Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, currently playing to raves on Broadway, portrays the AIDS experience of the early-to-mid 1980s. Rent won numerous Tonys for depicting the ravages of AIDS a few years after the disease entered the national consciousness.
“We don’t see a lot of contemporary HIV depictions,” says Alex Garner, describing part of the impetus for his play, The Infection Monologues. “We don’t see people feeling empowered and confident, saying they’re HIV-positive and proud of it.”
The show, playing on Saturday and Sunday night at Los Angeles’s Renberg Theatre, highlights five stories of men — played by actors — living with HIV in the 21st-century. Written by Garner and Eric Rofes in 2005, the monologues are loosely based on their own experiences with the disease.
Rofes worked as a sociologist at Arcata, Calif.’s Humboldt University before he passed away in 2006 from a heart attack — not long after he and friend Garner wrote the piece. Rofes, who was HIV-negative, conducted interviews with positive people as research. The characters run the gamut age-wise and race-wise and include a 30-something, ostensibly HIV-negative, man who just ended a relationship with a positive partner, and another man who lost his husband to AIDS in the 1980s and discovers, at the age of 50, that he himself has contracted HIV.
“From [Rofes'] research, we created these various characters,” Garner says. “One of the characters is loosely based on my own personal experience.”
Garner, an L.A.-based actor and writer, was infected 15 years ago at the age of 23. Testing positive in 1996 was still a very frightening experience, he says.
“I got HIV right before protease inhibitors happened, so I had this unique experience of straddling the fence in terms of the epidemic,” Garner says. “I received my diagnosis when you still thought you could die in 10 years. Then protease happened and the whole world changed overnight.”
Fifteen years later, and 30 years after the first diagnosed case of AIDS, the disease has changed, but not disappeared, even though media coverage of it mostly has. Garner says it was important that The Infection Monologues not be heavy and maudlin, as the disease is often no longer fatal. “There’s a lot of comedy in it,” Garner says of his play.
It’s often bemoaned by health experts how young people have grown complacent and don’t take the disease seriously, but Garner says it’s a gift that they don’t have to worry about dying anymore.
“I don’t want people to be traumatized like we were,” Garner says. “So the fact that they aren’t is a good thing — they don’t have to endure that fear and anxiety the rest of us had to go through.”
The Infection Monologues, a fundraiser for the The Wall las Memorias project and the Lambda Literary Foundation plays June 4 and 5 at 7 p.m. Pacific, with a reception at 6 p.m. both nights. Visit LAGayCenter.org/BoxOffice to purchase tickets.