Decade: Life in the ’80s
Written and performed by Bruce Ward
One hell of a decade
Decade: Life in the ’80s was first produced in 1992, as a solo piece featuring the author. He subsequently performed the play at theaters, festivals, conferences, and universities, through 2002. The play may also be performed by 2-4 actors, or more, playing multiple roles.
Decade explores several stereotypes during the 1980s, and then attempts to explode the stereotype, allowing the audience a glimpse into the real person beneath the veneer.
The play begins in 1980 and works its way, chronologically, through the decade. In the end, we see the ten characters presented here as real individuals, but also as connected by the web that is the ever-expanding AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
There are nine monologues in the play. The two presented here are the fifth and sixth monologues, representing the years 1985 and 1986. Names are presented by a pre-recorded voice four times during the play, each in a different mode (quietly, at the end, as if viewing the quilt, etc.). Each time, the number of names on the list grows.
“THE WORRIED WELL”
(“Why” segues into Jennifer Holliday’s “ I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”)
(PAULIE is discovered sitting in an easy chair. He is in a bathrobe, with bi-focal glasses dangling from his neck. Next to the easy chair is a table crammed with pills, a glass of water, a bowl of potato chips, two remote control units, and…the telephone. He clicks the remote}
Lose some weight, girl.
(he quickly picks up the telephone, dials, waits a few seconds, under his breath)
Come on, come on! ‘
She died…What do you mean, who? Who were we talking about last night?…Karen Ann Quinlin! You said she didn’t die. I said she did die. She died, Marty…No, not just now. Months ago. In June… I’m telling you because we had this argument last night… all right, a discussion… and it was just on some news show, and it said she died in June… So? So? So, I don’t know, I thought you’d want to know…Fine. Go back to Dynasty. Are you still watching that tired old thing?…All right, you don’t care that Karen Ann Quinlin is dead. See if I care.
(he abrubtly hangs up, turns on TV, snippet of news is on. Turns it off, sniffles, blows his nose)
I need a lover.
(calls for cat)
Fluffy! Fluffy, where are you?!
(He makes smoochy noises. Phone rings. He grabs it before it finishes the first ring)
Yes? No, this is not Mrs. Polly Pearlstein.-.No, that’s my mother… Yeah, it’s Paulie…P-A-U-L…Wait a minute, why am I talking to you, who is this?…No, I don’t want to switch to MCI!
(He slams the phone down)
Don’t they know that people are eating dinner at this hour?
(He delves into bag of potato chips, switches on television)
What is this? I want some entertainment. I knew I should’ve kept the cable box after Todd left. Dynasty, ugh!
(Phone rings. Again.)
I love what Alexis is wearing.
(Phone rings again. He picks it up, cautiously)
Oh,-Barry, it’s you…I’m sick as a dog.
(he coughs dramatically)
And you?…How nice for you. How long has this been going on now, a month? I’ll call the caterers… okay, okay, little joke… So what do you want, I’m in the middle of Dynasty… What?… So?… Am I supposed to care? I never went to that filthy place… All right, all right, I am not judging you. I don’t care that the Anvil closed, just so long they don’t touch Bloomingdales… okay, so they closed the place, it was a dirty place anyway… There was stuff going on!.. So do it in your bedroom!… Are you being safe? Barry? Are you? I hope you’re being safe…Now they think it’s this virus…Yes, yes, HTL something…Don’t you read The Native?…No, of course I don’t read it for the politics, I keep thinking maybe there’ll someday be a personal ad that makes me go “Wow!” But of course, there never is…Well, it’s hard to miss, they think it’s this swine flu …fever… something, but I don’t know. These scientists seem to think it’s this four-lettered virus. God, first they thought it was poppers, so I stopped doing poppers. Then they said it was the number of partners, so I stopped having sex. Yes, since Todd, all right? Now they think it could be in your body…for years! It can be in there and you don’t even know it! All right, all right, I am not getting hysterical.
