In her one-woman show, David’s Friend, Nora Burns pays homage to her best friend, David, and revisits the AIDS crisis in New York City
by Alina Oswald
“To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die; […]
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; […]
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
The above verses from Ecclesiastes came to mind when reading about Nora Burns’ new show, David’s Friend. As if to take the message a step further, she says over the phone, commenting on her show, “The PTSD is wearing off, and now we realize that [because of the AIDS crisis] we lost this huge part of our lives—people we couldn’t grow old with. I think that’s especially true for me. That’s one thing I’m really sorry [about, that my friend, David,] really didn’t get to see who I became—a comedian and a performer—didn’t get to meet my kids. I don’t know what he would have thought. He was very technologically advanced. He was on computers back then, and I was, ‘Oh, computers, that’s never going to get anywhere,’” she says, and I can sense a faint smile in her voice. She goes on, “I’m sure he would have been on the forefront of technology and all that.” She pauses then adds, “People that worked with me on the show call it an ‘unfinished friendship.’”
The AIDS crisis cut short too many friendships, relationships, and lives. Those who are still here to tell the story continue to do so, even more today. The reason is multifold. On one hand, there’s the feeling that an HIV cure is within our reach. The idea of an actual cure makes many people pause in remembrance of those gone too soon, those who did not make it to the finish line. This reminds Burns of another time, back in the mid-nineties, when lifesaving medications became available. “The most tragic thing was that most people died between 1991 and 1994, like literally a year or two before [protease inhibitors],” she says.
On the other hand, as Burns further explains, the generation of those who have lived through the first years of the AIDS epidemic is getting older. “We’re the last ones with the stories, and with the memories of these people who died [during that time],” she says. “[And so] it is important to talk about it, and let these people [who lost their lives to AIDS] live again, through these stories, in present and future generations.”
Nora Burns is a New York writer and performer, and a founding member of the comedy groups Nellie Olesons and Unitard. She has performed in New York City at La MaMa, PS122 and Joe’s Pub, among other venues. She has appeared in films like Broken Hearts, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Florent: Queen of the Meat Market, and on TV, in LOGO’s comedy show, Wisecrack, and The Sandra Bernhard Experience.
A couple of years ago, she started working on David’s Friend. “I started thinking about my friend and missing him,” she explains. “And I wanted to somehow remember him and his friendship.” She adds, “[The show] has changed a lot as I brought in other people and other people’s ideas. I’ve never worked on [anything] like this before.”
David’s Friend tells the story of Nora Burns and her best friend, David, and their exhilarating journey from Boston to New York (and, at times, beyond). Called “an achingly funny coming-of-age story about love and loss at the center of the universe: New York City,” David’s Friend revisits the answer to “what are best friends for?” and offers a fresh glance at New York City life before, during, and after the AIDS crisis. Burns, who wrote and performs in the one-woman show, emphasizes that David’s Friend is not a documentary. David’s Friend is a show. Some might call it “an homage” to her best friend, David, their friendship, and life in New York City.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about the show is that, as the title suggests, David’s Friend actually tells the story of the playwright herself. After all, she is David’s friend. And she brings the story to life on stage, in the most unusual way.
It’s Friday night, January 31, in the East Village. At The Club at La MaMa, the audience is waiting, anticipating the beginning of the show, which is announced, “as they do it at La MaMa,” by the ring of a bell. And then, just like magic, Nora Burns appears on stage dancing, surrounded by a background of video and photomontages, as disco music fills the room.
“I met my best friend [David, while dancing on a speaker] at a gay bar in Boston. We stayed up till 2 a.m. It was Boston,” Burns jokes as she begins, addressing the audience. It was the summer of ’79. They were seventeen. She was “obsessed with gays, gay clubs, and New York City. New York City was my Oz. I knew that was where I wanted to be.”
She continues to tell the story, taking us along on her journey from Boston to New York, where she went to college. David came to visit and never left. The early days of living in New York City were “a cacophony of drugs, sex, clubs, and antibiotics.” In time, they moved in together. David would always clean up her mess, keep her alive. “There are people who find life, and others who life finds,” she says, describing her friend. “David would go out for milk and come back with [Elton John tickets]. I would get back with Half & Half.”
Then, one particular night, they read an article about “a gay cancer caused by poppers.” And although they never talked about it, “David sensed that a storm was coming. Several storms were coming,” she says on stage, as “It’s Raining Men” plays in the background. First storm was that she got a boyfriend. The second storm “was a tsunami.” Her voice breaks with emotion as she speaks of those who lost their lives to the AIDS crisis.
“David wanted to live,” she assures the audience. “He really believed that he would beat the odds. And he did, until he didn’t.” The night David died, she was dancing on a speaker in Fire Island.
“It’s 2017 and David has been dead for twenty-three years,” she tells the audience. “I’m just mourning him in a completely visceral way. For those of us who have lived through the age of AIDS, the PTSD is wearing off. It’s a collective mourning. I’m still here, in 2017, in New York City. It’s impossible to describe how it was back then; to face the incurable plague, so we put on our costumes and danced as hard as we could.”
Years passed and life, for Burns, went on. Every once in a while, she’d run into people who knew David. And she’d say, “I’m Nora, I’m David’s friend.”
David’s Friend is a “true-life epic” about friendship, one that surpasses life and death. The candid moments Burns shares with her audience—songs, videos, photos, and even snippets from her journal and from David’s own writings—bring the story home for many of us.
“Emotionally, it is not the easiest show,” she tells me, “but I still want to do it, because I want to spend time with my friend. After the New York performances, which were extended, she plans to take the show on the road.
“We’re now not one, but two generations past the AIDS crisis,” she comments. “Now there is PrEP. [And in part because of PrEP], AIDS is preventable.” She hopes that “prevention is a real thing” and yet, even in the U.S., not everybody has access to PrEP. There is still no cure. Awareness is still necessary.
With the passing of time, the AIDS crisis is starting to fade away from memory, and it is not part of young people’s lived experience. Young people, today, cannot imagine what it was like to live during the AIDS crisis, but many are interested in finding out; hence, the importance of telling the story and keeping it alive.
“Tragedies that threw us together, as a community, made us able to fight the fight that we needed to fight,” Nora Burns says, referring to the AIDS crisis. For instance, during the eighties there was ACT UP; today there’s Black Lives Matter. To today’s youth she offers, “Every generation needs to learn for themselves,” and “to unite in order to fight their own fight, because we are much stronger united as a people.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.