Touching the Quilt
An Edward Albee AIDS Moment
by Lester Strong
Edward Albee is not known for writing about AIDS, and certainly not in his plays. Yet during the mid-1990s, with the AIDS crisis at its height but about to reach a turning point with the introduction of a new class of drugs, he responded to a request that went out to playwrights around the country for short scripts centering on the disease. The request came from the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and was spearheaded by a young performer named Sean San José, who had lost both parents to AIDS.
These days San José is Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre. When interviewed recently about what he hoped to accomplish all those years ago when he conceived of the project eventually titled “Pieces of the Quilt,” he replied: “Losing both my parents to the disease was devastating emotionally. I wanted to show the human face of AIDS to others, a task for which theater is well suited. So I solicited playwrights for short pieces that would do just that.”
Among the playwrights contacted were Edward Albee, Jon Robin Baitz, Sandra Bernhard [A&U, October/November 1993], David Henry Hwang [A&U, May 1998], Craig Lucas [A&U, November 1998], Maria Irene Fornes, Greg Sarris, Tony Kushner [A&U, June 2012], Ntozake Shange, Roger Gueneveur Smith, Erin Cressida Wilson, Philip Kan Gotanda, Migdalia Cruz [A&U, July 1998], Danny Hoch, Octavio Solis, Naomi Iizuka, and Culture Club. According to San José, Albee also convinced Lanford Wilson to contribute.
“You need at least a year and a half to get a full production up and running,” said San José. “I had in mind an evening of short, one-act plays, with the proceeds from the sale of tickets going to organizations like the NAMES Project [the AIDS Memorial Quilt] and Project Open Hand [a group providing nutritious meals to the sick and elderly in the Bay Area, among them those living with AIDS]. But the plays didn’t come in all at once, so they were put on as they arrived, mostly in local community spaces. Then eventually we grouped seven of them together under the overall title ‘Pieces of the Quilt.’ Those were performed together at the Magic Theatre here in San Francisco in a five-week run, and I think in shorter runs in Los Angeles; at the University of California, Santa Cruz; at Solano College in the Bay Area, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There may have been other venues as well.”
The seven plays included in “Pieces of the Quilt” were as follows:
• Erin Cressida Wilson’s My Girl Is in Front, about a rooftop encounter between a young bisexual man and a teenage girl who cruises for anonymous sex in imitation of her adored dead father;
• Philip Kan Gotanda’s Beans, about a young man trying to connect to his dead parents by cooking a family recipe;
• Migdalia Cruz’s So . . . , a series of monologues by people with a friend, lover, or family member who has AIDS;
• Danny Hoch’s Clinic Con Class, a comic piece about a young black man waiting with his Latino friend in a New York clinic to take an HIV blood test and their misconceptions about how AIDS is spread, how you wear a condom, and what kills the virus;
• Octavio Solis’s Silica, about a guy whose lover has died and bequeathed him a pair of glasses that allow the guy to see the world through his lover’s eyes as a big, joyful, crazy, phantasmagoric ride through San Francisco;
• Lanford Wilson’s Your Everyday Ghost Story, inspired by one of Wilson’s real life experiences, about a man who runs into a friend who has AIDS and because of the man’s inability to cope with the news tries to blow his friend off;
• Naomi Iizuka’s Scheherazade, about a dying mother and the harried doctor who works to secure a few more days of life for her.
Curiously, Albee’s contribution Touch (an Improvisation)—it’s so short it should be labeled a “playlet”—was not included among the pieces produced in “Pieces of the Quilt,” and it’s not just curious because Albee’s preeminence in the theater world should have qualified him for a preeminent position among the selected works. According to an October 20, 1996, article written by Jesse Hamlin in the San Francisco Chronicle and quoting Mame Hunt, then Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre, Albee was an enthusiastic promoter of the project who “unlocked a lot of doors” to the participation of other playwrights, including (as already noted) Lanford Wilson. But Touch, despite its seemingly simple structure, would have required a prohibitively long rehearsal time to “do it in a way that wouldn’t emotionally wipe out the actors [each of whom was supposed to tell a real-life personal story about their contact with the disease]. . . . It’s draining enough to be in all these plays that deal with AIDS, but to talk about your own personal story night after night….”
The scripts of four of the pieces were sent to A&U for publication—Edward Albee’s Touch (an Improvisation), Tony Kushner’s A Prayer, Lanford Wilson’s Your Everyday Ghost Story, and Migdalia Cruz’s So…. The magazine did publish Migdalia Cruz’s So…. But as can sometimes happen, the other three scripts simply disappeared in the piles of paper one can usually find in publishers’ offices, not to re-emerge until recently when the magazine was preparing to move its main office to another location. They were sent to me with the request to “see if you can track down permission to publish them at last.”
