More than 675,000 people in the United States have died of HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s according to the Center for Disease Control. Another 1.2 million Americans currently live with the virus.
Yet the further away we withdraw from the original crisis, the less that average Americans know about both the disease and its history. Enter Refuge Theatre Company and Artistic Director Chris Pazdernik, who open the AIDS-related musical The Last Session on Thursday, Oct. 25. Pazdernik, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2009, said that the diagnosis threw him into a state of urgent info-gathering.
"In addition to learning what I could historically, I sought out pieces of art dealing with it, which is how I came across The Last Session," he said. "It's an incredibly beautiful show, but more than that, I think it's an incredibly important story: an origin story of the people who came and fought for us. It's important to honor those stories and not forget them."
Penned by Jim Brochu and set in 1996, The Last Session focuses on Gideon ( played by Eric Pearson ), a character modeled on songwriter Brochu's husband, Steve Schalchlin. Gideon is tired of fighting against AIDS-related diseases, so he decides to record his songs in one last recording session before killing himself and invites some friends to help him with the session. Pazdernik hopes the production will be "a gateway for the audience into learning more about this very pivotal time in queer history."
In order to prepare his cast for a show about a subject they didn't live through, Pazdernik showed them the documentary How to Survive a Plague. He also brought in friends who had lost partners during the pandemic, and had them talk to the cast "so that the actors could get a better sense of the urgency and anger and death that was taking place at the time of the play."
The death toll hit the cast hard, Pazdernik said: "Exactly how many lives were lost is sort of unfathomable. Another thing that stood out was the generosity of the people who were fighting, knowing that they might not live long enough to see the fruits of their labor. They were trying to make a better world for the people who came after them. As a healthy survivor I feel an incredible debt of gratitude to them."
Pearson, who is also musical director, was on the brink of entering college in 1996, the show's setting. Alone among the cast, he has personal memories of the tail end of the AIDS crisis. Still, Pearson said the play opened his eyes to many things he'd overlooked earlier in his life. "The actual extent of the activism and the timeline of how long things took to get to get to any action, and the details of the pharmaceutical regimens: That information has been really eye-opening," he said.
The younger actors, too, have been struck by the extent of the activism. "The reaction of the general public was very inspiring," said Darilyn Burtley, who plays Tryshia, a friend of Gideon and the mother of his Godchild. "Everyday citizens put their own bodies on the line and made the change."
Ryan Armstrong plays Buddy, a Bible Belt Christian character he described as "somewhat of an antagonist."
"It's shocking because you didn't realize how hard these people were trying to get the care they needed and to get the research for all the medicine that was or was not being put out there at the time."
He said that another thing that surprised him was how little was known about the disease at the start. "The whole idea that you could get it from toilet seats; they didn't know if you could get it by touching, by breathing the same air. ... I can feel that Christian fear that people felt about that stuff."
Of course, the center of the play is Gideon and his struggle: "He talks about how exhausted he is with the ravages of this disease and the pharmaceutical hoops he's having to jump through. The whole impetus for the 'last session' is how exhausting this living in a state of not-quite-dead is for him."
He says that this is a play that will resonate with today's audiences who are concerned about "the fear that not as much as we'd hoped has changed, in particular about universal healthcare and what feels like a willful ignorance about how that affects the population at large and what privilege actually affords."
The other actors concurred. Burtley said that "it's hard to watch these documentaries and see the people putting their bodies in the way of revolution and not be inspired, especially today when lots of people are feeling hopeless and depressed and feeling like they have no say and are pretty helpless." Armstrong feels "the outrage" that "the gay community has been struggling for years and years but in a way it doesn't seem much different."
It's that last notion that has led Pazdernik to partner with Howard Brown Health, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and Season of Concern to help bring awareness to the work that those organizations are doing. He said that people need to "understand that there is still a lot we have to do: it has not been cured; it has not gone away; it's still very much a part of our community."
Armstrong said he hopes that the show will "give people ideas about American history that is often glossed over; it's good today to look back and see the struggle that these people went through. It's also a loving story with great characters and great music."
Pearson agreed, saying, "It's been really good for me to go back and remember and to learn more about this collective past. I'm glad to share that because we have a habit of forgetting history."
The Last Session will be presented in the non-traditional setting of Atlas Art Studio's recording studio, where Pazdernik hoped that "people will feel like they are really there during the recording session that is the action of the play." Due to the dramaturgic decisions that he has made, his actors already feel the immediacy of the show.
"It connects to today," said Burtley. "If people put their minds to it and join in for a common cause, no matter what the government says, no matter what any corporation says, everyday, normal civilians can make the change."
The Last Sessions runs Oct. 26-Dec. 2 at Altas Arts Media, 4809 N. Ravenswood Ave. Tickets are $15-$30; visit RefugeTheatre.com .