New York Stories is back in a fabulous disco-era 1979 edition. Join Nora and her guests David Ilku, Randy Jones, Michael Musto, Dustin Pittman, James Reginato, Lauren Ezersky, David Russell and Linda Tolbert, plus a surprise or two! All at the fantastic Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street, Wednesday night April 5th at 7pm. All this entertainment and edification for only $10 and two drinks minimum. Be there!
I just came from seeing David’s Friend, Nora Burns’s autobiographical tribute to her best friend at La Mama, and I’m absolutely devastated.
Why did this show have such an effect on me?
First of all, it’s about death (David’s, from AIDS). It’s also about the larger death of New York City, a place where people came to find themselves in a world of sex, drugs and disco.
Watching the show was a very emotional experience for me because, in a way, this was my story.
Like Burns, I was a bit of a club kid in the early ’80s.
I, too, moved to New York City to attend college. In fact, the main reason I chose to attend NYU was because it was in New York City and it provided me with a means for moving there. And, like Burns, I eventually found that going to college was interfering with my nightlife (or, perhaps I should say, going to college was what allowed me to have a nightlife, since I didn’t have to get up early for work and my expenses were covered by student loans).
In fact, I suspect that pretty much anyone who lived in New York during this heady period will find much to appreciate in this show.
Burns has had a long career as a member of various comedy groups such as Unitard and the Nellie Olesons, and her writing and performing chops show. But this show takes her talent to a new level.
Because of this show, we get to know David, a stunningly beautiful man who died in the prime of his life.
So, while the show is very funny and entertaining, there’s also an undeniable poignancy to it.
Burns does a great job of recreating the era with the help of music, photographs, and her own journal entries.
The result is an important historical record of this unique time and place. (I’m reminded of the documentary Gay Sex in the ’70s or Brad Gooch’s book Smash Cut, about his lover, the film director Howard Brookner, who also died of AIDS.)
I was lucky that there was a cancellation for the last performance of this sold-out show, whose run was extended. But this is a show that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
It deserves to be seen by anyone who’s just moving to New York now and doesn’t know the exciting city it used to be before it became a boring city of rich people and chain stores.
And it deserves to be seen by a new generation of gay men who don’t know what it was like to lose an entire generation to AIDS.
NEW YORK CITY — Rave reviews and audience popularity have resulted in an extension for the hit show DAVID’S FRIEND at The Club at La MaMa. Three additional performances, starring veteran downtown performer Nora Burns, will take place through February 12.
The new performance schedule at The Club at La MaMa is now: Fri, Feb. 3 at 10:00 PM Sat, Feb. 4 at 10:00 PM Sun, Feb. 5 at 6:00 PM Fri, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM Sat, Feb 11 at 7:30 PM Sun, Feb 12 at 2:00 PM
The Club at La MaMa is located at 74A East 4th Street, 3rd floor, NYC. Tickets are $20/adults; $15/students-seniors. Order at lamama.org or call 212-325-3101.
The New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood called DAVID’S FRIEND “a feisty and funny one-woman show,” adding that “[Nora Burns’s] odyssey will bring alive the period and its pleasures (and poisons) with pungent animation.”
My cultural benefactors John & Sheldon — not really, but they do get me to go see things I’d otherwise not get motivated to see — invited me to David’s Friend, the show by Unitard comic Nora Burns, a few weeks ago. I bought my ticket knowing next to nothing about it. By the time I entered the Club at La Mama this weekend, it was already touted as a hot ticket.
In 60 minutes, Burns (pictured) provides an unapologetically sentimental remembrance of the original best friend forever, David, a fellow Massachusetts teen who joined her in running off to NYC at the end of the ’70s, and the beginning of what would beecome a live-fast-die-young adventure.
Except Nora survived.
Over time, the eventual artist has been driven to memorialize their toss-my-salad days, when she stripped and he hustled and both did so many drugs this might be why Quaaludes became scarce, and when both became friendly with the types of artists drawn to the city back when it was seedily affordable. She is reliving that era onstage in a joyous way that gives contact euphoria and a sense of connection to the audience, and also in a way that sloppily and then — with unexpected precision — provides a sketch of her fallen friend and their eternal friendship so vivid it’s hard to believe he wasn’t a member of the cast.
At times, it’s as if she is taking our hands and putting them into her side; her approach to show and tell is to skip both and instead to conjure and to make manifest.
