Mourning in the Millennium
My best friend died of AIDS in 1993, so why is it hitting me so hard right now? I explore this in my show, “David’s Friend.”
“Can you send me what you said about PTSD,” my friend Jimmy Paul said recently after seeing David’s Friend, the show I’m doing about my best friend David, who died of AIDS in 1993, “because I keep thinking about it.” I emailed him: “For those of us who lived through the age of AIDS, the PTSD—the posttraumatic stress disorder—is wearing off, and there’s a collective sense of mourning going on, a realization of our losses, losses we were too young or overwhelmed to fully take in, goodbyes we never got to say and ‘I love you’s that came too late.”
While the show is a celebration of David and our friendship, I originally started working on it because I couldn’t figure out why the death of my friend, whom I had mourned over the years, was suddenly hitting me so hard. In the two years I have been putting this show together, I have not been able to get through a writing session, rehearsal or performance without breaking down—and it’s a comedy! Something is going on, and I’m not alone.
As I’ve workshopped the show around the country, in addition to the surprising fact that young people, both straight and gay, male and female, have really responded to it, after every show, I am approached by tearful middle-aged men and women saying they are going through the same thing. Why? Why now?
My father moved to America from Germany in 1960, traumatized and guilt-ridden by the Holocaust. He started a German/Jewish discussion group and helped organize the Holocaust Week at his university. He used to talk about why it took so long for both Jews and Germans to acknowledge what had happened and how important it was that the stories not be lost. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that people began to really pay attention to what had happened 20-plus years earlier. I think we’re seeing the same thing today with AIDS; the height of the epidemic was over 20 years ago, but we spent so many years in shock, unable to process what we had been through, that only now are we ready to face what we lost. I remember my mother being horrified at how many of my 20-something friends were dying, but to me it had just come to seem normal.
I’m in my mid-50s now. My children are getting older, my back is achy and I have friends dying of old-fashioned things like cancer and heart attacks. In other words, I’m aging, normally, something that David and so many of our friends never got to do. We all thought we’d be able to sit in our rockers together, listening to Grace Jones and talking about the good old days, but AIDS took many of our friends—and, with them, our shared history.
I’ve changed so much in the 23 years since my best friend died. How much we missed together and how much he’ll never know about me breaks my heart.
Every generation has its tragedy: WWII, the Holocaust, Vietnam, but the AIDS epidemic was unique. It struck our community hard, but because of it, we became a strong community. Lately, there’s been a swell of recognition for this era, for the amazing ACT UP warriors and organizers and caregivers and people whose stories have been forgotten or never got told. David France’s How to Survive a Plague is a best seller and “the_aids_memorial” is trending on Instagram. I have to admit, although I went to a few marches and protests, I was never really in the trenches. I was young, and my life was going on.
But I had a wonderful friend, this amazing person named David, who died before he was able to turn into the man he was destined to be. So, I am telling that story—about him and us and our lives in NYC, in the hope that it gives him more time on this planet that he left, like so many others, far too early.
See a video preview of “David’s Friend” here.
Nora Burns is a veteran actor and playwright on the New York City Downtown scene, as well as a self-declared fag hag. Visit NoraBurns.net. Six performances of her show David’s Friend will take place at The Club at La MaMa (74a East Fourth Street, Third Floor, in Manhattan), January 27 through February 5. Info/tickets at LaMaMa.org or call 212-325-3101.
Nora Burns on David’s Friend, Her One-Woman Show on AIDS, Love, Loss and Great Old Disco
|January 18, 2017|
The promotional release says that David’s Friend is “an achingly funny coming-of-age story about love and loss at the center of the universe: New York City. It’s a true-life epic about Nora and David, best friends who met as teenagers and moved to Manhattan, where they immersed themselves in the zeitgeist: a speed-of-light journey through sex, drugs, disco, love and heartbreak … the outrageous and riotous saga of an era when rents were cheap, sex was waiting around every corner, and friendship was the most important thing of all.”
Wow. That’s a lot to pack into a relatively short one-woman show; I wanted to learn more about Nora Burns, the woman behind the passion. In my email exchange with Burns, the author and performer of David’s Friend, I learned more about her “fag hag” identity, her journey as an HIV-negative person immersed in the HIV community from an early time, and how this show speaks both to that age and the world of today.
I’m looking forward to seeing the show on opening night. David’s Friend runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 5 at La MaMa in NYC’s East Village. Tickets are available.
Tell us a little about your history that brought you to creating this show.
