Sweetness on the desert air

“Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens” remembers the lives of those who died of AIDS.

Greg Corradini

Credit cards, stuffed animals, Barbie dolls and afghans. How does one make a patchwork quilt?

In 1992, 17 quilted acres of memories (including the items listed above) were unfurled in Washington. The bedspread was the collaborative tailoring of many bereaved lovers, friends and family members of people who died of AIDS and its complications.

The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed in Washington in 1987 with approximately 1,500 panels, each in memory of an AIDS victim. Today, the quilt stands at 42,960 panels and contains mementos of AIDS victims from all over the world.

Similarly, Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s musical, “Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens,” is a commemoration of the lives lost to AIDS. The play was in part inspired by Russell’s viewing of the quilt in Washington.

This staging of “Elegies for Angels,” co-produced by the Minneapolis Musical Theatre and

Minnesota AIDS Project, is a poetic and musical tapestry. Thirty-two characters, some casualties of AIDS and others their surviving friends, perform postmortem monologues and songs. The characters come from a range of races, genders, social classes and sexual orientations. There are junkies and addicts; businessmen and women; children and prostitutes.

From beyond the grave, the dead recount for viewers what their lives were like before AIDS and their struggle to deal with it. All the deceased’s monologues are performed in rhyming verse, whereas the living use Janet Hood’s songs to interweave some musical punch into the script.

Songs such as “I Don’t Know How to Help You” tend to evoke the memory and loss of loved ones. However, certain numbers, such as “I Don’t Do That Anymore” and “Spend it While You Can,” promise to undermine the play’s seriousness with subtle humor.

“Because the poems portrayed the perspective of characters that had died, they are voiced in past tense,” the play’s director and writer, Bill Russell, said. “It wasn’t until I started putting together the first full production of ‘Elegies’ that I realized the lyrics I’d written were in present tense and were expressions of those left alive in the face of this tragedy. Two worlds were present on stage. I found the dynamic between the two realms intriguing and became more focused on trying to show a canvas of the many types both infected and affected by AIDS.”

‘Elegies for Angels’ evinces a greater trend in playwriting over the last 20 years that attempts to deal with HIV and AIDS.

The emergence of AIDS in the 1980s was a period of inaction and tragedy. The first cases of AIDS were diagnosed in 1981. Within 10 years, thousands more died of the disease in the United States alone. Ignorance and fear in the early years of the outbreak produced widespread discrimination against AIDS patients.

Well-known playwrights such as Lee Blessing, Jonathan Larson and Terrence McNally have used the theater to confront the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In this way, theater has dramatically stimulated viewers while also informing them about one of the more serious issues in the world. Drama has assumed responsibility as social action and therapy.

The favorable reception of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America” is further proof of this progression. However, the play’s acceptance has often been hampered because of its overt homosexual content. In North Carolina, a 1996 production of “Angels in America” had local officials threatening to prosecute the actors for indecent exposure. Consequently, productions in other cities were picketed.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Minnesota AIDS Project. The group’s collaboration on the “Elegies for Angels” production further underscores its commitment to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in Minnesota. The reconstruction of controversial issues such as AIDS in a dramatic context helps bring new avenues of communication to the public, said Amy Weiss, communications director at the Minnesota AIDS Project.

“We have seen a lot of things change, but unfortunately many of the issues around (AIDS) discrimination still exist even here in Minnesota,” Weiss said.

“Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens” represents the kind of action toward a better future that the HIV/AIDS awareness movement has often displayed.