The story is deceptively slight; the two danced their asses off. In fact, they met dancing on a speaker and seemingly only climbed down when he eventually became sick with AIDS and when she, later on, settled down with a husband and children. Their time on the speaker sounds like a mad dash from one party to another, and from the safety of suburbia to the more interesting, more dangerous nooks and crannies of a city that no longer exists.
While nostalgic and affectionate, the show is never whitewashed — plenty of STIs, jealous fits and jobs from hell are recalled, and her Valentine to NYC is spiked by a recurring image of the city in the ’70s and ’80s as a pile of junk teeming with rats and predators. But if you’re one of those people who thinks the city is now a Giulianified shell of its former self, you will understand her longing for not just her friend but their grimy stomping grounds.
Nora’s delivery is utterly sincere. It is also funny, except for when it veers into sadness, when it becomes difficult to imagine how she puts herself through such a naked (and public) connection to still-raw grief each performance.
She is so uncompromisingly honest, it might make you squirm when she cheerfully announces she needs gay men to provide the witty Oscar banter these days (she’s got to be kidding! she’s hysterical!) or when she drives home that she is a classic fag hag. There is a degree of supplication, but I think it’s also just a reflection of her devotion to the best person she ever met.
David is beautifully remembered in this warm and scrappy show in a way he may never have been able to imagine, knowing Nora as he did then — and never getting to know Nora as she was later, is now.
Due to an outbreak of raves, David’s Friend — directed by Adrienne Truscott and also featuring Billy Hough —has been extended. Along with other lessons, one the show offers is: Spend your time wisely. This applies to theater, too.
I had a great night in the theater on Saturday, it started at the entrance of LaMama where I ran into PR force James LaForce & husband Stephen Henderson along with interior designer Fernando Santangelo and it continued inside…. Maxim‘s Susan Kilkenny was my date and I had made a loose plan to meet up with comic Francesco Paladino, and there he was front row with his friend photographer Laura Desantis-Olsson at a table with two seats for us! I turned to my left and there’s Lady Bunny (Hi, honey!) one table over the legendary Robin Byrd and next to her photographer Patrick McMullan. Hey, the gang’s all here. I’m not telling you this info to name-drop, after all the reason we were all there was Nora and her one woman (+ one man, Billy Hough) show, David’s Friend.
I can’t possibly top the glowing notice she got in non-other than THE New York Times on Monday…
So, sitting there watching this moving story about a time I lived through with some of the people I lived through it with was emotional, to say the least. But in the end it felt good. Nora is so self-effacing and charming that even after talking about herself and her friend for an hour, there was not a trace of ego really. Well, maybe just enough to get up in front of your friends and strangers and pour your guts out…
But in the end the main character wasn’t Nora or David, it turned out to be New York City, something we all had in common and still love. Even though as Nora said,
“That craggy, dangerous, exciting city we came to in the ’70s and ’80s to escape our families, tourists and the wealthy has become a safe haven for families, tourists and the wealthy…”
Nora and David met dancing on a speaker and the night he died in 1993, she was dancing on a speaker on Fire Island. Billy Hough doubles as the club DJ and plays “their song” at one point, Dance Away by Roxy Music. If you want to get in the mood, listen below.
After the show and hugs and champagne, the after party was at The Cock just up the street, where artist & DJ Scott Ewalt has memorialized David in all his glory in a mural on the club’s wall. Like that first and last dance, life came full circle again, with Nora there to tell us the story.
You can still catch Nora in David’s Friend through this Sunday. Fridays & Saturdays at 10PM, Sundays at 6PMm. The Club @ LaMama | 74 East 4th Street. Tickets here.
UPDATE: This just in, due to the rave reviews and ticket demand, the show has been extended. It will now run, Feb 10-11-12, Friday-Saturday at 7:30PM, Sunday at 2PM.
Remember the ’80s? Nora Burns sure does, and in her stage memoir “David’s Friend” she conjures up a vivid portrait of a carefree, hedonistic era that seeped away tragically and wrenchingly. But the downtown performer’s story isn’t a downer. On the contrary, it’s a celebration, both specific to Burns’ singular friendship with David (we never find out his last name) and redolent of an entire era that not that many are around to remember, and those who are…can’t.
