Nora Burns on David's Friend, Her One-Woman Show on AIDS, Love, Loss and Great Old Disco
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?
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.
As a 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.