[Update (3/27/17): This is playing again at SF Marsh through April 8. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, run, don’t walk, to check it out.]
It’s the early morning hours of January 28, 1986. Hospice Nurse Elaine Magree just pulled an all-nighter, answering calls and visiting dying patients. She’s already tended to two deaths, but then her pager goes off again. She pulls up to her favorite phone booth in East Oakland and makes the call. It’s a friend of a friend, and it doesn’t sound like he has long to live. Damn. She takes the case.
Such is the life described and enacted by Ms. Magree in her one-woman show Holding the Edge, playing at The Marsh in Berkeley (Thursdays and Saturdays through Oct. 15). Magree worked as a hospice nurse at that time, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, when I saw the poster for her show, the first thing to catch my eye was the “SILENCE = DEATH” poster leaning against her favorite phone booth, the receiver at her ear.
In the printed program for the show, Magree explains that she wrote the play as a reaction to Ronald Reagan receiving a posthumous award at a hospice and palliative care workers conference in 2014. “I was so angry at this travesty I wanted to scream at 2,000 people in the plenary session” and “to smash things.” Anyone who lived through the AIDS nightmare would have had a similar reaction.
She chose the date for her day-in-the-life piece very carefully. On January 28, 1986, President Reagan was to give a State of the Union address. Being the first to occur after the death of his friend Rock Hudson from AIDS, which finally brought the disease out of the closet and into mainstream households, many hoped that the president would finally mention the disease. However, the Space Shuttle Challenger also exploded on this date, which had consequences for the SOTU.
Magree takes these mega-events and weaves them into a very personal story about the toll of AIDS on those who had it and their family and friends. She deftly adopts many personae besides her own as the hospice nurse, including the dying friend of a friend, his bitchy-queer-punk caregiver, the mother of the patient, and many others. It’s the little details that make the story effective and poignant. The mother had been estranged from her ill son, but comes back in the end. The bitchy-punk at first acts defensive towards Elaine the Nurse, but calms down when he realizes that she’s family.
These characters are not abstractions. Everyone who lived through the AIDS crisis in 1980s and 90s knew each of these people. We remember how we had to learn how to use needles to administer morphine. We remember cleaning bedpans, massaging feet, and providing any comfort to the sick or dying loved one. Popsicles. I had forgotten about popsicles until one of the characters mentioned giving it to the person with AIDS. Sometimes popsicles were the only thing a really sick person could have. I gasped when it came up. It hit home with me.
One of the most poignant scenes came when Elaine the Nurse answered “the questions.” How does death happen? When will I know? She answered with scientific accuracy yet great humanity, respecting the dignity of the patient. Dignity was in short supply for many PWAs in the 80s and 90s, the reason for the bitchy-punk’s protective defensiveness. This scene, like so many others, felt very real.
Similarly, Magree worked the Space Shuttle disaster into the piece very effectively. It represented a beacon of hope for the dying friend, who wanted to see it launch, only to see it explode 73 seconds after launch.
Though ACT UP was still about a year away, there is a protest scene. Let’s just say that folks felt more than a little peeved at Reagan’s response to the shuttle disaster versus his response to the AIDS crisis.
Elaine Magree tells a very intimate story beautifully and forcefully. She “smashes things” figuratively, if not literally, on stage. She even had us chanting at the end, our fists raised in the air. All that anger from nearly 30 years ago rushed into my raised arm and shouting larynx. Sadly, it’s an anger that can never really die, and is sometimes provoked.
Upon her death earlier this year, Nancy Reagan received bogus praise, including from Hillary Clinton, about the role she played in raising awareness about AIDS. Total and utter bullshit. As many recalled, when Rock Hudson called her to ask for help, she turned him down. After screaming that message over and over, the world press corrected itself and gave the true story, that she hid from the disease just like her husband.
We need more beautifully told stories like Elaine Magree’s to make sure that AIDS history isn’t set a little to straight, that all the crooks and kinks that made life so unbearable for so many people are put on full display, so that we may never forget a time when thousands died and hardly anyone paid attention.
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