No Day But Today: Theatre, Gay America, and the Theatrical Sanitation of AIDS 1985-1996


Prior to the AIDS plague, representation for the queer community was limited to the point of near nonexistence. After AIDS emerged in the queer community, invisibility persisted, but the urgency for representation intensified greatly. Between 1985 and 1996, there was an increase in the portrayal of people with AIDS, particularly in the four shows The Normal Heart (1985), Angels in America (1991), Falsettos (1992), and Rent (1996). These four works of theater were paramount in raising awareness for AIDS to the general, presumed straight audience. There was also an increase in AIDS-related performance art in less conventional venues centered in the queer community. 

In this paper I explore how each of these four theater works portrayed AIDS from the inside in the gay male community and how these portrayals both excluded the macro nature of AIDS in America, while opening up avenues that had not previously existed for talking about the epidemic in a personal, human way, at the same time that off-Broadway performance art centered in the queer community was overall more realistic and harsh in its portrayal of AIDS though it failed to reach a wide, mainstream audience or reach popular acclaim.

There are many things that The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Falsettos, and Rent completely miss as works depicting the AIDS crisis. Protagonists of color, queer women protagonists, and protagonists facing true poverty are missing from all of them. They present instead a more palatable portrayal of the AIDS crisis in the form of white gay men with some level of financial security, except for Rent which presents white straight men with some level of financial security. This mass misrepresentation of AIDS does not negate the value present in all of these works but it is erasure. It is indicative of an institutional problem in the medium when realistically representative work is not able to succeed on a mass scale. The theater-going audiences are presumed wealthy, white, and straight. The shows that found this mass success makes this sort of audience feel affirmed and validated, not necessarily challenged nor educated. The performance art was centered in the queer community at the center of the AIDS crisis, but it was because of its harsher, realistic portrayal of the crisis that it was unable to see mainstream acclaim. There is a balance of values in this dichotomy. The shows that saw mainstream acclaim were able to spread their message to a wider audience, and were therefore able to increase the visibility of AIDS. But that value is offset by the fact that the truth was sanitized to reach this wider audience. There is not inherent value in this wide acclaim when it is built on a false mask of the AIDS crisis that only confirms the preconceived notions of its audience.


The Normal Heart

Angels in America:



Off-Broadway Performance Art

John Bernd, photographed by Don Chiappinelli


1. Axton, Natalie. “Remembering and Reframing the Memory of a Choreographer Lost to AIDS”. 4 November 2016.

Axton’s article on John Bernd serves to explain his choreography and how it was inseparable from his battle with AIDS and his queer identity. I use it to contextualize John Bernd’s choreography and his history.

2. Brantley, Ben. “Rock Opera A La ‘Boheme’ And ‘Hair’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Feb. 1996,

A review for the New York Times analyzes Rent early in its run and gives insight into why it was such a cultural phenomenon, particularly regarding Jonathan Larson’s death. I use Brantley’s analysis to understand the massive success of Rent, in particular regarding the effect of Larson’s death on how the show was received and interpreted.

3. Finn, William. Falsettos, 1993.

4. France, David. How to Survive a Plague : the Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed Aids. 2016.

France’s book is an extremely comprehensive overview of the AIDS crisis through many different lenses. He addresses the situation personally, biologically, sociologically, politically, and artistically. I use France’s work to contextualize The Normal Heart and Larry Kramer’s participation in AIDS activism.

4. Houston-Jones, Ishmael. “Scenes From a Life: Ishmael Houston-Jones on John Bernd and Contemporary Dance”. 26 June 2018.

A modern choreographer comments on and analyzes the legacy of choreographer John Bernd. Houston-Jones elaborates on the connection between John Bernd’s having AIDS and his choreography that he created up until his death in 1988. Houston-Jones is also necessary in understanding the weight of the lost artistic potential caused by AIDS.

5. Kramer, Larry. The Normal Heart, 1985.

6. Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, 1991.

7. Larson, Jonathan. Rent, 1996.

8. Rich, Frank. “THEATER: ‘THE NORMAL HEART,’ BY LARRY KRAMER.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 1985,

A review of The Normal Heart contextualizes the show in the era of AIDS and addresses Kramer’s brash tone and overall dismissal of the queer community favorably. I use Rich’s analysis to show how straight people understood Kramer’s position in a way that was ultimately detrimental to the gay community.

