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Quilt--A Musical Celebration

Dolphinback Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Quilt--A Musical Celebration, subtitled "Stories for, from and about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt," is exactly what you'd expect it to be: a patchwork of musical eulogies to people who've died of AIDS, with a few poignant monologues functioning as bridges between songs. Its aim is to "put a face on AIDS," to tell the stories of almost three dozen people from all walks of life who fell to the plague and were subsequently honored by family, friends, and lovers in handmade quilt panels. While the quilt, now 45,000 panels and 15 city blocks huge, makes a searing public statement about the magnitude of the epidemic in the United States, the show attempts to personalize AIDS, describing its immediate impact on just a handful of people. True to the history of mainstream American theater, it favors the personal over the collective.

Like the quilt, the show has a familiar, homespun feel. It's an utterly straightforward, almost makeshift evening of theater, with a stream of characters filing past us one or two at a time, primarily to recount memories of a charismatic uncle, a misunderstood son, a longed-for lover. Some seethe with anger--at the person who died too soon, at governmental institutions that betrayed the public trust, at a society all too willing to dismiss people with AIDS. Others celebrate joyous moments spent with dear ones now departed. Most do both. Michael Stockler's score is pure middle-of-the-road musical-theater fare; Jim Morgan's lyrics depict individual lives in broad, easily accessible strokes: and the book--by Morgan, Merle Hubbard, and John Schak--eschews craft in favor of naive candor.

Nothing here is particularly innovative, challenging, or surprising. Occasional vulgarity and sexual innuendo aside, the show has the feel of 30-year-old dinner theater. But aesthetics are almost beside the point. The makers of Quilt seem less interested in creating a work of art than in declaring their good intentions. Like the box-office hit Philadelphia or Randy Shilts's best-selling book And the Band Played On, Quilt aims to reinforce our imaginary social divisions, separating the tolerant from the intolerant, the heroes from the villains, the good from the bad. It's always clear where our sympathies should lie--with the young woman who insists that it doesn't matter how her sister became infected, but not with the young man who can't bring himself to visit his brother in the hospital. Corrective instruction is often confused with drama; once the skittish brother overcomes his fear and gets involved with the struggle to fight AIDS he's allowed back into the fold--but not before admonishing everyone in the audience to follow his example. And the fundamentalist Ohio mother who insists that her son was neither gay nor killed by AIDS is reduced to a cartoon. When she said she found comfort knowing that she alone was right, the openning-night audience laughed; she's dismissed out of hand while we congratulate ourselves on our open-mindedness.

Missing from the show is ambivalence and thus humanity. Characters become generic mouthpieces for the fundamental articles of liberal faith. I can't agree more with what they have to say, and their message of tolerance and understanding may be revelatory to some. But considering the type of audience most likely drawn to a piece of theater like this, Quilt comes dangerously close to preaching to the choir.

Much of the show is quite touching. A 12-year-old girl singing a letter she writes to her deceased gay uncle, telling him that she'll always stand behind him, is exquisite. But as a whole, Quilt seems calculated to tug at the heartstrings like the boyhood home movies tacked on to the end of Philadelphia. The performers direct all their energies into feeling everything deeply, yet few are strong enough actors to find a genuine, unforced commitment to their material. Instead they seem more concerned about working up the "correct" emotions to underline the text. Often the performers beam radiantly while recounting happy memories of departed friends, only to turn instantly somber the moment the memories become unpleasant. It's as though they don't know the ends of their own stories, but simply want to display the emotions they describe and produce collateral emotions in the audience. At such moments the show becomes purely manipulative.

In transforming the public spectacle of the NAMES Project to private emotional journeys, Quilt constructs AIDS as just a series of personal tragedies. According to the show, meaningful change happens on an individual level, through personal epiphanies and changes of heart; it's in personal knowledge rather than in community knowledge that one finds truth. This reinforces the peculiarly American distrust of collective action, yet only collective action, informed by community knowledge, can challenge the racist, sexist, and homophobic public institutions that help create an environment that makes it easier for HIV to spread.

For all its forthright earnestness, Quilt ultimately seems smug and complacent, content to espouse sentiments with which few in the audience could disagree. It wraps itself in an air of self-righteousness, continually patting itself on the back for speaking the "truth" about AIDS, when there are many truths, most much more complicated than those articulated here. In a program note director Ray Gabica (who pulled out of the production a week before its originally scheduled opening) writes, "I'd like to praise you, the audience, for your presence here tonight," as though we've all done something commendable in attending the show. This kind of rhetoric merely reinforces the notion that AIDS is scandalous, dirty, and embarrassing, something nice middle-class audiences wouldn't want to have put before them.

I suppose coming together to be moved has a purpose. A public grieving ceremony, which the NAMES Project invites and Quilt merely imitates, is an important part of our culture's healing process. And God knows there's no end of things to get upset about when it comes to AIDS. Before and after the show, company members encourage the audience to volunteer with local AIDS service organizations; if seeing this show spurs people to action then it may serve a social good (though after 16 years and a few million deaths worldwide I question whether an evening of bathetic theater can move many to sustained action).

Given the enormously complicated challenges before us as a society we don't necessarily need more theater that makes us feel; we need more theater that makes us think. Without passionate, critical analysis, which most contemporary "AIDS art" sorely lacks, it's easy to confuse those things that make us feel better with those things that might ultimately bring this epidemic to an end.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Quilt-A Musical Celebration photo.

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