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Quilt: a musical celebration and a timely reminder
The Civic’s production helps commemorate the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana, and shows how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in the fight against AIDS
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
For nearly three decades now, HIV/AIDS had been such a prevalent national and global health issue that many people under 40 might find the sort of fear and paranoia that surrounded the disease when it first began to creep into the national consciousness back in the early/mid 80s hard to believe.
The first to feel the brunt of the disease was the gay community, but as it became apparent that HIV/AIDS was an equal opportunity killer, that someone could become infected through, for example, blood transfusions, there seemed no limit to how far the disease could spread. Based on the rate of infection two decades ago, health experts predicted an epidemic that would devastate the United States. And before the general public fully understood HIV/AIDS, discrimination was rampant, with perhaps one of the most famous cases being that of Kokomo, Indiana native Ryan White, a hemophiliac who was expelled from school after becoming infected due to a contaminated blood treatment.
The Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s “Off Main” production of Quilt: A Musical Celebration, serves as both a sort of history of HIV/AIDS and attitudes surrounding it, and as a poignant glimpse into the lives of people who have lost someone to the disease.
Quilt, which begins its run on Saturday, October 2, at the Allen County Public Library, also kicks off the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana. According to the organization’s mission statement, the AIDS Task Force formed in 1985 with the mission of helping to improve the quality of life for men, women, and children with HIV and AIDS, to educate the community in order to decrease the incidence of HIV and STD infection, and to increase public's understanding of and compassionate response to HIV and AIDS. It’s the oldest AIDS Service Organization in Indiana and serves 11 counties in northeast area. It provides case management services for over 350 HIV- positive individuals and offers prevention education programming to more than 8,000 residents annually.
To commemorate its 25th anniversary, the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana is collaborating with local arts and education organizations for a seven-month series of art, theatre, music, and education events. Among events to be undertaken during the period are plays, visual art exhibits, film, dance performances, lectures, panel discussions, and choral and instrumental music.
Quilt, the stage production is based on the AIDS Memorial Quilt (its full name is actually the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt), the enormous quilt made as a memorial to the people who have died of AIDS-related causes. It was conceived by San Francisco activist Cleve Jones in 1985. During a march, he asked participants to write on individual placards the name of friends and loved ones who had died of an AIDS related illness. These cards were then taped to the wall of San Francisco’s federal building. The result looked like a patchwork quilt, and in 1987, Jones and others founded the NAMES Project Foundation.
The Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington in October of 1987. Then, it covered a football field and included over 1,900 panels — each panel is 3' by 6' and assembled into eight 12' by 12' sections, called "blocks." Over 20 years later, the Quilt features more than 40,000 panels and weighs an estimated 54 tons.
Quilt: A Musical Celebration began its life some time in the late 80s, not too long after the Quilt itself, and similar to the object that inspired it, Quilt features a series of snapshots of lives effected by AIDS. “It’s different vignettes or monologues or songs of individuals and families talking about people they’ve lost to AIDS, and the many different ways AIDS is contracted,” says Becky Niccum, who directs the Civic’s production. “It has stories of how someone has lost someone because of transplants, or blood transfusions, and hate crimes because of the fear that surrounded the disease.”
The different stories in Quilt include a straight rapper — a womanizer — who sees the name of his first conquest on the Quilt; parents whose gay son is beaten by thugs; and an Southern farmer who doesn’t understand where or how his son became infected.
Niccum, who has directed plays such as Once Upon A Mattress, Annie, and The Odd Couple for the Civic, admits that Quilt is a big departure from her usual work, both structurally and thematically. “It’s going to be a very emotional night for anyone who sees the show, because a lot of people have lost someone they know and love,” she says. “But it’s also saying, with the Quilt, that these people aren’t gone. Their voices are heard and they’re still very much with us.”
“I really felt strong about the piece. I fell in love with it,” she adds. “I believe it has a wonderful message, that we need to just love each other and not condemn somebody because of their beliefs or who they are.”
Quilt isn’t all grim; there are moments of hope and humor in the stories, with a couple of the characters who appear in several of the pieces — Wes Cronk (played by Kim Detwiler) and the somewhat naïve Karen (played by Aimee Lackey) — giving the production its laughs.
Still, some of the vignettes in Quilt hail from the time they were written, terrible stories from the mid/late 80s when no one really had a grip on the disease and weren’t educated about it. But Greg Manifold, Executive Director of the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana, says that an audience in 2009 can still learn a lot about the issue by seeing the way things were two decades ago. “One of the chief motivating factors in wanting to do this 25th anniversary commemoration was ‘let’s make every effort to get the word out of what the world is like now,’ and one of the ways to do that is have people go back and look at what it was 25 years ago,” he says. “I think beginning a conversation about the difference between then and now, and the progress and the losses that have occurred and the achievements that have happened, is a very valuable part of this.”
