Defunkt Theater’s “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”: Life, Love & HIV

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Editor’s note: A longer version of this preview will run in our print issue Feb. 20. Since the play opened last night, I wanted to help get the word out for shows prior to our print launch. –DB 

Prior to 1996, an HIV diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. That year, however, brought the advent of anti-retroviral therapy, a treatment that gave HIV-positive patients a chance to live healthy, productive lives.

This switch changed everything for a generation of gay men who’d lived for over a decade in the shadow of a plague that ravaged their community. This moment of profound hope, and the grief and confusion that attended it, are captured in David Zellnik’s play, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” which will be produced by Defunkt Theatre from Feb. 14 to March 22.

Zellnik has strong personal memories of the time he’s depicted.

“I came of age in the ’80s, just hitting puberty when the direness of the AIDS crisis became clear,” he says. “I would say that HIV, my own teenage fear of HIV, is totally and irrevocably wrapped up in my sexuality. So that moment in ‘96 when it seemed like the AIDS crisis might be over, when friends might live and I might not have to be so scared anymore, well it felt incredibly personal.

“I had moved to NYC in 1989 to go to college and watched the city go from ACT UP rage to a sort of collapsing despair, and then to hope. The play is my small record of that time. It’s also a love song to men slightly older than me who had borne the brunt of the crisis and whom, in ways both good and suspect, I envied for the intensity of their journey.”

While Zellnik’s subject matter is weighty, though, his approach is anything but solemn. “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” is narrated by Puppy, a gay man with disabilities who uses a wheelchair. Puppy writes Marxist pornography, and Zellnik depicts his creative process with great gusto.

Zellnik says he embraces the combination of the serious with the exuberantly libidinous as being true his characters’ experiences. “Too often, it seems to me, plays try and iron out the wrinkles of real interaction in a misguided nod to genre: That is, serious plays get serious scenes, funny plays get funny scenes, and you can step out of the lines a little but not too much,” he says. “I like to give the characters room to be as weird or as heartfelt in the same scene as they want to be. And with a lead character like Puppy, a gay, disabled, Marxist porn writer, you just have to follow where he wants to go.”

Defunkt is partnering with Cascade AIDS Project on this production. CAP has provided speakers who’ve shared their experiences with the cast and crew, and advised the company about technical matters involving side effects from medications and the survivor guilt and PTSD suffered by people who lived through the peak of AIDS. Defunkt will have a post performance talkback event with CAP on March 1st. “It will be a panel discussion about living with HIV and AIDS and feature some speakers who were the age of the characters at the time the play takes place,” Defunkt’s Matthew Kern says.

Zellnik will attend a performance, as well, but says he won’t be consulting with Defunkt on the production, as he prefers to let them create their vision without him. “It’s nice when the play finally breaks free,” he says, “like a kid all grown up and ready to voyage out into the world.”

“Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” Defunkt Theatre 4321 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Feb. 14 to March 22. See website for details.

Photo by Heather Keeling