“I’m not promiscuous,” Jeffrey, the title character, declared. “It’s such an ugly word. I’m cheap.” These lines are part of the opening monologue to Jeffrey, a cleverly-written comedic play by Paul Rudnick and performed by a rag-tag yet charming New College student cast during National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Week. The Sept. 27 performance, which was directed by Gary Allen Breul, was held in the Black Box Theatre (BBT) and was a collaboration between the Suncoast Aids Theatre Project and New College’s Queery.
The lead character, played by third-year Janardana Hayton, is a young gay man living in New York who, overwhelmed by all his sexual exploits, decides to become celibate. His attempts to avoid sex cold-turkey are compromised, however, when he meets Steve, who appears to be Mr. Right – except for one impediment. Steve, played by second-year Timothy Duff, is HIV-positive.
The performance is a whirlwind of satirical sketches depicting Jeffrey’s internal conflicts of becoming involved with someone he fears could get sick and die at any moment. The AIDS epidemic has scared Jeffrey, and now he’s not only hiding from his own sexuality, but from life in general. The play is a race with a barrel of laughs, where at the finish line is a much more serious message theatregoers can relate to regardless of their sexual orientations.
The play was first produced and takes place in 1993, a year when 44,000 Americans died to AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most of the public first heard of this deadly disease in the early 1980s. Through the mid 1990s, persons living with AIDS were still dying at a rather rapid rate and, often times, alone and in pain.
“Jeffrey’s big conflict was being uncomfortable with AIDS,” Hayton said. “I’m not at all uncomfortable with it. I feel like I have enough education about the subject. I feel like a lot of people feel like it’s not something that is around that much anymore even though it is.”
“Nowadays I still think there is still the stigma of AIDS,” third-year and cast member Chelsea Corarito added. “But it’s still easy to forgot how stigmatized it was 20, 30 years ago. [The play] was a history lesson for me, but in a really interesting way in which you learned how people thought about and reacted to AIDS. The play helps you grasp it much more concretely in a new perspective.”
“One of my favorite scenes is when Steve reveals to Jeffrey that he is at the hospital to visit the AIDS babies who have been abandoned or whose parents have died,” Hayton said. “Steve describes how the nurses were too scared or too busy to even touch them.”
Corarito, who played the only other HIV-positive character, discussed what drew her to the role: “When I looked at the role of Darius, I thought, ‘Well this person is over the top and has no shame!’ The character is interesting because he is both the comedic relief for the most part, but also at the end he is the one character that loses his battle to AIDS. His role is really important because if the comic relief dies, then what do you have left, and you have to learn a lot from that.
“I also identified with Darius in a sense that his role is to make life that is so terrible kind of smoothed over,” she continued. “Yes, he has this fatal disease but like [the character] Sterling tells Jeffrey: Darius is a million times happier than you ever were! There are a lot of lines that stick out, but that one probably had the most meaning for me.”
Darius, in between his most riotous moments, also provides the most profound advice: “Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life.”
Information taken from http://www.uic.edu/orgs/convening/hivaids.htm and http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/06/01/scruggs.hiv.aids/index.html