- Playing for Time: Nelson Jewell and the HIV Ensemble
Working Out with Leona: The Musical, loosely based on the life and times of hotel queen Leona Helmsley, 1 arose out of a 1993 benefit staged by professional actors in association with Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). Written and directed by Nelson Jewell, with music by Paul Radelat and Michael Capece, Working Out with Leona assembled a cast and crew of volunteers from GMHC, most of whom were HIV positive. During rehearsals, the production’s funny, topical subject (the real Leona Helmsley had just been sentenced to prison for tax evasion) and its AIDS-related message attracted so much media attention that it was booked for a limited run at the Sanford Meisner Theatre. From there, it moved to two more theatres in Manhattan, playing for more than a year. 2
The success of Working Out with Leona led the show’s director and author, Nelson Jewell, to found the HIV Ensemble, a nonprofit theatre company dedicated to educating its audience about HIV, AIDS, and persons infected with HIV. 3 In doing so, the group joins the growing number of arts organizations, theatre companies, and individual artists who have worked to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS over the last decade. In AIDS, Social Change, and Theatre, Cindy J. Kistenberg describes how these artistic responses to the portrayal of AIDS by the media, medicine, and government form a “site of political struggle . . . between ‘official’ (or dominant) and ‘unofficial’ discourses” about the AIDS epidemic. If “official” discourse constitutes information and images that “reproduce existing systems of power and authority by perpetuating dominant representations of AIDS,” then “unofficial” discourse seeks “to challenge the dominant culture’s construction of AIDS” (6). In the early l980s, because so little was known about AIDS and its transmission, the “official” discourse constructed AIDS as, at best, a death sentence for male homosexuals and drug addicts and, at worst, the just result of an immoral lifestyle. Despite information to the contrary, prejudicial and misleading perceptions have persisted in the general population, prompting a wide variety of oppositional discourses.
At the heart of this struggle, the HIV Ensemble calls into question the dominant discourse about AIDS that would divide the world’s population into two groups—the infected and the uninfected. Even the company’s name defies [End Page 59] such classification by refusing to add the obligatory “positive” or “negative” to the group’s identity. The group insists that HIV be seen as a broader social and political issue, rather than as a convenient label for uninfected (“safe”) or infected (“dangerous”) individuals. Its open membership policy attracts ethnically diverse artists who individually would resist classification as either “positive” or “negative,” sick or well, gay or straight. Its use of the term HIV instead of AIDS counters the widespread assumption that HIV-infected status automatically means a person has AIDS. The mission of the company to entertain and inform has generated an offbeat, satirical production style that borrows from unlikely areas of popular and mainstream culture: tabloid newspapers, variety entertainment, and Broadway musicals. More importantly, the troupe employs unusual metatheatrical tactics to dispel myths about HIV and AIDS and to convey a message of tolerance. Indeed, the cultural and aesthetic significance of the HIV Ensemble can only be assessed by closer examination of the group’s production history and its unique combination of educational and artistic goals.
Membership and Mission
In 1986, Nelson Jewell learned that he was HIV positive. At the time, he was a volunteer for various AIDS support organizations, such as Equity Fights AIDS and the Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project—service and fund-raising organizations for entertainers with AIDS and their families. Jewell spent most of his time, however, volunteering for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where he worked as a fund-raiser, a home health care “buddy,” and an actor in that group’s entertainment wing. After his diagnosis with HIV, Jewell sought to increase the organization’s educational activities for young people because he was dissatisfied with what he considered GMHC’s insufficient emphasis on AIDS prevention and awareness. Although GMHC did an excellent job caring for persons with AIDS...