On Monday night, the Washington AIDS Partnership joined forces with Arena Stage and the cast from The Normal Heart to celebrate the biennial International AIDS Conference taking place this year in Washington.
The evening opened with cocktails followed by a benefit performance, a Champagne toast at intermission, and a night of dancing for audience and cast combined. Guests included Italian ambassador Claudio Bisogniero and members from AIDS 2012.
Channing Wickham, executive director of the Washington AIDS Partnership, says he enjoyed the mix of young and old, patron and artist in the theater’s space. “The way Arena Stage has that wall of glass, it fills the room with light and you really feel like you’re bringing the city in,” he says.
Today, DC has one of the highest rates of HIV in the country. The Normal Heart, which was written by Larry Kramer and recently ran on Broadway (read our review of the play), tells the story of a time when despite hundreds of AIDS related deaths, “no one was talking about it,” explains Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. Wickham calls the play “a timely and relevant reminder that the AIDS epidemic is still with us.”
The AIDS 2012 gathering is a landmark event for the District. It is the first time the conference has taken place in the United States in 22 years, as the HIV travel restrictions were changed.
Wickham says his personal passion to fight AIDS started when a friend lost his own battle with the disease. “The best way I know how to honor their memory and their friendship is to do the work that I am so very blessed to do,” he says.
Actor Jon Levenson recalls the initial challenges of opening the play in New York: “We had 12 days to put the whole show together—I was in a state of perpetual anxiety,” he says.
But the Washington audience made a strong impression on the cast. Levenson and actor Chris Dinolfo say they heard murmurs and sighs when the characters related to the government were in focus. “Some of us felt like we were even saying certain lines stronger [in our performances in Washington] because we knew this was a different audience, educated in a special way, tuned in to this story because they’re in certain seats of power dealing with it right now,” Levenson says.
Ultimately, the night ended with a packed dance floor. Dinolfo says he enjoyed watching actor Patricia Wettig “bust some moves.” Levenson says he appreciated the members of AIDS 2012 coming to the party. “We were celebrating their work, and they were celebrating our work.”
“It was a long, emotional process to act these stories, and the lives of the people in the audience, the people on the front lines, can be exhausting, too,” Dinolfo says. “Like Rihanna says, you have to ‘shake the stress away.’ And we did.”