(he picks up pieces of paper on the side table)
I’m sitting here trying to remember who I’ve had sex with and what I did with them and how many times and are they still alive. And I’m sick as a dog and I can’t breathe and my glands feel like golf balls…
(he catches his breath)
So what do you want me to do about it? Go join a J/0 club or something… Oh, that’s too vanilla for you. Well, I’m sorry…Are you kidding? Can you see me at one of those things, I’d be laughing so hard they’d have to throw me out. Oops. Wait a minute, got another call. Hang on.
(He clicks button on phone to connect to other call)
If you’re a vendor, I’m not home…Oh, hello, mother. Hang on.
Barry, gotta go…my mother…Barry, don’t lose any sleep over this, okay?
You there? Yes, mom, I’m fine…Really. Why?…No, must be the connection.
(he sticks the reciever in the bowl of potato chips)
You hear that static? No, it’s okay, it’s not that late, I’m just watching…I know you’re my mother…Interfering with what? Wait a minute, I know this pattern. “Hope I’m not interrupting. You know I’m your mother. I don’t want to be interfering.” What is it, Mother?…Test? What test?…Yeah, what about it?…I know what it means, mom, but it doesn’t mean anything. I mean, they know what it tells you, but you still don’t know if it means you have it, or you’ve had it and now you don’t have it anymore, or if you’re immune to it, or anything…and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, so let’s just stop talking about this, okay?…
(trying to get a word in)
You…You…You don’t want me to hang up on you, do you?…Okay. So, how’re things? How’s Dad?…I’m going to hang up, I do not want to talk about this!…Yes, I’ve looked into it…Yes, I’ve thought about it. And the answer is “no”. If it means I’ve got it, there’s nothing I can do except worry. And then you’ll worry because I’ll be worried. Except that I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway and then I’ll feel guilty and you’ll know that I’m feeling guilty so you’ll know anyway. And we’ll both be worried. You don’t want that, do you?…Good. Oh, is that Dad on the extension? Hi, Dad.
OK, mom, so you go and get a good night’s sleep and I’ll talk to you on our regular day, on Sunday… Okay. Love you, too. ‘Bye-bye.
(he tries to hang up)
(he finally succeeds in hanging up)
Oh, God, I’m worried! This is it, I just know it is.
(calling for cat)
(He makes smooching sounds)
Fluffy! Where is that damn cat?
(He takes out a box with scraps of paper in it, and takes a pad of paper and a pen from the table)
Phil D. 1982. Hmm, Phil. What did we do? Oh, that was safe.
(He writes something down, looks at another piece of paper}
Jeffrey. 1983. Jerk. He never called back. Safe, safe, safe, safe, safe, safe.
(writes something down, goes to next piece)
Mario. Mario? Mario, Mario, Mario…Who the hell’s Mario?
(he thinks. The phone rings.)
Mario?…I mean…What? Who is this? Okay, okay, the tv’s on.
(He turns on the television)
Okay, now what? I thought you were watching Dynasty. They interrupted it?
(He watches TV for a few seconds, his expression changing from irritation to concern to worry)
Well. Rock Hudson…
(He clicks his tongue)
I guess that stuff didn’t work…The drug, whatever, he went to Paris for, HP something, twenty something. Why do all these things have letters and numbers? How are we supposed to remember everything?…I think I slept with someone once who said he slept with someone who swam in his swimming pool. Rock Hudson! Rock Hudson’s swimming pool! I don’t remember, I think it was safe. I’m all confused. If I knew this was gonna happen, I would have kept notes from the very beginning. Isn’t it enough that I’ve saved every piece of paper, every matchbook and cocktail napkin with their names and numbers?…I’m glad you threw all of yours away when you met what’s-his-name, but don’t come crying to me when you break up and you don’t have anyone to call…Listen, Marty, do you remember a Mario. I don’t know, I didn’t write down the year. All I have is a number…No, not a phone number. Just a number. Nine and a half. I don’t know what the hell that…Oh…never mind, I remember now.
