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The Normal Heart Manila Exposes the Elephant in the Room

Last Saturday, the Philippines was one with the world as it celebrated Pride Month through the Pride March. It’s been 21 years since our community has recognized the need to fight for love, equality, and freedom. The historical 21st Pride in Luneta gathered about 2,000 people. The Philippines also celebrated along with the US’ triumph over having same-sex marriage legalized in all 50 states.

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Whatever successes or endeavors – no matter how little or grand – our countries have achieved altogether are proof of how far we have come and how farther we are willing to go. Yet the gap remains – some void that keeps us from understanding the basics of RESPECT. Marginalized members of the society remain pressured by the dictates of society, reducing them to confused individuals who are forced to become someone they’re not.

Haters troll across all forms of media. Every day, others have to live their lives being named faggot, immoral, etc. Some do not know how impactful words can be, most especially when aimed mindlessly at those who are already finding it difficult to be themselves. Our society finds it so daunting a task to openly talk about.

Sadly, there are people who think being gay is a disease. Let’s make the conversation even more uncomfortable by exposing the other elephant in the room. Let’s talk about HIV/AIDS.

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From January 1984 to April 2015: 24,936 HIV cases have been reported.

According World Health Organization (WHO), the HIV/AIDS statistics in the Philippines has significantly augmented from 1 (2008) to 22 (2015) newly diagnosed HIV cases per day in a span of just 7 years. The rise in HIV cases is now the fastest in Asia and among the fastest worldwide.

At the rate it’s going, the numbers could only increase in the next few years. But more than the rise in statistics, how much does our country know about this disease? Aren’t these numbers enough to scare the hell out us, of our government?

Actors’ Actor, Inc. and The Necessary Theatre as they boldly present The Normal Heart for the very first time in the Philippine shores. Dubbed as The Normal Heart Manila, I’m certain it’s bound to make waves.

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The death scene.

The Normal Heart is a critically acclaimed masterpiece of playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who initially wrote this as a result of his frustration over New York City’s indifference to the rise of a then unknown disease that was ravaging gay men in the 1980s. A straight play that is mainly autobiographical in nature, the plot takes us to New York City at a time HIV/AIDS was still a disease many ignorantly dismissed as “gay disease.”

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Bart Guingona as Ned Weeks and Topper Fabregas as Felix Turner.

The first minute into the story is highly contagious. So be warned. Kramer brilliantly engineered it to bring you to the edge of your seat. The Normal Heart revolves around an angry Jewish-American writer, gay activist, and loudmouth Ned Weeks (played by Bart Guingona, also the director) who – through the expertise of polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner (played Roselyn Perez) – learns about the outbreak and decides to form a crisis organization in an effort to stop the spread of the mysterious disease.

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Brotherly love. Ben (Richard Cunanan) and Ned (Guingona).

His lawyer brother Ben Weeks (played by Richard Cunanan) passively supports his brother’s advocacy but later on argues with him due to his unwillingness to understand. The story unfolds as Ned crosses paths with New York Times writer Felix Turner (Topper Fabregas). The two will fall in love.

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The conflict arises.

He also forms a volunteer organization with Bruce Niles (TJ Trinidad), Tommy Boatwright (Red Concepcion), Mickey Marcus (Nor Domingo), and Craig Donner [also Hiram Keebler and Grady] (Jef Flores) on board. But years would pass and more deaths plague the community; the illness was already spreading like wildfire, and their much-awaited meeting with Mayor Ed Koch has not seen the light of day…

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Ned comforting the dying Felix.

The piece to this day bleeds with so much insight that yearns to be heard and understood. The Normal Heart is unafraid to expose the ironies of reality, and it needed only eight cast members to get the message across effectively. Whatever the simple setup offered, the cast made up for it. But a material as rich as this did not need a grand stage in the first place.

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Nor Domingo as Mickey and Red Concepcion as Tommy.

Each of the characters was relatable and real. The major conflict areas were tucked in between the different relationships Ned had with the characters, which also means a tough acting challenge awaits Guingona. He takes on an energetic role of a gay activist and writer, brother, a lover, a leader, and a 24/7 loudmouth.

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Puzzled Ben.