Well, my best friend died in 1993 when we were 31, and as I say in the show, I was heartbroken. Over the years, I would think of him and burst into tears, but at the time, I’d lost so many friends and so many were still dying, and I was also young and still figuring out my life, so I didn’t fully take in his death. But, suddenly, two years ago on his birthday when we both would have been 53, his loss hit me in a way I could not shake. I cried for a month, then decided to make a show to celebrate him and our friendship and the time that we lived. I didn’t want it to be a memorial, but a show, and it has evolved in so many different ways over the years, but I still have not gotten through a rehearsal, read-through or performance without breaking down, and it’s supposed to be kind of a comedy!
In this piece, you speak from your personal history. But in creating the show, did you find new meaning or understanding in what you’d lived through? And/or are there other questions that it brought up for you?
For one thing, I’m very wary of solo shows, like, ‘Why do I care about your Cuban grandmother?’ There better be some universal truth in it, and it better be entertaining and hopefully a little funny. So, I tried to remain aware of that. But also, in going through the boxes of our photos and letters, I was so overcome by the enormity of this loss in my life and how many of us lost amazing brothers, sisters, lovers and friends because of this plague that no one even talks about anymore.
|You identify as a “fag hag.” Wow, that’s something you don’t hear openly that much these days, much less so centrally or as a badge of pride. What’s that mean to you, and how is it/why is it central to your identity? What does it mean not only in terms of your relationship to gay men but in terms of your understanding yourself as a woman?|
As a I have always identified as part of the gay community, it’s been my home since I was in high school and had my first gay friend and went to my first gay bar. It’s just where I belonged, where I am happy, whom I feel at home with and where the best music
is.woman in NYC who is not living with HIV, are there limits to your understanding of the experience of gay men and/or people with HIV, or those outside NYC? If so, how do you consider or address that in your work?
When the AIDS crisis began, no one knew who had it, and we all assumed we were positive, though women had a far far less chance of being positive. So, even though I was never tested, I assumed I was negative. I may eventually get some incurable disease, but I will never ever know what it was like to have AIDS at the height of the crisis when it was incurable and terrifying. At first, we were in denial; how can something be untreatable in this day and age?! We were so young, just starting our lives, and at first, we had no idea what was going on. I see now that as David became sicker — and he fought AIDS so hard for so long — he started going down a different path than me, maturing and evolving beyond his years, while I’m only just now facing the idea of my own mortality.
You’ve spoken of this moment in time as a period when people are hungry to understand the earlier days of the HIV epidemic, either because they lived through it and survived loss or because they seek to know what happened in the past generation. Why do you think that is happening now?
I have been amazed at how many people who’ve come to see the show have responded to the idea that the “PTSD is wearing off and there’s a collective sense of mourning going on.” That’s something my director and dramaturge and I have really been working on — “Why this, why now?” as they sit and hand me Kleenex after Kleenex. I’ve also likened it to the Holocaust, which took years for survivors to come to terms with, and similarly, we can’t lose our stories.
As an HIV-negative person who went through the most intense years of HIV and continues to deal with these themes in your work, do you identify as a long-term survivor? What’s it like for you to walk around as a person who came through the epidemic, seeing the world of HIV prevention, treatment and care today?
I think that’s something that is more intense for gay men who are making the choice whether or not to use PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and have [condomless] sex. A whole generation is coming of age thinking AIDS is preventable, and I don’t know, maybe it is, but there are still people dying of AIDS, and HIV is not a “curable” disease. I remember, in the early days, when NYC was a glorious, sexy playground, how hard it was to acknowledge that sex was causing this disease, so I’m sure the idea of putting on a condom if you don’t feel you need to will be hard to reinstate.
The promotional stuff for your show talks about PTSD. What does that mean to you? Do you yourself identify as someone who has experienced trauma related to HIV? How do you as an artist perceive trauma in the world and what relationship does that have to your work?
Oops, I talked about PTSD earlier, but what it means to me is that I think a lot of us are suddenly realizing how many friends we lost, and here we are getting older, and they are gone and with them a part of our past. During the days when many of us knew someone in the obits every single day, we were simply too overwhelmed to fully process what was going on, and when it slowed down, I think we were just trying to move on with our lives. So now, we’re looking back and thinking about our losses, and it’s overwhelming. I’ve loved doing this show and getting to spend some time with my friend again, though it breaks my heart that he can’t be here to see it and meet the amazing people who are helping me create it.
What is the power/potential of theater to mark where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going in the HIV crisis?
I think it’s a way for us to come together and see that we’re not alone, but also to laugh and remember and realize we have a shared history. I’ve also had 20-somethings — male, female, gay and straight — come to the show and say they loved it, that it was a window into a world they’d never known, both the good and the bad, and who doesn’t want to hear some great old disco?
