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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 287-288

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Book Review

Acts of Intervention:
Performance, Gay Culture, and Aids

Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and Aids. David Román. Unnatural Acts: Theorizing the Performative Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998; pp. xxxiii + 344. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

In the closing moments of his extraordinary Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS, David Román calls his reader to hope, marking the capacity of "AIDS theatre and performance [to] create new ways of imagining community in the face of crisis" (284). If Román locates theatre and performance as vital resources in on-going negotiations over the meaning and politics of AIDS, national identity, and gay cultural formations, he never leaves behind social or historical context. Throughout Acts of Intervention, then, the hope Román holds out is located defiantly in history, the imagined future anchored but not determined by the past. His richly textured accounts range from AIDS fundraisers and vigils in the early 1980s to the street theatre of ACT-UP later in the same decade; from such unheralded early AIDS plays as One to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful As Is and The Normal Heart in 1985; from solo performances of gay white men like Ron Vawter and Tim Miller to the interventions of the ensemble Pomo Afro Homos and of community-based projects, such as Teatro Viva! in Los Angeles.

The heterogeneity of Román's archive is all to his point. Throughout Acts of Intervention, he argues, persuasively, for expanded understandings of both theatre and AIDS. The particular performances he discusses are "acts of intervention," which seek to unmask "the ideological underpinnings of the systems that construct AIDS" (148). Ably drawing on the considerable activist and intellectual work that precedes him, Román reminds us that AIDS-as-illness is at the same time AIDS-as-representation; it "cannot be separated from the discourses that construct it and, in fact, sustain it" (xxiii). Among the sustaining conditions of AIDS discourse is homophobia. By imagining AIDS as a gay disease, the threat to the national body, to the self-definition of the center, is contained. Relatedly, AIDS hysteria has helped to reinforce homophobia by articulating the homosexual body as always already diseased. Because AIDS is not just a medical epidemic, then, but also what Paula Treichler has called "'an epidemic of signification'" (quoted in Román, xxiii), representation becomes a crucial site of cultural contestation and negotiation. From such a perspective, performance is not a luxury, but an activist necessity.

Román does not valorize one type or context of performance over any other. Instead, he points to the necessarily multiple forms theatrical intervention may take. Román thus connects his analysis and deconstruction of AIDS discourse to a critical interrogation of some of theatre history's keywords and operative distinctions. In his view, just as it is necessary to denaturalize AIDS discourse, so too is it necessary to call into question the categorical distinctions between, for example, production and performance, or among performance art, performance, and theatre. It is not that Román wants to do away with such distinctions altogether; he does credit them with some heuristic value. Rather, he wants to reveal the ideological assumptions and effects of such distinctions, how they fit within circuits of economic and political production.

So, for example, in his discussion of "Solo Performance and the Body on Stage" (chapter four), he marks the "economic history of performance" (122), suggesting that where a performance happens may be more determinative of how it is classified (is it performance art, performance, or theatre?) than are the formal dimensions of the particular performance event in question. The reviewing process participates in and refortifies these categorizations--and their material effects--by privileging some [End Page 287] venues as the place legitimate theatre happens. As Román observes of New York City, where such category crises are particularly acute, "the actual venue of the performance, along with its geographical location in the city, inscribes the performance into already marked (albeit veiled) ideologies...


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