Manifold adds that he’s been doing a project with some of the founders of the AIDS Task Force, conducting interviews and collecting stories from 25 years ago. “The thing that I’ve heard again and again is that when they were getting all this started, there was so much fear that they had to deal with,” Manifold says. “Well, I listen to that, and I know it’s true, and I can look ahead to today and say ‘okay, that has dissipated.’ There isn’t really the fear in the air, there’s more knowledge, people know the facts — at least a great many people do — so that sense of fear and the unknown isn’t there.”
“But when I look back 25 years at some of the prejudice and discrimination that happened to people who had HIV and AIDS, I can’t say as confidently say that that has dissipated. It’s still around. So yes, there has been tremendous progress in the past 25 years. Medically we know so much more, socially I think there’s a greater level of acceptance, but somewhere in there, there’s still this absolute need to keep the confidentiality of our clients so that they’re not subject to losing their jobs, losing their homes. That’s too bad that that’s still true. But it is still true.”
One of the other things that Manifold says that the AIDS Task Force has to contend with is a certain lack of urgency about HIV/AIDS. Coincidentally, one of the lead stories in the news on the day I interviewed Manifold was of an experimental HIV vaccine developed by scientists in Thailand that reduces the possibility of infection by about 30%. I asked Manifold if news like this makes the job of the AIDS Task Force more difficult. “You never know,” he responds. “I think if the news is properly digested and people read the details of it… The scientists are saying it reduces the likelihood of infection by 31%. Well, even the scientists say this is highly encouraging, but it’s no where near what a vaccine ought to do. So, as long as people read that and think ‘wow, great step forward, but this is not the end of this process. It is not a vaccine that eliminates infection…’ Maybe it’ll keep going, and maybe it’ll run into a dead end. You never know.”
It’s actually these sorts of advances in the last two decades that, ironically, have lead to the perception of HIV/AIDS as a manageable disease. Widespread education, plus the development of treatments in the mid-90s, meant that that overwhelming epidemic that was predicted 20 years ago never happened — not in the U.S. at least. “Certainly, it’s changed from the sense of urgency it had 25 or 20 years ago,” Manifold says. “Part of that was the introduction of new medications in the mid-90s that really changed the landscape, so you didn’t read day after day and week after week of people dying of AIDS-related diseases. So that urgency isn’t there anymore, unless you look at the world’s situation, because you have these burgeoning numbers that are simply overwhelming countries around the world.” Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, as of 2007 an estimated 33 million people were living with HIV, with two thirds of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa.
And of course HIV/AIDS is still with us in the United States. The Center for Disease Control says there has been a dramatic decline of HIV infections since the mid-80s, when the rate of infection was around 130,000 per year. In 2006, the CDC estimated the number of new infections at around 56,300, with an estimated 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS. But about a quarter of these people don’t know they have it, putting others at risk.
The disease isn’t the only thing that’s still with us — some of the prejudice and discrimination from earlier times still linger. The AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana encounters it on a regular basis, like landlords who won’t rent to an HIV-positive person because they think AIDS is going to somehow be transferred through living in the apartment. “I can’t understand how people allow that lack of knowledge and that prejudice to still effect their decision-making process,” Manifold says. “That startles me and surprises me… and truly saddens me, too.”
This lingering ignorance, as well as the rates of infection cited by the CDC, are why the stories in Quilt are still relevant in 2009, despite all the medical breakthroughs of the past 10 –15 years. “I don’t think anyone is going to come out of Quilt and say ‘oh, so that’s the way the world is today.’ I would hope not anyway,” says Manifold. “We do not ever want to turn our backs on what happened 25 years ago; that’s part of our history as an agency and part of our history as a community. But I think the beauty is, we can look it square in the face, admit what happened, admit the ignorance that was there and the terrible suffering and neglect that happened, all of those things, and then move your way through to today, and say ‘okay, what of that is still left, what do we still have to solve, and what have we got rid of along the way?’”
“The arts have a way of being able to lift up life experience that lets us really get into the heart of something and examine it, and that’s what excites me about all these arts events going on, whether they’re from the 80s or they’re from 2009, they still give us a chance to get a new perspective.”
For more information on the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana and the events planned to commemorated the organization’s 25th anniversary, visit aidsfortwayne.org.
The Fort Wayne Civic Theater “Off Main” presents Quilt: A Musical Celebration
Friday, October 2 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, October 3 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, October 4 at 2:00 PM
Thursday, October 8 at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 9 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, October 10 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, October 11 at 2:00 PM
Thursday, October 15 at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 16 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, October 17 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, October 18 at 2:00 PM
Allen County Public Library
900 Library Plaza
Tickets: $17/adults; $10/age 23 and under; $14/Sunday Senior Matinee
Box Office: 424-5220