9. Saunders, Dudley. Statement on “In These Boxes”.

10. Schulman, Sarah. Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. September 1998.

Sarah Schulman exposes the sinister nature of Rent, specifically relating to the plagiarism of her own work, and contextualizes it in the broader nature of AIDS-related theatre at the time. Schulman’s work is essential in understanding the phenomenon behind Rent and in exploring the lesser known works of theater in the PWA community, many of which have been lost.

Final Paper


Religiosity and Dystopia in Dirty Computer

Even if Dirty Computer never specifies the intricacies of sociopolitical identity in Janelle Monae’s created world, there is visually no question who holds and abuses power in an oppressive system. In “Pariah and Black Independent Cinema Today: A Roundtable Discussion” by Kara Keeling et al, the roundtable explores the portrayal of black queerness. Pariah addresses black queerness (and queer blackness) in a far more straightforward and realistic way. Neither method is more or less effective inherently, and oftentimes comparing media in an already underrepresented genre functions to impose unachievable expectations on any piece of media that endeavors to bring a new voice in. That said, using analysis of Pariah to examine Dirty Computer is, indeed, interesting. Jennifer DeClue says, “The visibility of black women attracted to one another in Pariah produces witnesses who see loving black lesbians who do not lose their blackness even though they may be threatened with losing their families”. We see this in Dirty Computer. The bond between Monae and Tessa Thompson feels tangible onscreen, even though neither one was explicitly out at the time of release. They aren’t threatened with losing their families in the traditional sense as explored in Pariah, but they are threatened with having their minds wiped and their personalities erased at the hands of an oppressive, totalitarian state.
Another common thread that we can apply to Dirty Computer is Pariah’s overarching religiosity. Religion is a primary antagonist in Pariah, because it is a primary antagonist in the real world. Religion has consistently been weaponized against marginalized identities. Dirty Computer has no recognizable religion, but the overtones are unmistakable. Towards the end of the film, Thompson’s character meets with a matriarchal figure called “Mother Victoria”, whose religious connotations cannot be missed. Mother Victoria also cuts her off immediately the second that she suggests she and Monae were in love. Mother Victoria shuts her down and Thompson chillingly obeys, “yes, Mother”. DeClue’s entry in the roundtable discussion also references the religious antagonism in Pariah and the representation of “pathological sexuality”. The “dirty” of “Dirty Computer”. In erasing Monae’s sexuality in the eyes of the church and state, one erases her entire being.
In Pariah and Dirty Computer, we see two very different stories of the intersection between queerness and blackness in a state where religious authoritarianism is rampant. In Monae’s dystopia, a religious institution tries to strip dissenters of their identities and repress any instinct that threatens their hierarchy, and it somehow doesn’t feel a whole lot different from the real world represented in Pariah.

The False Legacy of ACT UP and Video Remains

In the first paragraph of her article “Forgetting ACT UP”, Alex Juhasz promises that she “recalls 1980s AIDS activism with pride, history, [her] best candor, and stories of [their] amazing energy and grief”. The legacy of ACT UP is often remembered as one of cis gay white men, and of ones who came and went on the activism scene. Now, years later, long after the relevance of AIDS activism ceased, we can look back and lament the dead and push it all aside as conquered territory. Juhasz rightly complicates this image of ACT UP and AIDS activism in her article, asserting that the “street-based, postmodern, confrontational ACT UP activism got and gets most of the attention because it could and can and it wanted to”, with participants who were “more photogenic, wealthier, more powerful, and simply sexier in the eyes of dominant culture than the rag-tag group of feminists, lesbians, drug addicts, people of color, homeless people, poor people, immigrants, mothers, and Haitians who were also engaged in activism at this time”. The general public seemed to isolate the palatable aspects of ACT UP activism and group them as the legacy of the movement, while erasing some of the most foundational elements of the movement.

In the article, Juhasz alludes to her piece Video Remains, an exploration of the later years of the life of her friend, Jim, and the burden of survival. Video Remains shows a duality of Jim’s tragic death from AIDS in 1993 and the ongoing work against AIDS in 2004, when the film was finished. Juhasz describes her role of a survivor and witness as a “professional rememberer”, and describes the role as one where she “laments for the many missing voices, those who can no longer remind us of their actions and memories, those whose feelings are lost, those for whom we who are still here feel obligated and privileged not to forget”. The legacy of ACT UP, then, may be one of remembering.

