As our Paulinka (Megan Briggs) wrote, Sunday was our “designer run.” This is when all the staff, observe a mid-rehearsal in our process so they can get a sense of the staging, tone and mood of the play. Most of it will be subject to change and already, two days later, most of it has. One of the reasons for this anticipated adjustment is that this is the first time we had any audience. We were removing ourselves from the vacuum. And the view outside the pressure chamber was unexpected, as it always is.
When we started rehearsing A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY I was coming out of three months’ worth of dramaturgical research, mostly reading various political and social histories of the rise and fall of Weimar Republic, and the first two years of the Third Reich. I talked endlessly about the parallels of Weimar’s crumbling and unstable democracy and our own mistaken security that ours could never fall. I brought up the Capitalist Putsch against Roosevelt. We looked at Kushner’s own (self-admittedly immature) comparisons between Regan/Thatcher and Adolf Hitler. We talked about what I thought was going to be our big question: how the hell did this happen, and who was responsible? That’s a good play, right?
Kushner has other ideas. While watching our Agnes (Xanadu Bruggers) and her friends sit around her dining room table, and make witty jokes and tell stories, I flashed back to college and remembered the same scene in a different cozy apartment. I laughed, along with our staff, at a couple’s inability to relax enough to have sex, and beamed with joy when these good, good people think that the tides of Progress are going their way, which reminded me a little of the nights of Clinton’s and Obama’s election. Then Hitler is elected and the Reichstag burns, and we are in less familiar territory, though perhaps not if you take Fox News seriously. God willing, we will never know the darkness of Germany, 1933, let alone the catastrophe to follow.
However, because Kushner’s characters are so recognizable to the progressives among us, we cannot help but be moved and then transplant ourselves into Agnes’ modern flat, with all the ghosts and revelations that are contained there. A Bright Room Called Day is realistic in that its characters speak very intelligently about the political and social world they know, but they are so recognizable, so like our own friends and lovers, that we are instantly conveyed into this funny, sad and mystical world.
Plays are always about people, not ideas. We already knew that of course, but the view of the forest (as opposed to the trees) I got at the designer run is that we were too worried about what was outside the apartment. This was the first part of our work: understanding the terror coming around the corner, and what caused it. Check, we’ve got that down I think. Now, going forward, it is all about making these people are recognizable as possible, and us, as an audience, falling in love with these crazy artists, revolutionaries, communists, and Agnes, who holds them all together.
Oh yeah, and there’s the Devil, too. But that’s for another post.
I was made aware of this prayer by Custom Made’s intrepid Artistic Director (and the director of our upcoming Production of A Bright Room Called Day), Brian Katz. It is the AIDS Prayer written by Tony Kushner in 1994, for The National Day of Prayer for AIDS.
First, here is a link to the first minute of Mr. Kushner’s Prayer, read by Meryl Streep (from the documentary Wrestling with Angels):
Tony’s AIDS Prayer
And here is the full text of the prayer:
Dearly Beloved, Let us pray.
A cure would be nice. Rid those infected by this insatiable unappeasable murderer of its lethal presence. Reconstitute the shattered, restore to health all those whose bodies, beleaguered, have betrayed them, whose defenses have permitted entrance to illnesses formerly at home only in cattle, in swine and in birds. Return to the cattle, the swine and the birds the intestinal parasite, the invader of lungs, the eye-blinder, the brain-devourer, the detacher of retinas. Rid even the cattle and birds of these terrors; heal the whole world. Now. Now. Now. Now.
Grant us an end that is not fatal. Protect: the injection drug user, the baby with AIDS, the sex worker, the woman whose lover was infected, the gay man whose lover was infected; protect the infected lover, protect the casual contact, the one-night stand, the pickup, the put-down, protect the fools who don’t protect themselves, who don’t protect others: YOU protect them. The misguided, too and the misinformed, the ambivalent about living, show them life, not death; the kid who thinks that immortality is a part of the numinous glory of sex. Who didn’t believe this, once, discovering sex? Everyone did. Protect this kid, let this kid learn otherwise, and live past the learning; protect all kids, make them wiser but, until wise, make them immortal.
