Friday, July 6, 2012

Remembering Friends: “Creativity and Crisis” – Day 2

Names Performers
The weather has certainly affected the crowds at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival.

It bothered me to see such small audiences in the Red Hot tent when the Names Performers sang their hearts out. They were very, very good, and their rendition of “Rainbow Connection” made me tear up. Many people seemed to find the performances by accident, drawn by the music as they walked around the tent. But once there, they stayed, and applauded enthusiastically.

The performers came from Atlanta and Chicago, some from Northwestern University, lured not just by the opportunity to be paid for their efforts, but to be part of something that is important to them all. Their director, David Bell, has been involved with the Names Project (creators of the Quilt) for many years. But it was special to me to see these actor/singer/musicians, much younger than David or I, commit to this grueling schedule.

The first presentation I attended was a panel discussion on the first tours of the Quilt, in the US and internationally. I found myself nodding my head often, when a comment would trigger a memory for me, or when I just understood the experiences of those four people who had been with the Quilt nearly since Day 1.

It was a terrific and fast 45 minutes. But as they were making their closing remarks, Michael Bongiorni admitted to residual anger at America “for letting my friends die”. And although he qualified it, admitting that he no longer felt that kind of blanket condemnation, it got my attention.

Afterwards, I approached Michael about those remarks, and we sat in a shady spot for a good half hour. He was gracious – bringing me a cup of cold water before we began – and generous with his time and experiences. We talked about grieving our friends – especially those who died at a time when they were condemned by most of society – and we talked about anger (his, mine and the community’s).

I realized later that that’s what was missing for me the rest of the day: anger. There’s a complacency about AIDS: hey, just get the drug cocktail and you’ll be fine. It’s no longer feared. That’s a good news/bad news story.

Anger is what I remember most from the 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t pretty and but it was effective. Anger fueled the gay community and those who supported them. Anger birthed ACT-UP, AIDS-service organizations and led to increased awareness and funding.

Tomorrow I plan to get to the Mall early enough to help unfold the Quilt for the day’s viewing. More from sweltering DC after that.

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