A stitch in time

Piece by piece, Asheville on Broadway will bring local attention to a global tragedy.

On Dec. 1, the theater group — subtitled Actors, Artists and Activists Against AIDS — presents its second annual World AIDS Day Community Fund Raiser at Diana Wortham Theatre, offering Quilt, a locally-produced musical based on stories behind The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The gala event begins with a silent auction, in which art pieces — donated by locally, nationally and internationally known artists — and goods and services from local businesses will go on the block. Money raised goes to local AIDS organizations dedicated to direct client services.

The day before the big show, the public is invited to view the mantle behind the message. Three panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, created by North Carolina artists, will be on display at Pack Place.

And don’t think of your grandma’s quilt, here: One section alone — to be used in the musical — measures 24 square feet!

The quilt’s 42,960 panels contain 83,279 names of people felled by the disease — representing over 425,000 AIDS deaths in the United States. Some names are legendary: Freddie Mercury, Roy Cohn, Liberace; others, such as Ryan White, were made famous through their battle with AIDS, Containing appliques of everything from Barbie dolls, jockstraps and Legos, to silk flowers, condoms and wedding rings, this work of art is, ultimately, a testimony to life — and, perhaps even above that, to individuality. These are people, not numbers.

But some statistics bear repeating. The quilt is enormous — at 773,280 total square feet, the size of 25 football fields. In fact, if all the 3-by-6-foot panels were laid end to end, the quilt would stretch almost 49 miles. At more than 50 tons, this cloth memorial is heavy with the voices silenced by AIDS.

But Asheville on Broadway’s Quilt aims to resurrect those voices, if only for one evening. Via music and personal stories told by local actors, the lost lives remembered in the quilt will unfold.

Asheville on Broadway began as the brainstorm of Greg Haller, an ardent local AIDS activist who knew the key to increasing local awareness was burrowing into the soul of Asheville’s rich arts community. Conceived two years ago, the company grew from a few anxious questions: “What can we do? How do we get to people? What messages are they going to listen to?” Facing indifference and donor burnout, the cause was looking for a boost. Haller continues, “We need[ed] to find something different, something unique to get to people.” The theater provided the answer, and with the help of prominent local artist/activist Lisa Morphew, Asheville on Broadway came to life.

Noting that theater is a way of reaching many people simultaneously, Haller reports, “Live theater is actually proving to be a more powerful venue of HIV education than the standard media or interpersonal education.” Asheville on Broadway is stretching its reach “to get to people in a different way and have the side benefit of having [the message be] a fundraiser.”

Last year’s event, a production of Normal Heart preceded by a silent auction, was a great success, pulling in $11,000 dollars for AIDS projects and service organizations in Western North Carolina. Specifically, money went for medicine, food, housing, electricity, and the purchase of electric blankets and comforters.

“We were very proud of the results last year,” states Haller. “The thing about it that I wanted to move away from, though, was that the show and entire cast [of Normal Heart] consisted of all white, middle-class gay men. And that is not what the picture of AIDS is today.” Inspiration for the 2000 event came from his memories working as a volunteer at the first display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, in 1992.

“We went to see [a production of Quilt] and it just blew us all away.” The musical gives us everything from a 12-year-old girl talking about her uncle to a grandmother who loses her grandchild. And, ironically, the show rings with life.

Says Haller, “[The play] deals with the fact that we do have to go on living and find ways to deal with that adversity.” That sentiment is a foundation of Asheville on Broadway, which, apart from its yearly fund raiser, stresses outreach and education in dealing with AIDS locally — keeping the subject in the forefront of our minds and disengaging apathy’s tight hold on the masses.

“Then we’ve got the media that we fight on top of that,” continues Haller passionately. “[It] constantly gives this message to mainstream America that AIDS is kind of over, that there’s all these wonderful drugs and everything’s okay — and [that’s] the furthest thing from the truth that you can even imagine. … With this type of event, you bring awareness back again into the community. Hopefully with theater, it’s done in a non-threatening way and in an entertaining way, but still gets the message across.”

What do Ashevilleans need to know? “AIDS is far from over,” Haller declares. “Prevention is of the utmost importance, because there is no cure.”

The gala production of Quilt will be held on Friday, Dec. 1, in Diana Wortham Theatre, starting at 7 p.m. with a silent auction and comments from WLOS anchor Darcel Grimes and Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick. Tickets go for $25. Quilt will also be shown in Diana Wortham Theatre Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for that performance run $15/general admission, $12/seniors and students. Panels of The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on view in Pack Place on Thursday, Nov. 30, 12-5 p.m. For more info or to order tickets for the musical, call 257-4530.

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