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow JD on Twitter: @JDAtTheBody.
A powerful new comic memoir about the electrifying joy and intoxicating madness of New York City in the 1980s will take the stage at The Club at La MaMa from January 27 through February 5, created by and starring veteran downtown performer Nora Burns.
DAVID’S FRIEND is an achingly funny coming-of-age story about love and loss at the center of the universe: New York City. It’s a true-life epic about Nora and David, best friends who met as teenagers and moved to Manhattan, where they immersed themselves in the zeitgeist: a speed-of-light journey through sex, drugs, disco, love and heartbreak. DAVID’S FRIEND is the outrageous and riotous saga of an era when rents were cheap, sex was waiting around every corner, and friendship was the most important thing of all.
DAVID’S FRIEND is written and performed by Nora Burns (the long-running comedy troupes Unitard and The Nellie Olesons). This comic odyssey is directed by Adrienne Truscott (Asking for It) with dramaturgy by Lucy Sexton (Spalding Gray, Stories Left to Tell, The Legend of Leigh Bowery) and featuring Billy Hough (Scream Along with Billy). DAVID’S FRIEND is a multi-media presentation with production design by Tal Yarden (The Crucible on Broadway), videos by Len Whitney, costumes by Connie Flemming and disco sound design by Carmine Covelli.
“My best friend David died of AIDS in 1993,” says playwright Nora Burns. “I spent a long time mourning him and this unfinished friendship. I wrote DAVID’S FRIEND to celebrate one of the most important relationships of my life, as well as the time and place in which it happened: New York City in the eighties. This show is my loving tribute to David, to thank him for making me who I am today. I tried to make sure it’s as fun, funny and full of life as he was.” Performances of DAVID’S FRIEND will take place at The Club at La MaMa, located at 74A East 4th Street, 3rd floor, NYC. The show schedule is Friday, January 27th, and Saturday, January 28th, at 10:00 PM; Friday, February 3rd, and Saturday, February 4th, at 10:00 PM; Sunday, January 29th, at 6:00 PM; Sunday, February 5th, at 6:00 PM. Tickets are $20/adults; $15/students-seniors. Order at lamama.org or call 212-325-3101.
DAVID’S FRIEND premiered at the Provincetown Afterglow festival and has toured to Manhattan’s Dixon Place, as well as Los Angeles, Toronto and Seattle. The show garnered powerful accolades from members of the theatre and arts community during its workshop phase.
Nora Burns is a founding member of the comedy groups Unitard (1999-present) and the Nellie Olesons (1993-present). She has performed at PS122, La MaMa, and Joe’s Pub in New York City, and Highways, Cavern Club and The HBO Workspace in Los Angeles. Comedy festival gigs include Just for Laughs in Montreal and We’re Funny That Way in Toronto, and the prestigious Aspen Comedy Festival (now HBO Comedy Festival). Her first solo show, “Honey, I’m Home,” premiered at Dixon Place in NYC, and toured to Los Angeles, Provincetown and Hudson, NY. Since 2013, Burns has hosted “New York Stories” at the historic Stonewall Inn, where celebrated Manhattanites like Michael Musto and Anthony Haden-Guest share sordid personal tales of days gone by. Burns’s film work includes “Broken Hearts,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “Club,” “Boys Life 3” and “Florent: Queen of the Meat Market.” TV appearances include Logo’s “Wisecrack” comedy show and “The Sandra Bernhard Experience.” Photo credit: Rebecca Black. Website: NoraBurns.net
My one-woman show DAVID’S FRIEND has toured in workshop form this last year, and now it is polished, spiffed up and ready for the spotlight. The new version is having its world premiere at the Club at La Mama in the East Village for a six-performance run January 27th through February 5th. Ticket info is at http://lamama.org/davids_friend/ or call 212.325.3101. If you’ve seen the show, come back and see the new version, and if you haven’t, don’t miss it!
Here’s the flyer from Nora’s holiday edition of New York Stories!
Nora did a new show with some of her best performing friends called Uberet at Sid Gold’s on June 6. It went fantasticcally, so look for more upcoming editions soon.
NYC peeps, hope you will come to my performance of “David’s Friend” at Dixon Place on Monday, March 21! $12 advance, $15 at the door, $10 seniors / students
An exciting new edition of the fantastic NY STORIES is coming to the Stonewall on February 25th. Hope to see you there!
My personal recollection of friend and soul-mate David Burns and our longstanding relationship spanning the disco, punk, new wave and NY nightlife eras is coming to the CAVERN CLUB in Los Angeles in April. You can order tickets HERE!