This weekend Diversionary Theatre holds the the World-Premiere of the musical "Eighty-Sixed". The title refers to the year 1986 when New York’s gay community was coping with fear about the AIDS crisis. It is also the year that Diversionary Theatre was founded.
Diversionary celebrates its roots
Diversionary Theatre was founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1986 as a platform for the gay community to be seen and heard.
"Diversionary Theatre is the third oldest LGBTQAI plus theater in the country," added Kevin Newbury, who is directing "Eighty-Sixed. "So to be presenting this world premiere musical about queer joy and community, and the generation that came before us in New York City in the 1980s, the serendipity of it is just absolutely thrilling. So Diversionary is the perfect place to premiere 'Eighty-Sixed.'"
Hosting "Eighty-Sixed" is also a way for the theater to honor its founding history and it is a history that is also celebrated in its newly renovated facility. The bar and cabaret feature a collage of photos highlighting queer history in San Diego and around the country.
David Feinberg's book inspired the musical
The play is based on David Feinberg’s 1988 book.
Newbury said, "It was really one of the first pieces of gay fiction that looked at the AIDS crisis. And the first part of the book is set in 1980 before everything happened. And the second part is set in '86, dealing with the fallout of AIDS. And what's so exciting about the book is that it's an intimate portrait of one man's journey through the landscape of New York. And it's full of pain and joy and humor, and it really taps into the entire zeitgeist of the queer experience in New York at the time."
Learning from a past pandemic
But the theatrical production also speaks to a San Diego audience on multiple levels. It taps into the city's own queer community, that also had to deal with the AIDS crisis. These days, it may also connect with a broader audiences now dealing with the fallout from COVID-19.
"So one of the interesting things about doing this piece right now as we are arguably coming out of this pandemic (or we're still kind of in the middle of it, but our species is learning how to connect and reconnect again) after an incredible shared trauma of isolation, of being pulled apart from our community due to this current pandemic," Newbury said. "So what can we learn about how a community navigated the pandemic that came before, which was the AIDS crisis in the 1980s? And this show is ultimately about connection and community and joy. The audience will leave dancing and singing and also celebrating the generation that came before us, those we lost, those that survived, and those that carried the torch to give us the rights that we have now."
But there is one very pointed difference between these two pandemics. Whereas COVID-19 has affected the entire population and prompted action across the globe, AIDS was perceived by many as only affecting the gay community.
"Ronald Reagan didn't even mention the word until the late 80s and that's only because Elizabeth Taylor made him do it in memory of Rock Hudson. It took Rock Hudson dying for anyone to start paying attention," Newbury stated. "So I consider it my duty as an artist and a director to serve as a bridge between those two generations, between all generations. And that's what Diversionary does so beautifully. They work with queer youth and queer elders and everybody in-between to share their stories, to learn about our history. And it's so important to learn about the shoulders that we stand on, to get where we are today, to have gotten to where we are today."
How the AIDS pandemic was stigmatized
Newbury, who was born in 1977, said he did not have any direct experiences with people dying of AIDS in the 1980s but he does remember the message he received from the mainstream media about the pandemic.
"All I saw on television was if you were gay, you were going to die — and how our government was doing nothing about it," Newbury recalled. "I am old enough that that's the only message that I saw on TV growing up, and how our government let us die by the tens of thousands and did nothing about it until we started acting up and protesting and forming community to actually get the rights to basic health services."
The long road to 'Eighty-Sixed' the musical
Although the play is having its premiere this month, it has been a long time in development.
"I've been working on it as a director for about seven years," Newbury said. "And Sam (Sam Salmond, who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jeremy (Jeremy J. King who wrote the book for the musical) along with our amazing New York producer Aaron Cliff, they've been working on it for about a decade. So we have spent a lot of time really perfecting it, playing with the structure, trying new things for several years now. So we're in a really good place."
Newbury directs "Eighty-Sixed" on the intimate stage of Diversionary where the audiences can be just a couple feet from the performers.
"To be in that space, up close and personal, watching them tell this story, is so thrilling," Newbury said. "What I love about working in a space like Diversionary is that you get down to the essentials. What do you really need to tell the story? And what you really need is a first-rate cast, a disco ball, an incredible light system, and a band that is actually on stage making music that pours through the audience. You literally feel the vibrations of every note, and it feels like you're on stage with them."
"Eighty-Sixed" will have its delayed opening this weekend and runs through June 12 at Diversionary Theatre.