Accept me as your healthy equal, your brother.

His relationship with his brother Ben, whom Cunanan played so effortlessly, revealed a brother’s refusal to accept Ned for who he is, thereby hindering him from understanding how strongly Ned feels about his advocacy. While Ben expresses some support in the beginning, t would later on be clearer that he is a homophobe himself.

His relationship, however, with the members of the volunteer crisis organization is more of antagonistic. Known as the bad cop of the organization, his tactless approach, though pure and thought-provoking, is greatly misunderstood, and the rest of the group seem to feel he oftentimes presses the wrong buttons.

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Good cop | bad cop.

Bruce Niles (TV actor TJ Trinidad) is the exact opposite of Ned Weeks. A closeted gay, his leadership decisions lack the conviction it needs to get the advocacy across. He continues to live in fear of prejudice and rejection. Tommy Boatwright, and Mickey Marcus had their fair share of unforgettable moments, too, as they struggled dealing with the always clashing Ned and Bruce. Also noteworthy is Jef Flores as he takes on three roles. Their intense arguments reveal how they confront the issue, given their different personalities and attitude.

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Roselyn Perez as Dr. Emma Brookner.

Ned’s relationship Dr. Emma Brookner was intellectual in nature. Both knew something had to be done. And they took it upon themselves to go beyond their call of duty. Perez as Brookner was instantly a favorite character of mine. Despite her physical limitations due to her disability, she ironically stands for what she believes in and speaks against the US government for their refusing to allocate resources for research on the disease.

But wait, there’s also an element of romance amidst the heavily infused plot. Topper Fabregas gives life to Ned Weeks’ lover Felix Turner, who works for the New York Times. They have cheesy moments and they would go on to share their dreams and plans. Ned and Felix’s banters were Kramer’s clever depiction of gays at that time.

Again, these rosy scenes wouldn’t last for long. As Felix falls ill, we witness the deterioration of his body, and the crumbling of his very spirit. Several noteworthy scenes between the two broke my heart. Especially when Felix shows how much he loves Ned ’til the very end. The ending was painful to watch.

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The pain was too sharp, and too deeply felt. And the insights were hard-hitting and that Kramer’s world in 1980s is very much real elsewhere in the world. History has repeated itself. Fast track to 2015, and this is still very much the reality in the Philippines.

Instant takeaways? Unsettled differences in attitude greatly impacts the accomplishment of a shared goal, no matter how noble it may be. Oftentimes, friends and families find it so difficult to understand and accept you. Sadly, even the more experienced, passionate doctors are not given the opportunity to put their expertise to use because of the lack of funding for research. Lastly, people have no access to the healthcare that they need.

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I do.

We don’t need to wait for another Ned Weeks to effect such change. If the story reveals a failure of a worthy cause, may this autobiographical account emphasize history is a lesson. The material gives it to you raw, with the intent to pierce your heart and soul. There’s a Ned Weeks in each and everyone of us, struggling to be heard every day. We cannot continue being indifferent about HIV/AIDS, about anything that concerns whether individually or collectively.

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Felix withering away.

Awareness is the first crucial step to achieving the understanding and acceptance that we so yearn for. While judgement, fear and abound, while there are dying AIDS victims who amid their dire, desperate situation cannot even convince the government to intensify efforts to combat the disease.

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TJ Trinidad and Jef Flores.

This material deserves to be seen. But it will only run five shows. I hope they extend it so it reaches out to bigger audiences.

Because at the end of the day, our brothers and sisters who have fallen ill to this disease deserve to be understood and accepted. They deserve to be heard. They deserve to be healed. Above all, they deserve to be loved.

It’s a war where love wins.

Don’t miss its limited runs from July 3-5, 2015 (Friday, 8 P.M. | Saturday & Sunday, 3:30 P.M. And 8 P.M.) at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, 4th Floor, RCBC Plaza, Makati, Philippines. Tickets are available via Ticketworld: http://www.ticketworld.com.ph.

Acknowledging the production team: Coco Anne and Baby Imperial (set design), Don Taduran, Mark Philipp Espina (video projections), Jethro Joaquin (sound design), Meliton Roxas (lighting design), and Dodo Lim (producer).