Outside of its members, there’s a little known history behind St. Mark, one of midtown’s largest churches. It wasn’t always a large church. In fact, in the early 90’s its membership was dwindling.
Open minds and open hearts reversed that. “In the early 90s we were a dying church,” explained St. Mark’s Chair of the Publicity and Promotions Committee Phil Hulst, “when 100 or so members here courageously gave out water and a warm welcome to people in the pride parade. It caused a turnaround in our church. We now have over 1,800 members with probably 75-80% gay or lesbian.”
That courage came during a frightening time for the LGBTQ community, for in the early to mid- 80s the HIV/AIDS virus began infecting the community in large numbers. Known then only as “the gay cancer,” there was a hysteria of sorts across the nation as people were unprepared and more importantly fearful of the unknown disease.
“So many people in our community were horrifically affected in the early 90s,” laments Senior Pastor Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts. But the effects of HIV/AIDS hasn’t stop there. “We probably lost five members last year because their bodies just gave out,” she continued, “but people have started to view the disease as sustainable and chronic. There’s a call for a continued commitment to awareness.”
With a spike in HIV infections among the youth in our community, the members of St. Mark once again show their courage with their production of the Tony award-winning play The Normal Heart.
Written by Larry Kramer, co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the “fictitious” play chronicles the rise of the HIV/AIDS virus during the early 80s in New York City and serves as an outlet for Kramer’s real-life disappointment with the bureaucratic obstacles in response to tackling the disease.
Director Jim Baker brings his own experiences to the table. “My life path brought me through this,” Baker explained. “I was an actor in New York and every time you left for a show and came back someone was gone. We lost a whole generation of singers and dancers.”
“With infections spiking amongst our youth and African-American women, it’s time to rattle the cages and get this back under control,” Baker continued.
Under the direction of Jim Baker, the cast of Heart has undertaken a monumental task. With a wide range of ages amongst the cast, each member has had to confront their own struggles and experiences with the disease or mine emotion when their exposure has been limited. “I was relentless with this cast in bringing out what I think the character needed,” Baker passionately shared, “and I hope they will each be pleased with the end result.”
The cast includes John Harr, as Ned Weeks, Steve Hargrove as his closeted, NY Times writer/lover, Felix Turner and Diane Haase as Dr. Emma Brookner. “[My role] was a struggle as the mother in me wants to portray the role with compassion but as I’ve learned the only way one could survive through this tragedy was through detachment,” Haase shared.
With previous productions including The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music and Anything Goes, The Normal Heart is a departure for the Drama Ministry at St. Mark. Since Heart will be presented unedited only those ages 18 and up will be admitted- a demographic they are hoping will turn out. “There’s a potential for [young people] to see people living with AIDS and they don’t see it as the killer that we observed early on,” Hulst expounded, “Hopefully, the show will bring a new awareness to the fact that this isn’t something we’ve solved . . . that we’re still in the process of doing that.”
In addition to hoping to spark a dialogue about the current state of HIV/AIDS, St. Mark will collect donations after each performance to be distributed among non-profit HIV/AIDS charities in the metro-Atlanta area including Aniz, Inc., AID Atlanta, Jerusalem House, Living Room, Positive Impact, and Project Open Hand.
The Normal Heart will run this week Thursday, June 21st and Friday, June 22nd at 8 p.m. as well as Sunday, June 24th at 7:30 p.m. The following week Heart will run Thursday the 28th through Saturday June 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for $20 in advance at Brown Paper Tickets