different parts of the world landing on the small island of Newfoundland on September 11th. The story was so interesting and heartwarming! Why don’t more people know about this incredible act of hospitality and kindness? Both shows proved to be entertaining and were strong beginnings to our season.
While these shows were all notable, I wanted to dedicate most of this blog post to the Denver School of the Arts’ (DSA) production of “The Normal Heart” which I took students to see last week. I received an invitation from DSA to their student daytime production as a part of a larger outreach initiative to participate and educate our students about HIV/AIDS, the central theme of the play. I knew relatively nothing about Larry Kramer’s piece, written in 1985, but had an instinct this would be an important play to take students to see. I was able to collect a group of my drama students as well as students from my school’s GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) to take to the performance.
When we arrived at DSA, there were volunteers from local non-profit organizations who engaged students in pre-show information and activities around educating them about HIV & AIDS. These volunteers also stayed after the production for a panel discussion and answered questions from the students. For those who have not read or seen this play or 2014 film, stop what you are doing right now, grab a box of tissues, and do it. The play covers the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the 1980s through the eyes of a very passionate group of young gay men who’s friends and lovers are quickly being taken away by the disease, and the main character will stop at nothing to make the powers that be aware of the crisis. Not only is this piece highly informative (they inserted powerful facts and figures onto the set at each transition) but it is gut-wrenchingly emotional. The audience becomes attached to these characters, and it is heartbreaking to see what they go through, not just in the way they are ignored by their pleas to get support in their efforts to bring awareness, but also as you hear stories and see how AIDS is affecting their lives and loved ones.
The students’ performances were phenomenal. Their bravery to present this content and to emotional wander into such a grim headspace was comparable to professional actors. I am always blown away by the work that the students do at DSA, but this play in particular displayed some serious commitment to the story and the roles they played. There were beautiful dance vignettes between each scene that depicted the ‘dead and dying’ and each of these got more and more raw and emotional as the story progressed. I was so impressed and moved by the acting I was brought to tears multiple times! And when I watched the film version this past weekend after seeing the play, I was honestly less impressed by the emotion in the film than I was with the live performance. It was deeply moved by this piece and have been thinking about it every since.
As Judd shared, we were fortunate (and crazy) enough to drive up to Wyoming on Friday to serve as judges for the students’ devised competition pieces. After many of the performances we watched, I challenged the students to think about these productions they had created as ‘calls to action,’ to change the minds and move the people in the audience to think about something in a different way. Each of the pieces I’ve attended this fall, but particularly “The Normal Heart” have done that to me. And this is a great testament to the progress that Denver theatre is making in its efforts to diversify, to challenge and to dissent. I am excited and moved to be sitting in audience seats where others beside me are thinking about things in a new way because of the theatre they are seeing. It’s a great direction to be going, and I hope that schools continue to be as bold and as brave as DSA was able to be with this piece.