By QMN Regular, Matt Lawrence
To their credit, arts communities during the 80’s were very willing to search for, and acknowledge, work about the AIDS epidemic. Such work was awarded in literature, theater, and film. But creating work that illuminates such a huge and complex experience is a tall order – especially from within the trenches and on short notice. To me and many others who lived through this terrible time, works that attempt to sum up the early days of the epidemic (Paul Monette’s National Book Award winner Becoming a Man, Larry Kramer’s Tony Award winning play The Normal Heart, the Academy Award nominated film Longtime Companion) often reduce the scope of the horror and simplify the social and political dynamics.
More successful are stories set during this period but with another focus (perhaps because they don’t attempt to contain the tsunami of AIDS in a single story). Test is good example of this approach. The threat encroaches gradually, with evocative details, and as it becomes an increasing force in the lives of the characters, we sense the impending abyss.
As Frankie, an understudy, tries to focus his energy on preparing for the moment when he might dance onstage, his growing fear of AIDS – and the growing fear that others around him (even gay men) have of gay men – become increasingly challenging. This period of the epidemic – when it wasn’t yet clear what caused the disease, or how it was passed, and no test was available – is often forgotten when people look back on the 80’s, but it lasted for three long years. During this time, fears fostered by a hostile media and an ascendant Right set in motion an ugly reaction to the epidemic – and gay men – that would continue for more than a decade. As Frankie moves through his routine, the glimpses of anti-gay graffiti, hate-filled headlines, and medical alerts create a vivid reminder of a time so awful that even those of us who experienced it first-hand find it difficult to fully recall.
In its refusal to make the epidemic its central character and sole concern, Test offers a story very relatable to gay men who lived through the AIDies, and very revealing to later generations. It doesn’t give us another tragic victim. It’s about Frankie’s efforts to live his life despite what’s happening around him, and it’s about finding hope and joy in the midst of harrowing circumstances.