Burns offers a straightforward, lively autobiography, one of clubs and coke and half-recalled hangovers.
The decade that Burns recounts isn’t a decade shared by everyone. It’s a pretty singular milieu: the glittery ’80s of gay and mixed discos, most prominently Studio 54, and the fabulous people who danced, drank, and drugged through it. On a mostly bare stage with helpful projections and videos (Len Whitney’s), and invaluably assisted by Billy Hough, who plays any number of gay boys she bumped up against, Burns offers a straightforward, lively autobiography, one of clubs and coke and half-recalled hangovers.
As a teenager in Boston, she quickly discovered an affinity for gay men, their music, and the pre-HIV/AIDS, party-all-you-can lifestyle they pursued. There’s an impolite name for this sort of woman that my editor probably won’t let me use, so let’s just say Burns quickly found out she was one, and embraced it. Growing up, she says, “My first word was ‘honey,’ and my pacifier was mid-century modern.” At 17 in Boston, she fell in (and, mostly platonically, fell in love) with David, who was similarly young and fun-loving, and dissimilarly charismatic—a “life magnet,” she says, one of those people who makes things happen just by their presence.
She relocated to New York, and he quit school and followed her. They moved into a series of cheap East Village apartments, and—hey, look, it’s 1980, and there’s disco and drugs and beautiful boys everywhere, and isn’t that Sylvia Miles in the corner? They bluffed their way into Studio 54 and became fixtures there, boogeying with celebrities, sleeping around, and putting things up their noses.
“When I met David,” she says, “my life was complete”—he became her first and only true best friend, “that person you share a secret language with.” It wouldn’t hurt for her to divulge a little more—what were their backgrounds, what were their parents like, what were their interests beyond disco, and how did they live and score so many drugs while under- or unemployed? But there’s plenty of fetching detail, from Burns’ truncated career as a stripper to the heady atmosphere of pre-HIV/AIDS New York. Just say “Boy Bar,” and for many in the La MaMa audience, a whole era and lifestyle come back to life.
For such a hard-partying young thing 35 years ago, Burns looks terrific, and while she admits she was too boozed up or drugged to remember everything, what she does recall is served up with wit and style. When HIV/AIDS first appeared, she says, it was met largely with denial, even joking—“we laughed about everything back then,” but “it unfolded like some terrible nightmare.”
Recounting the crisis, Burns frequently develops a catch in her throat, and I don’t think this is acting—it’s really that painful to conjure up, as anyone who was gay or gay-friendly in the ’80s can attest. As David got too sick for the downtown life, he moved upstate, grew outdoorsy, and became a poet—judging from the one effort Burns reads, a rather good one. As for Burns, she did subsequently develop an identity beyond that of David’s friend—a surprising, gratifying one, which won’t be revealed here.
Connie Fleming’s costumes are simple and appropriate, and Adrienne Truscott’s direction is mostly about moving Burns around—she dances quite a lot, and she still has the moves. This is an era that’s rapidly disappearing: Many who lived it aren’t around, and those who are were too wasted at the time to recall a lot of it. So when those of us who didn’t experience it ask about it, the survivors say, “Well, you had to be there.” The beauty of “David’s Friend” is, you didn’t have to be there. Burns was, and she brings it alive for the rest of us.
Running Time: 1 hour, no intermission.
Advisory: Not appropriate for children.
“David’s Friend” plays through February 5, 2017 at The Club at La MaMa in New York, NY. For more information and tickets, call 646-430-5374 or click here.
Watching “David’s Friend,” a feisty and funny one-woman show written and performed by Nora Burns, is a bit like sitting down, slightly tipsy, and playing a bunch of your scratched but beloved 45s from the late 1970s and early 1980s on your record player — if you’ve kept yours or joined the blooming back-to-vinyl movement.
Although its focus is the story of her fast (in all senses) friendship with the man named in the title, whom she met when they were teenagers in Boston, Ms. Burns’s show, performed only through Feb. 5 at the Club at La MaMa, is also a heady dip into the years when New York night life was at its dizzying, decadent height; when Bianca and Andy and company were thronging Studio 54 and Xenon and Danceteria; when Details was a magazine printed on unglossy paper and filled with, well, details about anything and everybody that was cool.