Enlighten the unenlightened: The Pope, the cardinals, archbishops and priests, even John O’Connor, teach him how Christ’s kindness worked: Remind him, he’s forgotten, make them all remember, replace the ice water in their veins with the blood of Christ, let it pound in their temples: The insurance executive as well as the priest, the congressional representative, the Justice and the judge, the pharmaceutical profiteer, the doctor, the cop, the anchorwoman and the televangelist, make their heads throb with memory, make them see with new eyes Christ’s wounds as K.S. lesions, Christ’s thin body AIDS-thin, his shrunken chest pneumonia-deflated, his broken limbs, his pierced hands: stigmata of this unholy plague. Let the spilled blood which angels gathered, Christ’s blood be understood: It is shared and infected blood.
Even John O’Connor, even Bob Dole, Giuliani and Gingrich, Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson – tear open their hearts, let them burn with compassion, stun them with understanding, ravish their violent, politick, cynical souls, make them wiser, better, braver people. You can. You, after all, are God. This is not too much to ask.
Grant us an end to this pandemic: Why, after all, a pandemic? Why now? Give aid to the needy, not AIDS, give assistance to those seeking justice, not further impediment. Find some other way to teach us you lessons; we’re eager to learn, we are only reluctant to die.
Bring back our dead, all our dead, give us certain knowledge of the future recovery of all those we’ve lost, restitution of all those we’ve lost, in Paradise if not on earth, but guarantee it. Don’t ask faith of people who have lost so much. Don’t dare.
Manifest yourself now. With a cure, now. With a treatment, now. With a treatment that isn’t more snakebite venom, more spiderbite poison, which is all that fourteen years of prayers and waiting and searching have given us. Reveal yourself with an imminent medical miracle. Announce it on the evening news: something, finally, that doesn’t fail to live up to its promise by morning of the following day. Reagan is gone, more or less, and Bush is gone, and Nixon and the Cold War are finally gone, and apartheid is gone, but AIDS is still here. And we are waiting. For the end of it.
Hear our prayer.
Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground? We are your crop, your sprouted seed, the harvest perishes in its faith for you for lack of lively rain.
Your silence, I must tell you, so steadfastly maintained, even in the face of our appalling need, is outrageous.
I speak now not for those assembled here but for myself, from the considerable rage that vexes my heart. So many have died this year alone: In case you were absent, God, or absent-minded, may I mention a few of them, comment their ends to your accounting? Randy Shilts, Jeff Schmalz, Paul Walker, Mary Darling, Harry Kondoleon, Bill Anderson, Ron Vawter, Tim Melester, Paul Monette.
Let each name stand for ten thousand more, and a hundred thousand others will remain unnoted. And many more are sick and have worsened; they take flight in number, I’ve noticed, they travel multiply, in flocks, like birds, these critically ill: Having heard the call of a general departing, they test their wings, the thermal currents, fighting for updrafts to carry them to, or carry them from, life. Here is courage and will and imagination and tenacity. Where, God, are you?
Your silence, again, is outrageous to me, it places you impossibly among the ranks of the monstrously indifferent, no better than a Washington politician, no better than an Albany Republican, Alfonse D’Amato, something that meager, that immured against justice.
Where you must not be placed. Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate from sky to ground so infrequently? We are parched for goodness, we perish for lack of lively rain; there’s a drought for want of grace, everywhere. Surely this has not escaped your notice? All life hesitates now, wondering: in the night that’s fallen instead of the expected rain: Where are you?
One of the Hasidim, Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, sealed him up in a hermitage, and for an entire year refused to answer the pleas of his disciples; would not respond when the knocked at his door, would not answer no matter how hard they knocked; their repeated inquiries after his health did not elicit a single response, their concern produced only silence, their bewilderment, their grief, their fears that he had died behind the door of his cell – for a year they heard nothing from Menachem Mendl of Kotsk.
