Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is being given a new production at the Union Theatre in London. As an AIDS cannon play, it is one of the most important and successful too.
“It really is one of those rare pieces that lets us celebrate, mourn, let go, laugh, cry and smile all at the same time – all through monologues and songs inspired by real stories.” director Bryan Hodgson enthuses.
Originally entitled The Quilt, the piece was developed with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and additional text by Bill Russell in the late 1980s at the height of AIDS deaths in the USA.
“I began writing first-person free-verse monologues about friends who’d died from AIDS. Early in that process I thought there were theatrical possibilities in the material” writer Bill Russell wrote in the 1980s.
The monologues are inspired by The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which was first unveiled in Washington D.C in 1987. It was an enormous quilt made up of 1,920 individual panels, each panel bearing the name of somebody who had died from AIDS. Devoted friends, lovers and family members, had created a piece of memory art reflecting the personality of the lost and celebrating their lives.
“Two worlds were present on stage, the dead who spoke in verse and the living who sang. I found the dynamic between the two realms intriguing and became more focused on trying to show a canvas of the many types both infected and affected by AIDS.” writer Bill Russell continues.
The show was a smash hit in NYC and London during those pre-medication hopeless days and had a number of high profile productions. It became a vigil and a place where could focus so much loss and where it could be contained for too many of us. When I first saw it I cried along with most the audience; we were given a momentarily reprieve from staying silent because there was nothing left to say. We swore we will never forget.
“The cast discovered early on during rehearsals that the songs loosely act as a manifestation of the stages of grief, so allowing the music to act as a journey for this mourner led us to discover a very new journey through the different chapters of the piece.” explains Hodgson.
The idea for the quilt was conceived by AIDS activist Cleve Jones. He was initially inspired by a candlelit memorial to Harvey Milk where people wrote the names of loved ones on signs and taped them to the San Francisco Federal building.
“We must celebrate the lives of the people who went through this horrific epidemic, the scientists fighting for a cure, the activists who fought for equal rights to life-saving drugs, the thousands of volunteer nurses, the bravery of the families and friends who cared for their loved ones without need of thanks or acknowledgement, and the countless hidden heroes.” Hodgson reminds us.
For many today the sting has left HIV but we must not forget that fifty percent of 35 million people living with HIV worldwide do not access life saving medication. No one needs to create AIDS quilts today but new ones are made worldwide each and every day.
In viewing Elegies today, we will remember that AIDS historically is about injustice which continues to this day. We need to know that over a third of HIV positive Americans are un-medicated. They are also likely to die; they have not become undetectable and are still able to pass on HIV to others. People of Colour and Women are the most affected by AIDS today – 52% of new infections are seen in young women between 15-24 years old. Meanwhile in India all 2.1 million positive people there receive free medication from the government.
It is a shame on us all how little we remember our past traumatic histories that we do so little.
Thus it is fitting that a new production of an American classic show is being mounted at this time when there is a willingness to remember so much loss and grief – we needed time to understand for many of us who lived through it. It also serves as a bridge between AIDS then and U=U now in a time of PrEP and PEP. Elegies allows us to remember so much today.
In the UK we still do not have a National AIDS Memorial, this adds to the tragedy of the how we as gay men are viewed as unequal but more how we ourselves see our own lives and our own histories. I confess I have a vested interest as lead the #AIDSMemoryUK Campaign to put right this cruel oversight. I am ashamed that so many gay men just do not care today. We forgot and betrayed those we promised we will never forget yet we demand to be treated equally.
Elegies is a celebration of lives lost to AIDS told in free-verse monologues with a blues, jazz, and rock score by a huge accomplished cast of 16, each of whom double up to make it a chorus of 32.