In 1987, Broadway writer Bill Russell saw a vast field of panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and had an idea. What if he took a diverse sampling of people who lost their lives to the disease and gave each of them a chance to tell his or her story through a collection of monologues, à la Spoon River Anthology, with occasional music?
Yes, there is some sick humor in the idea -- but it's OK to laugh. Russell's poignant musical, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, does contain some funny moments.
But what the piece truly succeeds in doing is convincing audiences that AIDS is not a disease germane to gay people and creating a tone of joyous celebration of life.
"Elegies really educates people," says Bert Coleman of St. Louis' Performers for AIDS Productions, "because it covers the broad spectrum of people that have been affected by AIDS -- there's a grandmother that got it through a transfusion, an ordinary Joe, a Vietnam veteran, a priest, an actor, a husband, a housewife -- it really covers the whole gamut."
Elegies has become the musical fundraiser of choice for AIDS-fighting organizations. Coleman directs a production of the piece at COCA this Saturday night to benefit Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS and Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS.
The production features 32 actors, clothed in black to portray the dead, and several singers and musicians. Each actor takes a turn downstage, briefly describing how AIDS entered and changed his world. Coleman has recruited such local celebrities as Bonita Cornute of Fox-2, Kelly Jackson of KSDK-TV's Show Me St. Louis, Guy Phillips of KYKY-FM, Jason Miller of WVRV-FM and Steven Woolf of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to appear in Saturday's show.
Be forewarned that the monologues, which are composed entirely of rhyming couplets, can start to sound like something by Dr. Seuss (e.g., "'Cause I have AIDS, now so do you/Yeah, boy, now you got it too").