Playwright Bruce Ward talks with A&U’s Chael Needle about his new play, Lazarus Syndrome, finding support & the need to stay on top of AIDS history
You read an obituary of someone who shares your name. Your significant other is leaving for a tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Mormon icon Donny Osmond. Your loved ones show up on your doorstep, unexpected, in the middle of the day.
Sometimes the familiar needs to be made strange for you to gain a fresh perspective, and to draw you back into the current of life. Matzoh ball soup, brisket, kugel, and conversation can do the trick. Elliott, the central character in Bruce Ward’s new play Lazarus Syndrome, has been feeling out of sorts and is treated to a home-cooked meal on the Sabbath by his father, who has followed on the footsteps of his other son Neil. They are concerned that Elliott has not left his New York City apartment in nine days, ever since his partner Stephen has left for his tour. And what better than comfort food, as Elliott’s father reminds, and sharing a meal to rouse you from the blahs—even if the exchanges you have are peppered with long-standing grievances and riddled with silences?
While Elliott is an individual living with HIV, Lazarus Syndrome is not an “AIDS play”—a label that probably only exists in the minds of theater critics anyway—but neither does it leave the pandemic unremarked. The title refers in part to the mid-nineties phenomenon where some of those living with HIV/AIDS, thanks to new treatment options, rebounded into better health—seemingly rose from the dead like the Christian biblical figure—and were left with the task of picking up the pieces and moving into a future that they had once thought had been forestalled. Elliott, twenty-two when his friends started dying from AIDS-related complications, has survived, but for what purpose?
The Lazarus syndrome was only one of the starting-points of the play, says Ward, who is also an actor. “I felt nothing had been written about, or, rather, I hadn’t seen anything on-stage about long-term survivors or people living with the virus, now, after 1996. People, even the gay community, just assume that you should be living your life. ‘What’s the problem? Go on! You’re alive,’” he says, adding that the play touches on an array of concerns—from the existential to the practical—that arises around the syndrome. “The other issue I wanted to talk about was heritage, in this particular Jewish family, and how heritage and family affect your outlook on life, and your support system, and how that can help you or hurt you, through not just the people immediately around you but your ancestors as well,” says Ward, who focused on Jewish tradition but “without being too historical or heavy-handed about it.” When Ward reflected on his own experiences, he realized that many family gatherings took place around a table, during the course of a meal.
For the play, he gives more than a nod to ethnic heritage as a source of support in the face of trauma, but one that comes with its own quirks: “In Jewish families everyone tries to one-up each other with catastrophes!” notes Ward, laughing. Elliott’s positive serostatus competes with Neil losing all of his coworkers in 9/11; his father’s widowship; his grandfather’s immigrant hardships; as well as the Holocaust. “‘Lazarus syndrome’ came out of mental health discourse about AIDS, but now it has been used to refer to Holocaust survivors who went through similar things, [people who went through] incredible trauma, survived, and then were expected to just go on with their lives,” Ward explains, placing AIDS in a more expansive history of emotions.
“And [yet] with HIV, it’s not all done now,” he says, drawing out a distinction. “It would be one thing to say, ‘Okay, that’s all in the past, and now everything is perfect and you can just go on.’ But people living with HIV still have to deal with issues [on a daily basis]. Even if you are perfectly healthy, you still have to take pills every day! You still have to go to the doctor’s. You still really don’t know what’s happening in the future. We don’t know how it’s affecting our bodies—the longer people with HIV live, the more opportunistic infections are working in our system. I myself had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, most likely from having the virus in my body for so long.” Lazarus also employs a more universal coping mechanism—humor. “Audiences found it funny—in the right places—and I was very relieved to see that, and also relieved that the director treated it as a comedy,” he says, agreeing that sometimes audiences associate “AIDS” only with three-handkerchief fare. Lazarus, which was presented by Theater Alliance and enjoyed an extended run in Washington, D.C., was named a winner of the 2007 VSA arts Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award, a part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Michael Kanin Playwriting Awards Program.
Even though Ward is an accomplished and prolific playwright, boasting a repertoire that includes Stargazers, Room 69, and Paint by Numbers, to name a few, he decided to pursue graduate studies in creative writing—two years ago he studied playwriting at Boston University and now is delving into nonfiction at the New School. He is currently working on a book-length series of essays, enjoying the discursive breadth that character and plot-driven plays rarely provide.
The essays draw on his experiences, exploring in part the sources and substance of coping mechanisms, says Ward, who attributes his own well-being in part to the positive support he continues to receive from his family. More or less chronological, the essay cycle revisits and records the first two decades of the pandemic. As someone who has lived for twenty-three years with the virus, and spent his time as an activist and working for the National AIDS Hotline, serving as its first director from 1988 to 1989, Ward sometimes takes people’s knowledge of AIDS history “for granted. And then I talk to many, many other people, even people my age, and realize they don’t have a clue. So I really felt like
I needed to write this down and get it out there.”
Ward has delved into AIDS from an eyewitness perspective before. Written in 1992, Fabulous Ride into the Unknown is a one-person play, which he often performs, that addresses the AIDS crisis of the eighties (the piece was once called Decade, in fact). Composed of nine monologues spanning from 1980 to 1989, the play examines easily recognizable types from the gay urban community only to render them more complexly by the end of each piece.
When he performed it for an NYU audience for World AIDS Day 2006, Ward realized that Fabulous has now become a “history piece” for college-age kids. “I have visual slides that go on between monologues, along with music from each year,” he says. “I did a Q&A afterward and [in response to some of the images] they were, like, who was that [HIV-positive] guy that you showed on the diving board? It’s in fact Greg Louganis [A&U, February 2008]. It’s that shock when you talk to people who are in their early twenties, and you realize they have no references to the things that you take for granted!” Even in 1992, however, he adds, there were younger people who were not aware of the history of AIDS in the eighties.
Ward does not see Fabulous—or Lazarus—as lessons about the past, per se, but neither do the plays gesture toward some sort of timeless aesthetic realm. “I think it’s interesting because when I wrote Fabulous in ’92 I thought it was timely,” he says, though some theaters were convinced no one wanted to see a play about AIDS. “Now, ten, eleven years after the protease inhibitors came out…, I think it’s a really vital time for Fabulous to come out because it is such a slice of history and I think it does inform people about what’s happening now—with the rate of infection and gay men are still going out having unprotected sex and people think that the crisis is over, [that] you can take a few pills, it’s like getting a shot for gonorrhea.”
Follow Bruce Ward on Twitter @bdwardbos.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.
First appeared in the March 2008 issue.