For the past several weeks, Ram’s Head Theatrical Society’s online presence has been abuzz with talk of their upcoming production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” a story of a group of working-class Bohemians and artists in New York City’s East Village struggling to survive in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Based loosely on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” and drawing heavily from Larson’s own experiences living in Greenwich Village, the show explores themes of sexual identity, poverty, racism, homelessness and the resilience that keeps these communities afloat against a background of police violence, political discrimination, drug addiction and the harsh realities of life on the streets. Known for being the 10th longest-running show in Broadway history and winning six of the most prestigious awards in the world of musical theater, it is no exaggeration to say that “Rent” has left a prolific mark on American audiences.
Yet on the other side of the nation, across class backgrounds, and in light of an entire generation’s worth of new experiences, values and cultural norms, it is worth exploring not only what makes “Rent” so salient today – but also the challenges of performing such a piece at a place like Stanford. Though rightly acknowledged for being one of the most successful writers and composers of his day, Larson’s work is laced with signs of his own voyeuristic tendencies.
The story is told from the perspective of Mark, an aspiring filmmaker whose status onstage as the only straight white man without AIDS is coupled with uncanny parallels to the life of the author himself – an Adelphi University university grad with a degree in acting. Throughout the piece, Mark’s presence is incredibly Kerouacian; like the great American beat novelist, his role is that of the artsy wallflower, creating work from the pieces of the of his friends’ lives. In “Rent” – a show about life in the shadow of death – Mark is the survivor.
In no scene is this more apparent than when Mark stumbles into an AIDS support group meeting on Christmas Day. Amidst a circle of patients singing about the resilience of the human spirit, he is the man behind the lens – the one most easily able to profit off of the lives of his contemporaries. In another scene, after filming a police officer harassing a homeless black woman on the streets, she turns to him and says, in perhaps one of the most honest moments of the play, “I don’t need any goddamn help from some bleeding heart cameraman. My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on!” In an artistic medium which is so prone to border on the voyeuristic, it would be a mistake to overlook such sentiments – especially when taking into account how many Americans’ lives are touched by poverty, how many young people struggle with drug addiction and how frequently institutions such as Stanford have been known to fetishize these experiences.
Perhaps one of the other most controversial characters in the show is Mimi, a stripper struggling with AIDS and addiction, whose presence in the play often tends to fluctuate between humanizing these experiences and casting them in a troublingly glamorous light. Though “Rent” is certainly groundbreaking in its acceptance of drug culture (rather than demonizing it, as the mainstream media often does), the role of Mimi is notoriously easy to flatten; with a spunky attitude and the best ass below 14th Street, heroin has never looked sexier – and for a crowd of students for whom heroin is both widely accessible and rarely resultant in systemic consequences, such a portrayal has heavy implications.
When ‘Rent’ first hit the main stage in 1996, the number of people living with HIV globally had reached 23 million, and the disease continued to spread rapidly. Throughout the country, communities suffering from AIDS continues to be denied basic human rights – particularly those with intersections of poverty, queerness and (above all else) blackness. In fact, despite Larson’s portrayal of an AIDS-ridden community in which people of all backgrounds support one another, evidence points to a long history of white organizations excluding black community members in New York City from obtaining health services, and by the end of 2014, 42% of Americans ever diagnosed with AIDS were black. Though Larson himself did not represent these communities, his work was meant primarily to uplift those who did: those for whom tickets to a Broadway show were simply unattainable, or who had never had the privilege of seeing people they could identify with in a major production.
Yet for the wealthy spectators who inevitably came to comprise such a large part of the show’s fan base, the danger of removing “Rent” from this extremely human context remains high. This is true not only because of Broadway’s tendency to fetishize poverty, but also because of the literal profits being made off of projects such as “Rent” (I have yet to hear about whether Ram’s Head will decide to donate some portion of the show’s revenue to those living in actual poverty, but I highly doubt it). This is especially poignant in one scene in which the characters stage a protest against eviction, in which we hear the line: “They’ve closed everything real down – like barns and troughs and performance spaces – and replaced it all with lies and rules and virtual life.” At a place such as Stanford, where virtual life so often takes precedence over actual life, there are many things students could stand to learn from “Rent.”
The differences between learning from a community and appropriating their resilience for our own emotional well-being may seem slight, but the consequences such motives have on the way we see and understand theater are immense. To put it plainly, there is a massive distinction between feeling angsty and feeling structurally oppressed – and it would be a disservice to Larson’s memory (and more importantly, the memories of those who inspired “Rent”) to let ourselves, as viewers, become more wrapped up in aesthetics than in the very reason performance has been such an important survival tactic for artists in the East Village.
As we get ready to see “Rent” next week, it is vital to not lose sight of the intentions behind Larson’s work – to see in his heart-warming story of love, loss and living for today not only the indomitable spirit of working-class queer folks, but also the forces which so severely constrict their ability to survive and thrive. As we sit on the plush velvet cushions of Memorial Auditorium, watching a show whose production value tops the income of a considerable number of Americans (some of whom may even be sitting in the audience with us), let us consider the ways in which we contribute to these forces, and the ways in which we might change that moving forward. And before posting on our various online accounts that there’s #NoDayButToday, let’s stop and take a moment to consider our own advice. Long live la vie bohème.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at [email protected].