If you lived through even a part of it, you’ll be swimming merrily alongside her in memories — although, as Ms. Burns ruefully recalls, many of those wild, unforgettable nights may have been fogged to the point of obscurity by the ingestion of illicit substances. Oh well, clearly for Ms. Burns, it was worth it — and fortunately she kept a diary.
Photo: Patrick McMullan Company
If you were too young, or too old, or too sensible to partake with the abandon Ms. Burns and her best pal did, her odyssey will bring alive the period and its pleasures (and poisons) with pungent animation. Recalling the story of her and David’s raucous years of dancing and drugging until daylight, she says: “We did not stay home. No one did, you did not stay home, ever.”
Why would Ms. Burns sit home knitting when, after falling in love with a) gay men, b) disco and, most of all, c) David — platonically — she moved to New York and found herself in the heady dome of pleasure that the city then was? She hurtled here immediately after high school to go to college, ostensibly, but soon after David joined her, she says, “school was interfering with my night life so I decided to take a year off.”
“From school,” she adds, perhaps unnecessarily.
Skinny as a sylph, clad in sleek black, her blond hair doing a bit of disco dancing of its own, Ms. Burns, a founding member of the comedy troupes Unitard and the Nellie Olesons, flips through her memories in roughly chronological order. She is aided only by a necessary companion — a D.J. spinning disco classics, Billy Hough, who occasionally takes part in the show — and vintage photographs of New York in her (and its?) night-life heyday, and, of course, of herself and David, whom she accurately describes as a man of uncommon beauty.
Directed by Adrienne Truscott, Ms. Burns’s delivery is crisp, wry and dry. And while her story takes a few meandering digressions, that’s only natural, considering the gleefully reckless way she and David careered through their 20s, without much thought given to a future career.
She stripped; he hustled. She was more the girl on the fringe of the party; he was a social and sexual magnet. Together they mostly romped by night and slept by day in the gritty playground the city once was, a playground that, as she observes with more than a hint of nostalgia, has been scrubbed free of grime now: “That craggy, dangerous, exciting city we came to in the ’70s and ’80s to escape our families, tourists and the wealthy has become a safe haven for families, tourists and the wealthy.”
“People aren’t afraid of the blacks, the Jews and the gays anymore,” she cracks. “Well, not the Jews and the gays.”
It is not spoiling much to reveal that David did not survive the AIDS epidemic. After just a few descriptions of their scrappy, joyful, sex-and-drug-fueled sorties, you can pretty much tell where this ride will end. But if the unhappy conclusion of David’s foreshortened life can be foretold, the retelling of it is a continual pleasure.
By coincidence, the night David died in 1993, Ms. Burns was dancing on a speaker on Fire Island. You can be sure he would have appreciated it.
For Nora Burns, ‘David’s Friend’ Is a Moniker She Will Cherish Forever
Nora Burns’s autobiographical one-woman show, “David’s Friend,” kicks off its run at The Club at La Mama tomorrow night at 10 p.m.. My boyfriend, Damian, recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Nora to interview her for The Daily Beast about the friendship that inspired the work. Although I may not be impartial, it’s an incredibly moving piece that beautifully chronicles the duo’s salad days as New York City transplants in the late ’70s and ’80s that ended all too soon when her closest friend and partner in crime died of AIDS back in 1993. Read HERE.
This Show Is for My Friend David, Who Died of AIDS
Nora Burns has created a moving, funny show to remember her best friend David, who died of AIDS in 1993. She talks about their deep bond, grief, and how close he still feels.
Luis Damian Veron
01.25.17 10:00 PM ET
If Nora Burns’s words sounded straightforward, upbeat even, the story they referred to was far more complex.
“It’s about us, it’s about fun, it’s about New York—it’s about friendship,” Burns was saying, explaining her new one-woman show, David’s Friend, to me when her voice cracked slightly and she looked away sharply.
“It’s weird, but I always get….” She trailed off. The starkly personal nature of her comic memoir, which begins a run of performances this week at La MaMa in New York’s East Village, is both a tribute to and remembrance of her late friend David Burns (his chosen surname to match hers), who died of AIDS in 1993.
Just a couple of minutes earlier, the affable Burns had arrived in the bijou Soho coffee shop where we met, looking sleek and no-nonsense in a thin black cowl-neck sweater and blue jeans as she ordered a hot tea to warm up from the chilly, rainy, windswept day.