Safe. Fun, but safe.
So far they’re all coming out safe, Marty. Look, if I die, you can have my collection of vintage Barbies…They’re very valuable…No, you cannot have that. That’s for my sister, you’d never fit into it. Yeah, okay. Thanks a lot for calling, you’ve made my day…Yeah, I’ll take a pill, help me sleep. Listen, with what’s-his-name tonight, play safe, okay?… Oh, I don’t care, do what you want. ‘Bye.
(He hangs up, thinks a little bit, takes phone off receiver, takes a pill from bottle, clicks off the TV set with one remote, clicks on the stereo with the other. Opera music plays. He tries to relax, cannot. He looks at the box. starts going through his box of notes again, writing as he goes through each one)
(He unconsciously kneads his glands under his throat)
Fluffy…Fluffy, where are you?
(lights down slowly, the opera music fills the air)
“IN MEMORIUM II”
(VOICE from offstage microphone, shouted)
THE YEAR: 1986
(Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” plays, and sounds of a crowd, shouting “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS! “begins to overshadow the song)
(STEVEN is dressed in a “Silence = Death sweatshirt, wearing a whistle around his neck, and a pink triangle on his sweatshirt. Lights up to reveal him under a white sheet, lying on the ground. He takes up the chant:)
Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!
(uncovers himself, says to a friend lying next to him)
Hey, dude, did you see Frankie? He is totally hot.
(goes back underneath the sheet, continues chant)
Act back! Fight AIDS! Back up!
Yeah, I’ll see ya at the dance, right? Yeah, tell T.J. and those guys to come, okay? Cool. Later, dude.
(to someone standing above him)
Huh? A story? Sure, yah, whaddya wanna know? Man, ACT-UP is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “He’s just in it for the social gig, y’know, just to meet dudes.” But you’re dead wrong. I’m angry!
(gets under the sheet, shouts)
l am angry!
(uncovers himself, back to reporter)
I couldn’t have said that last year. But, like, look at the friggin’ things we’ve accomplished. It’s history-making, man, history-friggin’-making! We have single-handedly changed years of drug treatment red tape at the FDA. We have changed national and local discrimination policies. We have changed the face of how individuals deal with the medical establishment—forever! Like the tide of events over in Poland, there is no going back, man! All kinds of people everywhere, in every part of the world, have stood up and told the world that “no, we’re not going to just sit here like good little boys and girls and listen to your lies. We are going to do something about it!” And we have and we will and we’re not going to stop until this friggin epidemic is completely and irreversably OVER! Hey, it’s channel seven!
“Fight back! Act up!”
(he uncovers himself, catches his breath)
And, like, hey, it’s also a hell of a way to get a date.
(to friends, getting up)
Yeah, see ya there! Great demo, man. Dig-it, bro. See ya at Boy Bar.
(He drapes the sheet around his shoulders)
I was at the first meeting, man. Met Larry Kramer. The godfather of us all. Larry-friggin’ Kramer. The man hisself. It was inspirational, it was like “this is it. I can do something!”
See, my lover died two years ago. He was twenty-six. We’d been together for almost four years. David was a hell of a guy. An elementary school teacher. He loved kids. He adored the hell outta them. And they loved him back. When he first got sick…well, he got sick and died pretty quick, they didn’t even know what caused it back then…it was chaos, man, friggin’ chaos. The social worker at the hospital didn’t even know what to do. His volunteer buddy and I, we were doing it all, getting the papers signed, getting him on SSI. The orderlies were leaving his meal trays outside the door. I’d get there, his food would be stone cold. The nurses were okay, they did what they could, but the doctors, forget it! They saw him as a “case,” an untouchable one, at that.
