The first time I saw the musical RENT was on Broadway back in 1998. My husband surprised me with orchestra seats for our anniversary. He even arranged for our infant daughter to be watched by a friend who lived on the upper west side of Manhattan so we could enjoy our night on the town. As we exited the theatre, volunteers from the organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS gave out red ribbons in exchange for a small donation.
Flash forward to last week. That same 18-month old infant, now 13 years old, sat between my husband and me as we experienced a phenomenal performance of RENT at the Rochester Jewish Community Center’s Hart Theatre.
We prepared her for RENT’s mature themes days ahead and she listened to the show’s musical score for hours in the privacy of her room. During and after the performance, she made two striking comments that opened the doorway for several important conversations.
First, she was surprised at how many of the characters had AIDS. She didn’t realize the disease was “that contagious.” Now, I know that our school district starts AIDS education in the fifth grade. But I guess a pamphlet on the disease is no match to watching someone on stage who is portraying someone living with and then dying from AIDS.
Secondly, when the show was over and I told her about the red ribbons — and how red ribbons once seemed to be everywhere, on the lapel of a jacket by the ordinary person on the street, to adorning the sequined gowns of celebreties and entertainers on TV award shows. I remarked how odd it felt that the red ribbons should be absent at this performance. To my shock, she replied, “Well, mom, I guess AIDS is not such a big issue anymore.”
But then again, why would AIDS/HIV seem a big issue to her and her peers? Did it unfold itself on a daily, horrifying basis as it did when my generation, the Gen Xers, were coming of age in the 80s? And, why would it be a big issue for teens her age in this age? AIDS is not new anymore. An entire generation has gone by not even knowing that a time existed before AIDS.
Did she wake up one morning to her favorite radio station to learn that Freddy Mercury, one of the greatest voices of Rock ‘n Roll had confirmed the rumour that he was dying of AIDS? Sadly, my kids know about Freddy Mercury, but only posthumously. Or what about Magic Johnson? Can they appreciate the fact that he is still alive today after announcing he was infected with HIV nearly two decades ago? Do TV characters on the Disney Channel or any other program she watch portray those who suffer with AIDS/HIV, as the television shows like “ER,” “My So Called Life” and even “A Different World” did?
Then, it made me wonder, when was the last time the AIDS quilt was displayed, or pictures of it appeared in the media? She had never seen pieces of the AIDS quilt when it was small, or lived through the time as time went by that the AIDS quilt grew to the size of several football fields, and then to a size so big it could no longer be displayed in one place.
She didn’t ride the subways in NYC in the 1980s and 90s to see young people laying on the floor with a placard containing these words: Homeless with AIDS. Please Help.
Though there were no volunteers distributing red ribbons in the JCC lobby that evening, I did find a display with brochures for AIDS Red Ribbon Ride to benefit AIDS Care. That the JCC in its wisdom produced RENT, and that my daughter and many teens may not see AIDS as a contemporary issue, prove that there is still much work to be done. AIDS Care hopes to raise $50,000 from a combined five-day Finger Lakes tour on August 18-22 culminating with a separate one-day tour on August 22 to provide funding for AIDS education and services and clinical research for people living with AIDS/HIV.
In Monroe County New York, 2,026 people are diagnosed each year with HIV and 56,000 are infected annually nationwide. The AIDS Red Ribbon Ride will help those living with HIV/AIDS gain greater independence and get the treatment and care they need. Prevention services geared towards high-risk populations will ensure that future generations will not experience the same level of loss that we have faced in the last two decades.
One rider, Phyllis Fleischman of Pittsford, was so dedicated to this cause that she spoke to me while away on business in the Netherlands as to why she is participating. She and her cycling team over the last several years have raised $200,000 for AIDS research and services. As she makes her way along the 420-mile five-day course through the Finger Lakes region and back to Genesee Valley Park, it will be her team, and thinking about the people she will be helping, that will inspire her.
“When you ride with a team, it is the laughter, even in bad weather that keeps you going. Knowing you are doing something good gets you through the miles,” she said.
Quoting from the lyrics of RENT, there’s no day but today. If you would like to learn the details of the cycling course, participate in a riding team, volunteer or donate to the five-day-long fundraising event, visit www.AIDSRedRibbonRide.org, call 585-210-4183, or email jdavis@acRochester.org.