“Can we sort of do a video version of an AIDS quilt?” That was the idea playwright Matthew López had when he reached out to actor friends and acquaintances to see if they would read passages from a pivotal monologue from his epic, two-part play The Inheritance, about gay life in the early 21st century in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
Today, on World AIDS Day, López shares “the Walter Project,” in which a variety of people read Walter Poole’s speech from the end of Act 1 of the play — that’s been divided into 33 sections — and includes everyone from John Lithgow, Cynthia Erivo, Marisa Tomei, Lena Waithe, John Cameron Mitchell, Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey, and Glenn Close performing the moving passage.
“Everybody shot everything in April and May, so it was the height of the first wave [of the pandemic]. I think, at that time, everyone was just so desperate to connect to someone, to their craft, to each other,” López explains. The Broadway production was set to close on March 15th, but it never had its final curtain call since the pandemic forced New York City theaters to shutter. “We had not left theaters all too long ago, and I think there was, in the moment, a tremendous fear that we might lose a lot of our connection to theater.”
López was eager to work with The Aids Memorial (TAM) Instagram account, since that project was an integral educational element of both the London and Broadway productions of López’s play, with photos featured backstage. The account has collected photos and stories of people who were lost to HIV/AIDS and functions as “much-needed space for people to share their stories within a supportive online community,” according to Stuart, who manages the account and prefers to use only their first name.
“The video monologue could easily relate to any of the thousands of men who are featured on ‘The AIDS Memorial,’ and it is also the part of the play that really affected me on so many levels,” Stuart explains. “These stories have been ignored long enough; I have a duty to those who contact me about their loved ones, requesting me to post.”
December 1st was designated as World AIDS Day since 1988 to raise awareness about the pandemic and to help stop the spread of HIV infection. With so much attention focused on the current coronavirus pandemic, it may be easy for most to overlook the fact that the global HIV/AIDS pandemic — which killed an estimated 770,000 people in 2018, according to the World Health Organization, despite all the advances in new drug treatments and fewer cases of new infections — continues to take lives.
“Death, combined with AIDS, is not the easiest topic to read about daily — if at all,” Stuart admits. “For those who keep supporting especially through these depressing and uncertain times, is a revelation to me. I mean, the AIDS pandemic is barely acknowledged, hence the existence of TAM. I believe that’s the reason why we have not learned how to properly tackle and contain Covid. If we fail to know or understanding our past, how can we possibly learn from it to better shape our future?”
As Stuart notes, many people who lived through the AIDS epidemic — although emotionally trigged by the new deadly Covid-19 virus — have been ultimately more prepared because we have already experienced the disastrous repercussions when there has been a slow ineffective response. “We are also familiar and better prepared to deal with the ignorant rhetoric, the denialism, the healthcare disparities, whilst recognizing how it ultimately negatively affects the marginalized and underrepresented communities the most in our society, which we are part of.”
They both want to make sure that they harness the increase social awareness of the people lost to and living with HIV/AIDS. “I think that the danger to remembrance is the false idea that something is past,” López explains. “I think there is there is an inherent danger to memorials in general because they they assume a past-tense quality to the events. It assumes that it is over. Of course, even just with with HIV/AIDS, it is far from over. And in a broader way, this fight, no matter what the fight is, no matter what the struggle is and what the peril is, will never really end.”
As the character of Walter Poole instructs in the play: “You do what they could not. You live.”