(He moves to another part of the stage, drapes sheet over stool)
His family? We went for Labor Day weekend a month after he was diagnosed. To his mom and dad’s. His social worker sister, Sandra, was also there. And Pooch, the family dog. A typical suburban setting, complete with stocked liqueur cabinet, which was used frequently. This was the fourth time I’d met the family. This time it was clear who I was. No more friggin’ roommate pretense, man.
But the evenin’ started out cool enough. Dad got progressively soused, Mom was excessively’ cheery, sis talking incessantly. Even the dog was neurotic, man, we couldn’t shut him up. And there’s David and me. And there was lotsa hamburgs and hotdogs drowning in mayonaisse and harmless chatter. But then David threw up on the table. That kinda put a damper on things. Everyone just kinda stopped for a few seconds, like “Okay, now what?” And then everyone started at once. Mom kept jabbering about some “virus that’s going around”, as if all this was a case of the flu. That got social worker Sis angry and she started in on lecturing Mom to “get over your denial!” Then Dad burst open with “I have had it! I am trying to have a peaceful meal with a…homosexual son who’s here with his homosexual boyfriend and a homosexual disease,” and then he proceeded to accuse me of giving it to him. Which started Sis on more yelling and Mom interrupting with “We have all sorts of things for dessert!” And Pooch still wouldn’t shut up. And here’s David, weak from vomiting and everyone screaming at each other and no one dealing with the situation. So I get up and pull the tablecloth off the table…
(He pulls the sheet off the stool)
…and all the paper plates and potato salad go flying, and I tell everyone to “SHUT. THE FUCK UP” and I take David by the arm and lead him to the backsteps.
(he drapes the sheet over his arm, walks to another area of the stage. Sounds of birds)
It’s a beautiful autumn suburban evening, warm, with a slight breeze. We sit there for a while, on the back steps. We can hear birds chirping, a group of kids shouting and playing ball. the sound of a thousand TV sets all tuned to the evening news, on all three stations. We can smell barbecue and freshly cut grass. We see airplanes overhead and the haze of the sun going down behind the crabapple trees.
(He cradles the sheet)
And I take him in my arms and say it’s okay and rock him back and forth…back and forth…and soon he’s quiet and I can tell…he’s asleep. I can feel his breath, blowing steadily on my arm. And I sit there for…I don’t know, a half hour, just looking up at the sky and holding him.
Eventually, his sister comes out, and we have a pretty cool chat. And I get him up and we say our quick goodbyes and I tell his folks that “I’m sorry about the potato salad.” And then we get back home.
(he lays the sheet across the stool)
I put him to bed, and he sleeps soundly through the night. Usually, he gets up three, four times during the night, coughing, sweating, whatever. That night he slept like a baby.
(he kisses the sheet, then quickly wraps it up in a ball and discards it)
It was pretty much downhill after that. Like I said, it all happened pretty quickly. At first, I was angry. Only I didn’t know I was angry. I felt, like, guilty, scared, lonely, depressed. One day I decided to go to an ACT-UP meeting. And you know what? I realized I was angry. I was goddamn angry! And there were four-hundred other angry people right along with me! So I found a home. Look, I know it hasn’t always been perfect. We have made mistakes. But, hey, how many people can say they’ve heckled Congressional hearings? Tied up traffic on Wall Street? Chained themselves to the offices of a Japanese pharmaceutical company? Chanted “AIDS kills women!” at Shea stadium?
(he indicates his sweatshirt)
The logo speaks for itself. The pink triangle—the symbol the Nazis used to identify homosexuals—means “never again”.
(he shouts, with passion)
“NEVER AGAIN!! ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT AIDS!
So you got somethin’ for a story there? Cool. What? A date? Tell ya what. Come to the demo tomorrow, we’ll hook it up then. My name’s Steven.
(the chanting is heard again)
Hey, come to the demo tomorrow, noon, Act up, Fight back, fight AIDS. Thanks, thanks a lot. Come to the demo, Act up, Fight Back…
Bruce Ward has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and his recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His play, Lazarus Syndrome, and solo play, Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988. He was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100.