Burns was just back from the Women’s March on Washington. As remarkable as it was to see how well attended it was, she told me, what impressed her most was to learn of the many sister marches taking place across the country and abroad.
It seemed fair to say that the political urgency of the moment harkened back to the anger and outreach of the 1980s and 1990s around LGBT and AIDS activism.
How do you describe friendship? Burns, 55, aims to try with her piece, or at least honor the version of it she shared with whom she describes as her closest comrade. “When you have that person that you’re just bonded with, you feel that you always have them to go back to.”
The unspoken addendum is that, with David’s loss, that feeling of security and home ended all too soon.
She and David met as teenagers in Massachusetts, she from Cambridge, he from Lexington. “Liberal Massachusetts kids,” as Burns termed it, both hailing from middle class homes outside of Boston.
He was Jewish, while she jokes—due to her father’s enthusiasm for Judaism that sprang from contemporary guilt over his German origins—that her family felt as though it were Jewish. (Her father helped to start the Jewish studies program at the university where he taught.) As a girl, along with her childhood friend, she was enthralled by the Carol Burnett variety show and would put on skits for their parents and apartment house and anybody who would watch.
It was the late ’70s, and the apex of the disco era saw both Nora and David cross paths at the boisterous gay club BostonBoston.
The fast friends would continue their journey to New York City shortly thereafter, where Burns first arrived in 1979. David soon followed, and together they would see out the heady days of disco into the infancy of the gritty and gaudy ’80s East Village gay nightlife scene.
For this reason, David’s Friend serves as a time capsule that offers a storied glimpse of the music and goings-on of the era it portrays. Burns described how important music was to them both, from dance to rock to punk, and proclaimed Roxy Music as their band, and their song “Dance Away” as their song.
Would she and David have enjoyed a different sort of dynamic in any other sort of time or place? Burns demurred. “When you’re kids, you’re kids, no matter when it is—even now.”
Her tale is not so much about that time as it is about their lives at the time. Even though they ran in admittedly fabulous circles—including the fabled Studio 54 and later populated by colorful characters such as prominent drag artists Joey Arias and Lady Bunny (David helped the latter run the raucous and iconic Wigstock annual festival in the late ’80s)—Burns does not claim that hers is the definitive account of the setting. “I don’t go, ‘So we were at this party with Halston and then Liza showed up!’ It was everyone’s world, a smaller world then. There are far more fabulous people with star-studded stories to tell, and I leave it to them to tell.”
Nevertheless, her show provides the front-row seat into the world that she and David enjoyed. Unfortunately, the era was not just about its sights and sounds, but an unfolding sociocultural, and very personal, tragedy. The HIV and AIDS pandemic would affect so many, the LGBT community particularly on the front line—especially given the rampant homophobia of the time, and then-President Ronald Reagan’s failure to address the epidemic for so many years.
Did Burns recall her own first impressions of the disease? “I remember that newspaper headline,” she told me, referring to the now-famous headline “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS” under which The New York Times first reported upon the grim phenomenon on July 3, 1981.
At first, Burns and the others in her orbit felt that HIV and AIDS were not relevant to them, despite inhabiting the gay sphere in which it initially revealed itself. But soon the impact of became all too clear, as more and more of her gay male friends were diagnosed, or died.
“Some friends would disappear, or they’d go to the hospital, or they’d go out for some treatment, and you would never see them again, or you’d visit their homes and find out they were dead,” Burns said. “For this period, you could open the paper every day, and it was someone you know, or someone you know of. It was unreal.”
Denial within the gay community did not help matters. Burns recounted the story of a group of young men who showed up in one of the gay venues where she performed. They were keen to declare to any and all that “We’re not sick.”
They wore their seemingly healthy countenances with pride and defiance; but of course, Burns mused, some or all of them may have already contracted the still-invisible HIV and had no way of telling just yet. “New York was so sexual and so exciting. That was the last thing you wanted it to be,” meaning infection. “It can’t be that.”
David never disclosed when, or even if, he knew that he was HIV-positive. Instead, recalls Burns, she was working at the West Side nightclub The Tunnel in the mid-1980s when one day—she is not even sure of the exact date because of the emotional blow—he phoned her to say he was in the hospital. It was due to PCP, or pneumocystis pneumonia; as one of the notorious AIDS-identified illnesses, there was no doubt left as to the grave implications of his news.
