How To Write An “AIDS Play” Today—And Why We Should Still Care

With “The Amateurs,” Jordan Harrison swaps “Orange Is the New Black” for Black Death.

Black Death becomes Jordan Harrison off-Broadway.

In the world premiere of The Amateurs, Harrison’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama Marjorie Prime, a troupe of pageant players trudges across 14th century Europe, haunted by the bubonic plague. But it soon becomes biblically clear that the 40-year-old Brooklyn-based playwright has another devastating epidemic on the brain.

Spoiler alert: Harrison also pops up in the play as a ramen-stained-plaid-clad character, portrayed by Michael Cyril Creighton (The Post, Spotlight), to break the fourth wall and illuminate his medieval metaphor for AIDS.

The gay Orange Is the New Black writer-producer explains why his own troupe, directed by Oliver Butler, travels back in time more than six centuries—and back to sixth grade.

Walter McBride/Getty Images

There’s much more to The Amateurs than first meets the eye. How do you describe the play to friends?

I try to only give them a sentence or two, to tease more than reveal. I just say it’s about a group of 14th century players trying to outrun the Black Death. Maybe I’ll add something about how seeing so many people die makes them restless playing cardboard cutouts from the Bible, and that they stumble upon the first fully dimensional character on stage.

Parallels to AIDS in the 20th century start to become evident when a character asks St. Teresa to help him forget his dead lover: “And the poison has found a home inside me and feasted there.”

I’m sure some members of the audience, especially those who were on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, will pick up on that more quickly. When the gay characters are the ones who have gotten sick, your mind tends to go to a more modern place.

Was it always your intention to use one plague to make sense of another?

It’s hard to remember how smart I was at the beginning of the writing process and how much was sheer intuition. [Laughs] I don’t know that I set out to write a play about AIDS. Honestly, I was initially interested in this strange scene from the 14th century morality play Noah’s Flood—that was my point of entry.

The Amateurs might be categorized as an “AIDS play” alongside works like Lonely Planet and The Baltimore Waltz, which also approached the epidemic abstractly. Is that label apt or reductive?

Well, it would be impudent of me to place myself in that canon. I think that’s why I like to remind myself that it all started with a piece of art from one of the darkest times in history, looking at how it represented a step forward when there was no reason for humans to hope. I wrote the first draft four years ago, and our current national crisis has already changed how people look at the play. Yes, it’s an AIDS play, but it’s also a play about how art responds to crisis and how we muddle forward as a human race.

The Amateurs/Carol Rosegg

The script includes introductory quotes from Petrarch and Edmund White about the relationship both plagues have to art and storytelling. What have you discovered about the artistic response to suffering?

Mostly, after reading other artists’ accounts of suffering, I tried not to be sentimental. In Loss Within Loss, Edmund White’s wonderful collection of essays about the AIDS epidemic, there’s an essay by Craig Lucas called “Fucked.” It’s a sexual history about all the men he was with who had died, but it’s not an elegy. So who am I to write an elegy when people who were actually there can resist that sentiment?

Your medieval troupe calls to mind Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Charles Busch’s Theatre-in-Limbo, troupes devastated by AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s. Did you ever consider exploring AIDS more directly?

It’s my instinct to approach things at a slant. I wasn’t avoiding taking on the subject directly so much as the subject snuck up on me. There tends to be a movement in art from the direct to the abstracted. Early AIDS plays like The Normal Heart were followed by Angels in America, which is shot through with fantasy, and The Amateurs is even more alienated from the original suffering.

As contextualized in Michael Cyril Creighton’s meta-monologue as you, seeds for The Amateurs were planted way back in 1990 during your homophobic sixth grade health class.

Yeah. For me, growing up, AIDS was something that was always there, a dark shadow over my entire history of being a guy who desires other guys, but it was happening a world away. In 1996, when I came out to my dad, the most liberal and empathic person, his first point of resistance was his concern that I was going to die young. That’s what AIDS still meant to us in rural Washington state.

One might assume that a gay playwright who’s addressing AIDS has been more personally affected by it.

That’s why there are 25 minutes of the play given over to trying to understand whether I even have permission to examine this epidemic. I wrestle with whether I have the right to tell a story about the fear of something, as opposed to someone who actually tended to his dying lover.

The Amateurs/Carol Rosegg
The Amateurs/Carol Rosegg

The Normal Heart and Angels in America, though often revived, have become period pieces. We don’t see many new plays tackling AIDS anymore. Were you concerned that there may no longer be a place for a conversation about AIDS in contemporary theater?

It’s not part of my process to think about relevance or whether anyone will care about the story. I will say that when it started to become more of an AIDS play than I’d first realized, it became very important for me to make that monologue very candid. If I was going to share stories about sixth grade and my own experience living under the specter of the epidemic, I wanted it to have as little art about it as possible. I wanted it to be like a journal entry, so all the names are real. I certainly didn’t know that my high school speech teacher, Robert Goldsworthy, would sneak into this play.

My high school speech teacher, Mr. Cox, also had a significant impact on me. It’s interesting how much we’re influenced by our early exposure to other gay men.

That’s so true. Mr. Goldsworthy was a good teacher, but it’s not like he was my Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love. We didn’t have some easy, magical rapport, and I don’t even think I was a favorite student of his. It was merely the fact that, even though he was married to a woman, I knew on some gut-level that he was like me in this rural, intolerant context. It saved me, in a strange way.

Many of your other plays—Maple and Vine, Doris to Darlene, Finn in the Underworld—feature gay characters. How important is queer inclusion in your work?

Apart from my briefly fraught coming-out experience, I’ve always been proud to be gay. My friends always embraced me, and I’ve had a pretty stellar romantic history. [Laughs] My husband just walked in the room, and here I am giving him a nod. Because it’s been implicitly OK for me to be a proud gay man, I do find myself burrowing into decades when that wasn’t the case—the ’50s with Maple and Vine, the ’30s with Amazons and Their Men, the ’20s with Act a Lady. Of course, growing up closeted in the ’80s in a non-urban environment, I can understand some shard of what it was like to be gay in times and places where it wasn’t so accepted.

The Amateurs/Carol Rosegg

Your celebrated play Marjorie Prime, which was adapted into a 2017 movie, has no LGBT content. Was that a conscious omission?

I hope this doesn’t sound defensive, but I’ve always thought that the absent son, the cherished dead son of the central character, was gay. Maybe it’s more for me than for an audience, but that’s the story I tell myself.

It sounds like you’ve got a queer doozy premiering off-Broadway this summer with your next play, Log Cabin, starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

“A queer doozy!” I’m picturing that on the marquee—with an exclamation point. [Laughs] Yes, Log Cabin is about a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and their trans male friend. It’s about when people forget what it’s like to be seen as an outsider and then become blind to the rights of those coming up after them. It’s like a period piece from 2014, when some gay people were starting to feel secure in their rights and not always extending empathy to the trans community. It’s less about the trans experience and more about the friction between people who should all be under the same umbrella of queerness.

You’re also a writer-producer on Orange Is the New Black, which has helped bring the trans experience to mainstream audiences. In your role as a writer, do you see yourself as an educator as well as an entertainer?

Am I educating? I don’t think so. It’s more like I’m trying to infect my audience with a restlessness. It feels like my job is just to never deliver anything expected, comfortable, or safe.

The Amateurs runs through March 29 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.