And then one day he emerged from his cell. His door stood open, and there he was. His disciples demanded an explanation. He told them: “Now perhaps you understand my relationship with the Almighty, who will not reveal himself to me no matter how hard I beg, who hides His face from me.”
Except one must mention: They had only a year to wait, those tormented, aggrieved disciples, and then they had answers, and explanations. The analogy fails. We’ve waited a decade and a half for your help. We have ashes, and graves, and grief so overtopping it can no longer be recognized as grief, but has become a kind of dark amazement that so much can be endured; you hide your face from us.
I’ve been to the Wailing Wall, and I watched men and women daven, as they’d been davening for centuries, Jews before the impassive wall of history, believing their rocking could melt or move those great stones, believing that the messages they stick in the cracks could travel somehow to the other side. The anchorites, too, in the Syrian Desert, would weep over rocks, committed to dissolving the stones with their tears. Is prayer mere attrition, a kind of endurance?
If prayer is a beseeching, a seeking after the hidden heart and face of God, then this peremptory, querulous, insistent demanding, this pounding at your door cannot be called a prayer, this importunate sleeve-tugging while you are distracted – concerned, perhaps with something more important, holding the earth to its orbit, perhaps, keeping it from careening into the sun; or perhaps you tend to another world other than ours, and do a better job with that one, where there is nothing like AIDS, and your tutelage is gentler, and the lessons are easier to learn.
Four years ago a thirty-one-year-old woman named Milagros Martinez drowned herself off the shore of upper Manhattan Island. Infected with the virus, she went to the river and threw her body, which had become a fearful thing to her, her enemy now, she threw her body and the soul it housed into the Hudson, ending her life. Before she drowned, from the edge of drowning, she called to her son, seven years old: She’d left him standing on the riverbank. According to police, and the sixty-seven-word newspaper article that is, as far as I know, her only memorial, Milagros Martinez begged her son to join her in the water, but the child refused, watching instead as his mother was taken, by tributary currents, to some dark, unknowable bed.
What’s become of the child of Milagros Martinez? Where is he now? What dreams does he have, what river courses through his dreams at night? What bodies does it bear? From what raging sea is that river flowing, and toward what conceivable future?
I am in the habit of hoping. But it’s become wrong to draw hope from this conflagration. If holocaust alone is the only lesson we attend to, then what bat-winged butcher angel is our teacher, and towards what conceivable future, along the banks of what river of the dead, do we make our way?
I am in the habit of asking small things of you: one of the guilty who hasn’t done enough, one of the lucky, the survivors by accident. When I was ten an uncle told me you didn’t exist: “We descended from apes,” he said, “the universe will end, and there is no God.” I believed the ape part – my uncle had thick black hair on his arms and knuckles, so apes was easy – and the universe become a nulliverse, that too was scary fun. And since his well-meaning instruction I have not known your existence, as some friends of mine do; but you have left bread-crumb traces inside of me. Rapacious birds swoop down and the traces are obscured, but the path is recoverable. It can be discovered again.
So a cure for AIDS. For racism too. For homophobia and sexism, and an end to war, to nationalism and capitalism, to work as such and to hatred of the flesh. Restore the despoiled world, end the pandemic of breast cancer too, bring back Danitra Vance, and Audre Lorde, and Sigrid Wurschmidt, dead at thirty-six, and my mother, dead at sixty-five. Or at least guarantee that loss is not irrecoverable, so that life can be endured. But above all, since this is my job today, a cure.
If you cannot do these things for us, we will do them for ourselves, but slowly, because we can’t see far ahead. At least give us time to accomplish the future. We had a pact; you engendered us. Don’t expect that we will forgive you if you allow us to be endangered. Forgiveness, too, is a lesson loss doesn’t teach.
I almost know you are there. I think you are our home. At present we are homeless, or imagine ourselves to be. Bleeding life in the universe of wounds. Be thou more sheltering, God. Pay more attention.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Tony Kushner