The Normal Heart : Storytelling as Activism

I was 9 years old when the movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, premiered in the cinemas more than 20 years ago, forever shaping the lens through which I and so many others see the world. I remember watching it on a snowy day in early 1994 with my two older sisters -- my parents probably approving the choice given Tom Hanks' appeal, without attention to the mature themes presented. And, in retrospect, that is when I think that the HIV/AIDS crisis firmly entrenched itself in American suburbia -- 13 years after the initially termed "gay cancer" began to spread amongst the homosexual population and beyond and less than seven years after President Reagan officially recognized the grave epidemic. In Philadelphia, the male version of America's sweetheart, our boy next door Hanks, succumbed to this horrific virus in front of our very eyes, signaling to the masses that nobody was immune. It was one of the most covert -- and, by consequence, powerful -- examples of storytelling as activism. We could not see it coming.

A movie had the power to emotionalize the sexuality and the disease by asking the audience to pay witness to a human portrait, a human struggle -- one characterized by the themes of illness, adversity, family, and love, themes that know no gender, sexual, cultural, or socioeconomic boundaries. In 1985, playwright Larry Kramer did the same on stage with The Normal Heart, which opened at The Public Theater in New York City as an overt rallying cry meant to drive the community out of paralysis and into action. This past weekend, nearly three decades after his words ignited a fire in downtown Manhattan, Kramer's defining masterpiece finally resonated with the masses as a made-for-television movie, thanks to his fighting spirit, director Ryan Murphy, HBO -- and theater producer Daryl Roth.

I include Roth in the list because her efforts undoubtedly provided the momentum for the movie to be made, as she was the force behind the 2011 Broadway production of the play, which won three Tony Awards and cemented The Normal Heart's place in the American cultural canon. The revival was a commercially risky proposition, given the subject matter exhaustion at the time associated with HIV/AIDS. It not only breathed new life into the piece, however, reminding the theater community of its dramaturgical impact, but it also served as a powerful tool for two distinct generations. For the generation that lived through the darkest days portrayed, it allowed for a communal moment of catharsis. For the one behind, it served as an emotionally resonant window into modern history.

The movie is garnering much attention because of the extraordinary star wattage of Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, and Matt Bomer -- not unlike how the celebrity of Hanks helped to propel Philadelphia. But, as with Philadelphia, it is the humanity imbued in a story being told at a necessary time that promises to enrapture audiences. The portraits developed by Kramer collectively serve as a social study, encapsulating how fear and complacency have the potential to ravage a society. And, in their historical context, they clearly illuminate how tragedy eventually provided the means through which the gay community would come together and demand basic human rights, including the one to marriage that is currently at the forefront of our national dialogue.

Thanks to the revival and the film, The Normal Heart today reassumes its position as an activist property -- only this time it has morphed into one that implores us never to forget.