“I broke down. I lost it, that day. And then I really didn’t again. It was just—OK, let’s deal with this.” As his health declined, he left the city to go upstate. “I wasn’t there with him. I was still a city girl. I wasn’t ready to be in the country at the time.”
She realizes how hollow that may sound now, and attributes being older to why things are hitting her so hard now. “Oh, so that’s what it’s like to face mortality—and what these people were going through at 25, 30, I wasn’t.” (David returned to the care of his family prior to his death. The tale of his sickness and the toll it took is told by Burns in the play.)
While Burns deeply mourned her close friend’s passing, today it is a new, broader sense of awareness of the full gravity of his passing that led her to want to write and perform David’s Friend.
Burns traces the gestation of the piece to what would have been David’s 53rd birthday in December 2014. Burns is not much one for social media, but she had posted a Facebook status in observance of the occasion that also crystallized her sense of loss, as well as her appreciation for what David had meant to her.
It began with a vignette about how they met dancing at 17. “We spent the rest of the night rolling each other around the Fenway in a shopping cart with a boom box and didn’t leave each other’s side for the next several years. I moved to NYC that fall and he came several months later. It was 1979. We had amazing adventures and spoke a language I’ve never had with anyone else. He died in 1993 and I miss him more than I can say, but he left me a wonderful legacy: Many of the people I love and admire most I met through David so I would just like to say, Thank you David, I love you.”
A comedic theater veteran, Burns felt the impulse to devote her craft to what would be a humorous, and, she hoped, heartwarming celebration of her friendship with David.
It was her affinity for the gay social world that fortuitously led her to her acting career. “I was so fully entrenched in the gay community,” she said with a grin, and as an aside to demonstrate, she mentioned how she had hosted the Mr. New York Leather contest.
One day at the city’s LGBT Center, she spotted a flyer looking for members to form a sketch comedy group, Planet Q. She took the plunge, and it was there that she made the acquaintance of Terrence Michael, with whom she later departed to form their own comedy troupe, The Nellie Olesons, drolly named for the antagonist from Little House on the Prairie. She also is a founding member of the sketch comedy trio Unitard.
A previous solo piece, Honey, I’m Home, also incorporated what she calls biographical stand-up, but she wanted David’s Friend to be a more specialized, mixed-media version of that. She inaugurated it the following summer of 2015 at Dixon Place, a performance space on the Lower East Side. After performances that served to further refine the work in places as far-flung as Seattle and Toronto, as well as Provincetown, she returned early last year to Dixon Place.
“If I’m going to do this, I want to do it right,” Burns said. Even though she had initially thought it would be a one-off performance, “it resonated with people, and I felt: OK, I’m going to keep working on it and see what it turns into. As long as it still really feels like I’m doing this show about US, and not just, oh, I’m doing a show!” She said that with an expansive gesture and an exaggerated tone of self-importance. “While it’s still something I need to do.” Performing the piece was cathartic, she said.
I asked Burns about a potentially off-putting label she forthrightly claims for herself, on stage and on her website, of being a “fag hag,” referring to a woman who surrounds herself with gay men and prefers their company. What does it mean to her?
“It feels like home when I walk into a gay bar,” she said simply. “It’s where I’m most comfortable. I had a gay friend in high school named Francis. Back in Cambridge, I was in play at Harvard with a bunch of gay guys and they started taking me out to gay clubs, and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m never going back there [referring to what came before]. This is for ME.”
To the suggestion that the term can be seen as derogatory, Burns said she felt that it was instead similar to the reclaiming of the former epithet “queer.” To her, to be a “fag hag” simply means being the most dedicated and loyal of straight allies and, rather than a disparagement, is a badge of honor.
Like Grace in Will & Grace, did Burns also entertain misguided romantic feelings for David in the beginning?
She paused and tilted her head. “I wasn’t even looking for a boyfriend then. But yes, we were in love, and we were kids, like puppies intertwined, and we could make out, and it was very physical.”
But it was always about intimacy as friends, and the lines never blurred for her. She noted wryly that she kept a journal at the time, excerpts of which she includes in the show, and there would be entries complaining, as she tells it, “Ugh, David’s off with his boyfriend tonight.” But it was the possessiveness of any friend, she said, and she was always eager to meet and get to know whomever he was dating at any given moment.
