Monday, December 01, 2008

"A Day Without Art"

A couple of weeks ago, at the Chicago rally protesting the passing of Prop 8, one of the speakers kept saying over and over...

"This has gone viral!"

And I thought to myself, "The last time we all got together like this, that word meant something completely different than it does today."

It's strange to me that the word "viral" is now more closely associated with the quick and effective passing of information than it is the deadly and horrific spreading of a virus that took the lives of so many of my friends from college and my early 20's.

Months ago, I read names at a small presentation of AIDS Quilt panels being displayed in the gymnasium of Chicago's brand new Center on Halsted. I hadn't seen The Quilt in quite a few years, and it struck me that there were very few, if any, panels showing men or women who had died from AIDS complications after the year 1996.

I know that protease inhibitors were made available to people living with HIV/AIDS in 1996, so the sharp decline in AIDS deaths after that year isn't what struck me. What I kept thinking about as I looked at the dates on these Quilt panels was - - if these beautiful men, women and children had just been able to hold on a little longer, they might still be with us today.

My good friend and mentor, Lemmie Smith, died at the end of 1993 and the world would be so much brighter today if Lemmie had held on just a few more years. Theatre and drag performance art would be turned on its ear by Lemmie and his Theatrical Empress drag alter ego, Miss Silva Lamé!

And if Mark Campbell had held on until 1996, the catchphrase "Oh, my Hell!" would be worldwide, and not just something my friends from college and I say to bring back the joyous spirit of that funny, handsome man.

I say "Oh, my Hell!" every now and then without even thinking, and it always makes me think of Mark. And I can't step onto a stage without thinking of Lemmie and all that he taught me about performing, about life. There isn't a thing that I have done in or around a stage that doesn't have its roots in the basic ideas about performing that Lemmie shared with me.

And because of that, I can't help but think about how the world would be different if Lemmie and Mark were still here. If 27 years ago, AIDS had received the same media and government attention that a tainted batch of spinach receives today. If AIDS had never happened.

Would gays and lesbians have the right to marry by now? Would we as a community be further out of or sunken into The Closet? I don't know. But I can tell you this...

The world would be a lot brighter with Mark's humor making everyone laugh and with his handsome face smiling at everyone. Theatre would be artistically richer and drag would be much more fabulous with Lemmie commanding regional theatre and gay bar stages.

Maybe that's why World AIDS Day was originally "A Day Without Art," to remind us of just how much we've lost.

Tonight, during the Chicago AIDS Quilt Songbook, I'm going to do just the opposite - - I'm going to remember Mark by bringing his humor onto the stage. And I'm going to remember Lemmie by channeling as much of Silva Lamé's theatrical fierceness as I can.

But that's not how either one of them would want me to celebrate their life.

They wouldn't want me singing for them; they would want me to go to a gay bar, drink a little, dance a lot, tip a drag queen and scream at the hot go-go boy who still has his shirt on to...

"Strip you motherfucker, strip!"

Or as the button on the backpack of a cute, young gay boy at the Prop 8 rally said...

"Fuck Art, Let's Dance!"


Java said...

Oh, honey, this is so touching. Go out there tonight and SHINE! Then come back and tell us all about it.

Joie Mayfield said...

I loved this post. I teared up reading it. :( You are a blessed soul, Stephen Rader.

Project Christopher said...

This was such a great post. My coworker thought something was wrong as tears rolled down my face.
I know MY life would be different now had HIV/AIDS been approached differently way back when.
Two things that kill me today (no pun intended) are:
-the people who don't worry about protecting themselves because HIV/AIDS is a "manageable disease". Yeah? So's Cancer... wanna go drink up a bucket of that?
-The very fine line between urging people to protect themselves and further marginalizing those with HIV and making them feel more like a leper.

Of course I could go on with the list-o-things that bug me about all this, but that would detract from your loving post. Is that how you met these two fine men? Were you the one they were shouting "Strip, you motherfucker, Strip!" at?

Kevin said...

I'm sure you will be amazing. You clearly are already.