There used to be a time when you couldn't turn on the television without hearing about it. I'm talking about HIV and AIDS. First, it was a quiet disease attacking (or so it seemed) a specific community... the community of gay men. As the disease reached out to more "mainstream" audiences, everyone started to get very concerned. AIDS became very real for our country when people who weren't "supposed" to get it started getting it. For a while, it was front page news. Everybody was talking about it. Everybody was concerned about research and development. What new superdrugs were being developed to attack what seemed un-attackable?
It spilled over from hospitals, clinics, hospices and research labs into theaters, exhibits, poems, and music. It hit popular culture square in the head and it didn't stop there. Prevention seemed a primary concern. Education about HIV/AIDS and how not to get it became paramount. Kids in schools across the country sniggered and elbowed each other as their red-faced teachers talked about safe sex. Some parents were outraged. Others were relieved.
Yesterday I saw an afternoon matinee of RENT with a group of girlfriends. I never had an opportunity to see it on stage, so I was really looking forward to it. I admit it, I like musicals. But I really didn't know what it was all about. I didn't know the storyline. A few weeks before the premiere, I started to get curious. I read a brief history on Wikipedia, and understood its ties to La Boheme. I listened to them talk about the upcoming movie on Mitch Albom, and I think (sorry Mitch if I'm misquoting or misrepresenting you) I remember Mitch saying something about Rent being yesterday's news... suggesting that it's heyday had passed.
As I sat in the theater, I thought that nothing could be further from the truth. I think we really need RENT today. We need to be reminded that there is still an AIDS epidemic. We need to be reminded that there are still human beings whose lives are touched then forever altered by this disease. We still need to work on removing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. There is still such a distinction between how we treat people with cancer and how we treat people with AIDS. There is still too much judgment, too little compassion. We need to be reminded that no matter what we are up against, we still need to love, to connect, to have a little help from our friends.
I loved the characters in this story. I think I loved Angel the most because she was glam, fun, happy compassionate, giving and downright lovable despite everything she was going through. I loved her relationship with Collins. I also loved Collins because he was played by Jesse L. Martin who I have had a serious crush on since he played Dr. Greg on Ally McBeal. I loved that the gay and lesbian people in this movie got to be gay and lesbian people... characters with depth and dimension, not the stereotypical caricatures we often see.
I need to ask a question. Is it just me, or are we less concerned about HIV/AIDS today than we were 10 or 20 years ago? Is it just me, or has this issue quietly receeded into the background? There is still plenty of room for concern. What it feels like to me is that there is a lack of engagement with the issue, and that lack of engagement is hurting people.
I used to be pretty active with an HIV/AIDS prevention program in Detroit. Seeing RENT reminds me that there is still work to do for those who will do it.