Albee himself died in 2016, so I contacted the Edward F. Albee Foundation, located in New York City, which oversees Albee’s literary legacy as well as providing writers and visual artists with time and space to work undisturbed at the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Persons Center (better known as “The Barn”) in Montauk, at the far end of Long Island east of New York City.
When I mentioned Touch (an Improvisation) to Jakob Holder, Executive Director of the Albee Foundation, I was surprised to learn he had never heard of the play. Clearly Albee had not brought it to anyone’s attention, even though it was discussed in the 1996 San Francisco Chronicle article mentioned earlier in this Introduction. Moreover, in an interview with Albee by David Richards published in The New York Times on June 16, 1991, two days after the world premiere of Albee’s play Three Tall Women, Richards wrote: “AIDS continues to cut a large swath through his circle of friends, but Mr. Albee has yet to raise the issue in a play.” Then he quotes the playwright (who was gay himself) as saying: “I’ve written gay characters in plays. But I don’t feel a responsibility to write about AIDS.”
Clearly something changed in Albee’s thinking from 1991 to 1996 about writing an AIDS-related play, let alone becoming an “enthusiastic promoter” of “Pieces of the Quilt” to his playwright friends.
We’ll probably never know why Albee changed his mind. But this short play does present quite a different picture of Albee than other of his pieces that were not to everyone’s taste—for example: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Instead of portraying angry, bitter individuals in conflicted relationships that veer between reality and illusion, Touch offers a path into sympathy, empathy, and compassion for those stricken with a frightening, highly demonized, incurable—and at the time considered medically uncontrollable—disease. The vehicle for traversing that path as Albee presents it is the AIDS Quilt.
Traditionally quilts are created as tokens of love and affection for family members and friends. The patches of the AIDS Quilt, on the other hand, are intended as loving tributes to family members and friends people have lost to the AIDS plague.
Near the end of the play, Albee writes: “None of us hasn’t been touched; all of us have touched the quilt; Join us; touch the quilt.”
Touch the Quilt. Remember the losses, and mourn them. Remember the dead, and honor them. Touch (an Improvisation) is a fitting tribute by a great American playwright to a medical catastrophe that has damaged all of us. A&U magazine is honored to have brought this admittedly small and until now forgotten part of Edward Albee’s dramatic oeuvre to the world’s attention.
The editors of A&U would like to thank Jakob Holder, Executive Director of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, for securing the Foundation’s permission for the magazine to publish Touch (An Improvisation).
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.
Touch (an Improvisation)
by Edward Albee (1996)
(I see this brief play as a controlled improvisation. Use as many actors as you have, or as few as you like—though 4 should be a minimum.)
(No set needed, except a table on which are several [twice the number of actors] pieces of the quilt—cut into sizes maybe 6 inches by 12.)
(Let one actor address the audience as the others watch him/her—and the audience.)
Pieces of the quilt? Have you seen the quilt? Have you seen it in Washington—laid out down the mall on it looks like forever? Maybe you’ve done that; maybe you’ve seen a piece done for someone you’ve known—someone you’ve loved. Maybe you’ve made a piece yourself. I’m sorry; I’m sorry you had to, but I’m glad you did it. We’ll all be able to stop someday; someday we’ll be able to roll the quilt up—all endless miles of it, or we’ll be able to disengage it, give the individual quilts back to those who made them out of their love, out of their loss. But not yet; not yet.
(Points to table)
There are pieces of a quilt—a quilt of the kind we make when we have to.
(The other actors move to the table, each taking two sections.)
We want you to touch them; we want you to feel the fabric, rub your hands on it, put it to your cheek. And we want you to speak out if you want to—share with everybody if you want to—or just be silent.
(Speaker refers to other actors.)
None of us hasn’t been touched; all of us have touched the quilt. Join us; touch the quilt.
(All the actors move into the audience with their two quilt pieces. Let those actors who have lost people tell the audience about the loss——generally, or one person at a time. Let the actors begin singly and then talk freely, covering each other. Have the actors pass the pieces of the quilt through the audience, encouraging participation, asking if anyone wants to speak. When the participation seems completed, let the actors return to the stage, return the quilt pieces to the table, take their original positions, and say to the audience—one actor at a time—quietly.)