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  • Mainstream Aids Theatre, The Media, and Gay Civil Rights: Making the Radical Palatable by Jacob Juntunen
  • Kalle Westerling
MAINSTREAM AIDS THEATRE, THE MEDIA, AND GAY CIVIL RIGHTS: MAKING THE RADICAL PALATABLE. By Jacob Juntunen. Routledge Advances in Theatre and Performance Studies series. New York: Routledge, 2016; pp. 202.

Jacob Juntunen's Mainstream AIDS Theatre, the Media, and Gay Civil Rights begins with Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage, as an anecdotal example of the progress of the LGBT civil rights movement over the past fifty years. Juntunen argues that the original productions of The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Rent, and The Laramie Project contributed to this movement by sympathetically depicting LGBT people and thus shifting the dominant culture's perspective on LGBT civil rights, making those rights palatable to audiences in mainstream theatres. Dismissing conventional wisdom that mainstream audiences are intractably conservative, Juntunen argues that artists must appeal to that conservative mainstream and subtly reorient its sensibility in order to successfully assimilate LGBT identities into dominant ideology.

Juntunen suggests his methodology in the first chapter: these mainstream productions should be understood as multifaceted political objects, constructed by a context beyond the playwright's words or the onstage action organized by a director, and interpreted by audiences in many different ways. To this end he uses advertisements, program notes, and journalistic reviews to reveal how these theatrical productions became "mainstream." In the succeeding four chapters Juntunen uses his methodology to analyze the success of the original Broadway productions of The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Rent, and The Laramie Project and their relation to "the elite, conservative culture industry" (4). He then examines how the success of these productions impacted representations of LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS. Juntunen argues that the creative teams behind these shows only surreptitiously introduced their assimilationist politics into dominant discourse by either presenting the piece as high art (Angels), emphasizing the production's commercial value in order to argue for its production over attempts to censor it (Rent), or foregrounding the plot's Christian discourse of forgiveness (Laramie).

In chapter 2 Juntunen frames The Normal Heart as more overtly political than the other plays he considers throughout the book. The Normal Heart was able to amplify the emergent ideology already expressed in avant-garde HIV/AIDS plays produced before it opened at the Public Theater in 1985. Analyzing reviews and events organized around the production, as well as how the show fashioned spectators into activists, Juntunen argues that the play had effects on everyday politics and media reporting on HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s. In the wake of the play's antagonistic critique, the New York Times started writing openly about HIV/AIDS, and New York City mayor Ed Koch expanded city services for local patients. Juntunen attempts to illustrate the immediate connection between The Normal Heart and its societal effects by detailing how Joseph Papp and the Public Theater laid the groundwork in the weeks leading up to opening night by telephoning both the mayor's office and the editor of the New York Times. Of course, there was a tremendous amount of broader activism during the spring and summer of 1985, which makes it hard to isolate cause and effect, [End Page 127] but on the whole Juntunen's retelling of the events poignantly illustrates theatre's political potential.

In the third and strongest chapter he scrutinizes the commercial viability of the Broadway production of Angels in America through an in-depth materialist analysis of the universalist discourse, found in its ads, program notes, theatre architecture, consumerist-Brechtian aesthetic, and its countless awards. Ultimately, the production used messages similar to Bill Clinton's assimilationist promises during his first presidential campaign about a united national community. Juntunen illustrates how the scope of Clinton's campaign "to save the United States of America" is mirrored in the play's subtitle: "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Juntunen's approach to the assimilationist discourse surrounding this play is particularly complex and nuanced: he lays bare the play's underlying misogyny and racism and shows how these structures, together with its assimilation of middle-class, white gay...


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pp. 127-128
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