Tending to an older brother who was dying of AIDS in the mid-1980s, Kerry O. Burns never imagined he would one day stand in a theater and tell audiences about his experiences.
In "Markings of the Soul," which was staged recently at Los Angeles' Celebration Theatre, that is exactly what Burns did.
"'Markings of the Soul' is a true account of what happened in Atlanta, where Timothy lived, between the two of us," said Burns, who lives who lives with his wife Donna in Los Angeles. "It tells of our struggles against this plague and society's prejudices that made the struggle even more difficult. In the end, we never expected to go through the hell we did, nor did we expect the love that we found we were capable of."
Since then, "Markings of the Soul," a monologue with music and slide projections of Timothy's art, has toured and been seen in more than 40 states.
As Close as Brothers Can Be
Raised in a blue-collar household in New Jersey, Timothy and Kerry were encouraged by their father, a bricklayer, to play football and to be "real men."
"Timothy and I were close as brothers can be," Burns says. "That is, until Timothy came out to the family. That caused a lot of strife, ending with our father throwing him out of the house. A result of that event was that my relationship with Timothy changed and became one of hatred and contempt."
During the years that followed, the brothers eventually healed the rift between them, ending with Burns going to Atlanta to be Timothy's caretaker.
The one-man play began as a journal Burns started after returning to New York City in an attempt to come to terms with his life and the death of his brother.
"I started to look back on the journals I had kept in Atlanta," Burns says. "I read and read. Then I began to write and write. I wrote a personal account of my stay in Atlanta and filed it away, convinced I had laid my demons to rest."
An Opportunity to Reflect
But the demons were not so easily sent packing. Burns found himself returning to the computer to record a personal account of his relationship with his brother going back to their childhood.
"I was very candid and blunt with myself," Burns says. "I wanted honesty and integrity, not maudlin sentiment.
"When I finished the piece, I thought it was too personal to share with anyone else," he says. He put it away.
Eventually he used part of the piece as a monologue in an acting class. Impressed by the excerpt, a theater director asked to see the play in its entirety. That led to an off-Broadway engagement in 1993.
Burns addressed how a play about AIDS written in 1993 is received nearly 10 years later, in a time of lower mortality rates and less fear about HIV.
"We have gone so far in this fight, but we still have far to go," he says. "I spend time on the road touring the show and see how a lot of organizations are drying up because of shrinking funding and the volunteers are burning out. But I also meet people who are still dedicated and doing all they can."
Burns tells about a group of nurses he met in Delaware. "They started with the first case in their state and are still doing the work. I also see a lot of young people getting involved."
"Markings of the Soul," Burns says, can help keep awareness alive, even if it is on a small scale. Future plans include a performance in Senegal, Africa at an AIDS conference.
"No matter where I go in this country people tell me about their experiences. These people have not become complacent. I strongly believe in the theater as a powerful way of making a difference. If can reach even one or two of these people, then I am doing something."