During the 20th anniversary performance of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, history echoed through the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College. For many, it was a vivid recreation of the love, laughter and loss they had witnessed first-hand. For others, the evening shared a history written before they were born.The landmark show triumphantly returned to a New York stage on May 20, 2013 as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Sero Project, this time re-imagined from a one-man show into a play featuring an all-star ensemble of actors.
The sold-out evening, produced by Broadway Cares, raised an impressive $66,025 for BC/EFA and Sero Project, which works to combat HIV-related stigma, particularly focused on ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV while advocating for sound public health and HIV prevention policies.
Actor and activist David Drake wrote The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me in the early 1990s. After joining the activist group ACT UP, Drake began writing autobiographical monologues about his feelings and experiences relating to the AIDS crisis. Those monolgues eventually became his show about this critical moment in American history and gay culture. Drake’s gripping performance earned him an Obie Award and the show became one of the longest-running one-man shows Off-Broadway.
The 20th anniversary edition of the play, directed by Robert La Fosse, explored the same personal stories as the original, opening with Drake recounting the night of his sixth birthday – the night of the Stonewall riots in New York City. But it was what he saw that night on the stage of the Baltimore County Community Theater that made a bigger impression on the boy: West Side Story. He was soon joined in the story, called “The Birthday Triptych,” by Chad Ryan and Brandon Cordeiro. The three became a rhythmic Greek chorus, alternating lines and sharing memorable experiences from Drake’s romantic 16th birthday – an evening with an older man, a 17 year old, to whom he ultimately confessed his attraction to men. A 17 year old who gloriously, he found out, shared the same attraction.
The triptych led to Drake’s 22nd birthday. That was the night he saw Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, an experience that reached deep into his core and stayed with him for weeks and years; an evening that he would always remember as “the night Larry Kramer kissed me.”
Rory O’Malley followed with “Owed to the Village People,” an innocent portrayal of an 8-year-old boy during his nightly prayers. While the boy unabashedly shared his excitement about dolls and fascination with the “new” musical group Village People, there was a clear undercurrent of a young man already facing bullies and bigotry and the insecurities they bring.
A sweaty and sexually charged gym became the scene for the next story. Robin De Jesús, Claybourne Elder, Wesley Taylor and Aaron Tone offered unique, humorous perspectives on “Why I Go to the Gym,” while working out in tight gym shorts and T-shirts. The scene explored the dichotomy of gyms: a stereotypically heterosexual, hyper-masculine hangout mixed with gay men whose eyes roam and exchange knowing glances while preparing their physical defenses for the bigotry they face outside.
From the gym, Drake shifted the action to a late-night club crawl for love – and whatever else came his way. A spoken-word piece backed with original music by Steve Sandberg, “12” Single” featured Drake as a stream-of-consciousness DJ narrating his way through the night as dancer Donald C. Shorter Jr embodied the evening’s every encounter through movement.
In “A Thousand Points of Light,” André De Shields, Anthony Rapp and BD Wong, later joined by the full cast, gather at a candlelight vigil to longingly remember the stories and struggles of friends and lovers. “We vigil / We meet / In the night / With the night / As the night that hovers with those who went / And they carry us, our dead … I honor you / I love you / I light this light for you.”
The stage was awash in tiny lights with each actor carrying a glowing candle. Leading toward a reverent silence, they said in hushed voices: “For somewhere / in a moment of stillness / in a moment of semblance / in a moment … we’ll meet.”
For his final story, “… and The Way We Were,” Drake updated his original script to provide a perspective on the AIDS and gay rights movements from the year 2021. On the eve of nationwide marriage equality, Drake warned us from the future that the march forward won’t be easy. But ultimately, gay families will walk hand-in-hand down any street, in cities large and small, Drake said, “without restrictions, condemnation or closets. But with the freedom to love that we got…when we took. You know, the truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
The 20th anniversary performance was a moving, exhilarating success, said Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Under Robert’s superb direction, the brilliant ensemble cast joined David in an explosive re-working of what had been a landmark solo work,” he said. “We were so proud to be a part of this evening, celebrating the present, remembering the heartbreak and still committed to a better future.”
Sean Strub, executive director of Sero Project, added: “The message so eloquently conveyed in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is needed today even more so than before. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Sero Project are fighting HIV-related stigma, discrimination and criminalization, and working to ensure that vital, life-affirming, and, in many cases, life-saving services are available to those who need them.”
Strub and Viola produced The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me when it first premiered Off-Broadway in June 1992.
In the two decades since its debut, treatments for saving lives have advanced. Yet, HIV-related stigma has, sadly, increased.
“The treatment for stigma isn’t found at a pharmacy,” Viola said. “It is accomplished by empowering the stigmatized, educating the public and providing a path to justice for all.”
Photos by Monica Simoes