To remember something or someone is to bring the dead back to life, if only for a brief, artificial moment. Video Remains remembers Jim as he was, for the moments the film is able to capture, but in truth it can only fall short of remembering his whole person, every aspect of who he was. Or is. The footage of Jim clings to his person, knowing it will have to be a record of remembering very soon. Even though the footage went untouched until 2004, it is already building a legacy, and knowing that the legacy it builds will be inadequate, as all legacies are.

The other half of Video Remains reminds us what the true legacy of ACT UP, and how the ways we consider its legacy are harmful. The footage taken in 2004 of people living with AIDS reminds us, as it is astonishingly easy to forget, that the fight did not end with die-ins, funeral processions in the streets, or Jim. There is nothing finished about ACT UP, not yet, and there is no function to a legacy of a living movement.

Video Remains is not a protest film in the traditional sense. Never had protest been so intimate and heart wrenching. Never had the voices of the dead been so heard. It reminds us of many things, of who the dead were before they became the dead, what a plague like AIDS did to a body, what genocide looks like from the inside, and most importantly that the fight is ongoing. The best way to remember ACT UP? Join in now, for ACT UP’s legacy is still being born.


The Agency of the Teenage Girl: Laurel Dallas and Betty Friedan

The Agency of the Teenage Girl: Laurel Dallas and Betty Friedan

In many ways, Stella Dallas seems like a film that respects and realizes the full complexities of womanhood in an aggressively patriarchal society. Our primary protagonist, Stella, is ambitious and independent from the beginning. She is young and poor with few opportunities, but she brings herself up through the social hierarchy via marriage to a wealthy man. She desires the same for her daughter, Laurel, and dedicates herself to making sure Laurel always exemplifies everything that a woman should be. In spite of her careful tailoring of Laurel’s future, the film continually emphasizes how much Stella loves her daughter, and Laurel loves her mother.

Stella never truly fits into her role as a bourgeois woman. She never completely looks the part, and she comes to the conclusion that the last thing holding Laurel back from recognizing the future Stella wants for her is Stella herself. Once Stella divorces Laurel’s father, she sends Laurel to live with him, much to Laurel’s disappointment. When Laurel learns she won’t be returning to her mother, she runs back, intent on staying with her mother. Stella, in turn, lies to Laurel and concocts the cruelest of manipulations-that she is marrying the predatory, drunken Ed Munn, she doesn’t want Laurel anymore and she is moving far away-to force Laurel into the restrictive societal role of her father’s and new stepmother’s sphere.

In one way, it is a demonstration of Stella’s agency and sacrifice. She believes she is doing what is best for Laurel, and the ending, featuring Stella’s observing Laurel’s fancy wedding through a window, is supposed to make the audience agree that Stella did the right thing. Here Laurel is, living her best life, all thanks to Stella’s sacrifice.

Consequently, though, the film consistently steamrolls Laurel’s agency as a teenage girl. She consistently, explicitly states what she wants and why she wants it. She tells us how Munn makes her uncomfortable long before he shows up drunk and toting a bird carcass at Christmas. She knows exactly how Stella is different from the other women in their class, but she chooses her anyway. There is little about the situations presented by the film that Laurel doesn’t understand. Only at the end, when Stella explicitly lies to her, does Laurel not make a fully informed decision. She is supposedly a silly child in a way that the film’s men, of any age, are not.

All Stella’s desires for Laurel, even though they are expressed as the desires of a woman for the success of another, are created and fueled by the patriarchy. This phenomenon is dissected in “The Problem That Has No Name” from Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique. Friedan describes the archetypical woman who “made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, [and] lay beside her husband at night”. Laurel’s dissatisfaction with the prospect of that life in exchange for her mother is completely dismissed as the fancies of a silly little girl. Stella truly knows what’s best for her, the film tells us, and it’s her sacrificing her daughter that is the worthwhile tragedy. Laurel is simply a pawn-one Stella cares about, to be sure-in a long game to satisfy the patriarchy. Throughout the film, no one listens to Laurel.

Though it was released twenty-five years prior to the publishing of The Feminine Mystique, Stella Dallas answers directly to the observations Friedan makes about the lost period between suffrage and the symbolic end of first-wave feminism, and this new text itself and the symbolic beginning to second-wave feminism.

Betty Friedan asks, “‘Is this all?’” Stella herself answers, yes, it is.