Still At Risk
Playwright Tim Pinckney examines AIDS activism then and now, and the rewriting of our history
by Hank Trout
We first meet Kevin, ex-actor and AIDS activist in his mid-forties, in New York City in 2005 when he stumbles into his friend Marcus’s apartment, covered in grime after slipping on something on the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue and falling into the gutter. He had been on his way to meet Byron, the Development Director of the (fictitious) Manhattan AIDS Project, an organization which Kevin’s ex-partner Eric Mason had helped to found. Kevin has learned that MAP plans to honor all of their founders at a huge fundraising gala…all except Eric, whose incendiary articles in The New York Times and the New York Native ruffled all the wrong feathers and whose take-no-prisoners activism opened apparently unhealable wounds within the organization. Kevin, who has stubbornly and loudly retained all the anger and urgency he felt during the Plague Years, both before and after he lost Eric to trust-funded Christopher, sets out to make sure that Eric is not ignored at this gala.
Thus begins Tim Pinckney’s emotionally charged new play, Still at Risk, which recently received its world premiere and enjoyed a very successful run at the renowned New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. With a cast of five on a minimalist stage, Still at Risk examines the problem of what we do now that the war we waged during the Plague Years—a combination of ACT UP-style guerilla theatrics and solid scientific research—has morphed into a less urgent, less in-your-face “checkbook activism.” No character in the play gets off unscathed for their foibles and limitations, but Pinckney treats those foibles and limitations with compassion and understanding.
Himself a veteran of the battles of the Plague Years, Pinckney has written several plays before Still at Risk, including Message to Michael, which was staged at NCTC during its 1999–2000 season, and several others. He is a member of The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Playwrights Unit, Actors’ Equity, and the Dramatists’ Guild. After ten years as an actor (“I was a big ole ham-bone actor!” he recently confided to A&U), Tim gave up his acting career and joined the GMHC in New York.
“When my friend David got sick, everything changed, it turned my life upside down. That’s when I joined GMHC. It was a terrifying time—the bodies were piling up around us. I did intake for GMHC. I worked with some of the best people I’ll ever know at GMHC, but there were limits to what we could do, there was a limited number of clients we could serve. Every Monday morning, we got calls from more clients than we could handle in a week and I would have to tell these guys, sorry, you’ll have to call back next week. It was heartbreaking.”
One of Pinckney’s coping mechanisms was his sense of humor. “If I hadn’t had a crazily dark humor, that period would have been even more difficult,” he said. It’s a sense of humor that David shared. For instance, Tim said that when he was helping David plan for his own burial, he had to tell David, “We can’t get you laid out like Judy Garland, but we did get you the spot where Joan Crawford was,” much to David’s delight. He also talked about how David and he had shared a single suit, each wearing it when they needed it. David had originally planned to be buried in his ACT UP T-shirt and a black leather jacket, but for the sake of his family’s feelings, he decided to be buried in the suit. “But what am I going to wear to the funeral?” Pinckney wanted to know. “On the morning of the funeral, I was in Macy’s buying a new suit.”
That darkish sense of humor creeps into Still at Risk and jolts the play. At one point, Kevin is talking with his friend Susan, a fellow veteran of the AIDS wars, who have just met for the first time in ten years. “You and I haven’t been in touch since…Jesus…since when?” Kevin asks Susan. “Since Reagan was alive and could still tell you his name and address,” she replies. Later in the conversation, when they’re talking about Eric’s having angered everyone with his blazing-hot writing, Susan says, “Well, everyone was pretty fucking pissed off about that first article. Larry Kramer wouldn’t talk to him, for Christ’s sake.”
Although the play is very funny—the play is about smart, articulate, artistic gay folks in New York City; how could it not be funny?—its themes are deadly serious. Kevin personifies many of those themes. For instance, what role does Kevin’s unrelenting anger have to play in today’s AIDS activism, now that the bodies aren’t piling up as fast and the sense of fear and the urgency have dissipated? Has that anger—so essential in the early days of the Plague Years when our government was totally indifferent to us and the scientific community far too slow—has that anger, which many of us still harbor, become obsolete, more a hindrance than a help, more off-putting than productive? Is that anger holding Kevin back, affecting his relationships? Still?
Another theme of the play is, how do we guard against the rewriting of our history? Pinckney seems keenly aware of the danger of allowing anyone, even our own community, to rewrite the history of the Plague Years. Kevin rightly sees MAP’s decision to exclude Eric from the gala honorees as an attempt to remove Eric from the history of MAP and thus from our history. From talking with Pinckney, I suspect that he finds that revisionism as unconscionable as I do. “I would hate to see us get too assimilated. I’m very proud of our tough history, of our rebel status. I don’t want us to lose that.
Although he characterizes the work he did as strictly behind-the-scenes (“I could never be the megaphone guy”), I could hear in his voice that he has deep-rooted respect for the rabble-rousers. “I’m very proud of all that ACT UP achieved. I mean, in addition to all the attention they got for us with the die-ins and everything, ACT UP also made us all become experts about the science of the virus. We led the scientific community. And even though we rarely get credit for it, we also changed charities, changed the ways they raise money. Whenever you see some group doing a 10k run fundraiser or a walkathon, that’s us, we started that.”
Pinckney’s other role in the war was caregiver to David. He recalled a conversation with his friend Ron Goldberg, a New York activist featured in How to Survive a Plague, in which he thanked Goldberg for his bravery and activism. Goldberg assured him that we all did all we could. “You took care of people,” he reminded Pinckney. The story reinforced for me something I’ve heard several times over the last few years from quite a lot of other long-term survivors, both HIV-positive and negative. We all did what we could, some on the front lines of the battlefield, some at home quietly caring for a dying partner. It’s a lesson that Kevin needs to learn, along with his friends. And maybe some of them do.
That’s all the plot you’re getting out of me. Suffice to say that there are incidents in the second act that genuinely surprise. There is conflict but there are no “bad guys.” The dialogue is completely natural and believable throughout the play—it sounds the way people actually speak, which, any writer can assure you, is very difficult to get right. And the combination of serious subject matter with crisp, witty talk is as satisfying as a warm New York City bagel on a winter morning. It is delightful and seriously good.
For more information on the New Conservatory Theatre Center, log on to www.nctcsf.org. Although there are no specific plans at the moment, Tim Pinckney hopes to bring Still at Risk to the boards in his hometown New York City soon. For information about the playwright, log on to: timpinckney.com.
Hank Trout is an A&U Editor At Large. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.