University of Wisconsin–Stout’s University Theater is presenting the moving story of an HIV/AIDS activist in the midst of the 1980s crisis in New York. First performed in 1985, “The Normal Heart” focuses on Ned Weeks, the gay founder of an HIV/AIDS advocacy group, as he tackles the sociopolitical issues surrounding the New York AIDS crisis. While fighting homophobia and trying to unify his community, he is forced to cope with those around him struggling with the disease.
Freshman lead Derek Johnson gave a compelling performance as the confrontational Ned. “The Normal Heart” did not compare to shows Johnson has done in the past. “It was very emotional, knowing [the epidemic] really happened,” Johnson said, “The story needs to be told, and we all did our best to communicate the feeling.”
A late addition to the cast, student Mitchell McGillis was happy to be pulled in for the show. “Everyone was passionate. It is an important show to get right,” McGillis said.
Activist Dab Garner held a discussion in Harvey Hall Theater about HIV/AIDS and his Dabs the AIDS Bear Project before opening night on Thursday, Nov. 1.
After Garner’s best friend was given the AIDS diagnosis—then called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—in 1981, he was quarantined. Garner was hurt that he couldn’t visit his friend, so he had nurses clad in hazmat suits give his friend a teddy bear. “I’m pretty big and hairy. In the gay community, hairy men are called bears, so I thought what better present to give him?”
Garner was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982. He earned custody of a girl born HIV-positive by becoming her godfather (gay couples were not able to legally adopt until recent Supreme Court rulings), and he knew he had to make other kids born with AIDS feel loved.
Upon his release from the hospital, doctors told Garner he was the first person in San Francisco to get out alive. He and other survivors take a daily mix of medication to reduce the effects of the virus. Garner has been without a viral load for 14 years, meaning he is no longer contagious.
Garner’s organization hosts Teddy Bear Touchdowns, which are holiday parties for children living with HIV/AIDS held around the world. The events give children holiday gifts, including his iconic Dab the AIDS Bear.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), there were approximately 36.7 million people worldwide with HIV/AIDS in 2015. Productions like “The Normal Heart” seek to bring AIDS awareness to the public eye.
Catch the show at the Harvey Hall Theater on Friday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. or Saturday, Nov. 11, with a matinee at 1:30 p.m. or the final showing at 7:30 p.m.