Burns herself is happily married to an emergency room physician, Pedro, with whom she has spent roughly 30 years, and who did not begrudge her devotion to David during the years they overlapped.
They have two children, their 15-year-old daughter Fred, and 13-year-old son Bruno (who, Burns said, is a big Key & Peele fan and shares the same appreciation for sketch comedy his mother has). She relishes being an “NYC mom,” who wants her kids to take advantage of all the activities and experiences an urban setting can offer.
After David’s death, I asked Burns, had she ever formed a similarly intense sort of bond with other gay men? She shook her head. “Sure, I would tell somebody, ‘You’re my new best friend! You’re awesome!’ But it never had that same sort of speaking the same language that I had with David. We were so similar in our upbringing and our thinking, that whole thing. We had a special language and I’ve never had a friendship like that again.”
She lowered her head and added softly, “Close, wonderful friends, yes, but whether male or female, I never had that again.”
I gently asked if, given David’s death in 1993, tantalizingly near to the arrival of the retroviral drug cocktails that finally proved reliably effective just a couple of years later, Burns had ever thought to herself, “So close!”
“Oh, yes. All the time,” she said vehemently. “With David, he wanted to live so much. He really fought for it. That’s what’s so heartbreaking. It was the time we lost so many friends, ’93, ’94.”
She teared up. When the sea change came, it was striking. “You would think, ‘Oh, I’ll never see Ian again,’ but then they made it to the thing [effective treatment] and they survived. Of course, for some, the damage [to their health] had already been done.”
We mused upon how the contemporary preventative HIV therapy, PrEP, has further changed the landscape of HIV infection and safer sex practices. What, I asked her, would David have made of this new world: one in which he could legally marry, and AIDS was now not the death sentence it used to be?
Burns seemed momentarily overwhelmed by the hypothetical. “It’s so hard to say who he would be. He had some demons to sort of work out, so I would love to know who he would have become. That’s what’s so weird when someone’s gone at 31—you don’t know who they could have been.”
A wistful cast came to her green eyes. “As a friend of mine said about him that he did have a hard time being loved or accepting love, but I hope he would have found it. I think he would have. When he did start going upstate, he loved the outdoors, and he loved the country. I don’t even know if he would still be living in the city. That’s what such a mystery about it all.”
The AIDS crisis represented a time that, Burns suggests, we are only now able to begin to fully process and understand. She envisions the intervening decades as being marked by a cultural post-traumatic stress disorder, where the pain was still too fresh for proper recollection, reflection, and reconciliation.
“Right afterward, it’s as though we say, ‘I can’t do it right now, we have to move on,’” Burns said. “But now, I think, ‘Oh my god, this whole chunk of our past is gone, and now we can go back.’”
She mentioned an Instagram project, The Aids Memorial, which allows users to submit their photos of those they lost to the disease along with personal notes about them.
Now is the time to take stock, and Burns hopes that David’s Friend can be one piece of that larger puzzle. Perhaps, she said, there could be events where others could come to share tales of their own “Davids,” akin to the “New York Stories” event she had hosted at the Stonewall Inn in 2014, where patrons shared their reminiscences of the New York City of the ’70s and ’80s.
“It is so emotional for me,” Burns said of the show devoted to David. “I don’t know if I could make it for a six-month run. But it’s OK, because in some ways it’s about getting to spend time with him again. He was an amazing person. It’s nice to bring him back.”
David’s Friend is at La MaMa, 74a East 4th Street (3rd Floor), NYC, Jan. 27-Feb. 5; Fridays & Saturdays at 10 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m. Book tickets here.
David’s Friend, was created by and stars my friend, Nora Burns. It’a a powerful new comic memoir about the electrifying joy and intoxicating madness of New York City in the 80s that I’ve managed to miss every single time she performed it, much to my shame and embarrassment.
This multi-media show, a celebration Nora’s friendship & fun, freaks & fag hags, has been lauded by everyone from Jennifer Coolidge to Sandra Bernhard. It’s a coming of age story, a love and loss story, and a New York story, and a story we all know and have experienced in some way. As Nora says David would say it’s,
“a story that just gets better with the telling.”
David’s Friend runs at LaMama, The Club | 74a East 4th Street, NYC, January 27 – February 05, 2017, Fridays & Saturdays at 10PM, Sunday at 6PM
Written and performed by Nora Burns and directed by Adrienne Truscott. You can get tickets here.