Proudfit: AIDS plays offer lens to understand, respond to COVID-19

Associate Professor of English Scott Proudfit's Winter Term course ENG 255: The AIDS Play explores the tragedy and hope that stemmed from America's most recent pandemic.

If we want to better understand COVID-19 and the choices, challenges and positive changes possible to us, we can look to the art and literature that came out of the AIDS crisis, Associate Professor of English Scott Proudfit says.

Plays, literature and the arts offer frameworks of understanding humanity and the world — especially in times of conflict and crisis. Proudfit has researched and deeply reflected on those frameworks for ENG 255: The AIDS Play, a course he teaches each Winter Term using plays, journalism, essays and performances to underscore the value and relevance of creative media in the darkest times.

“They put our feelings and thoughts into something more manageable for our heads,” Proudfit said.

Among stories of the human toll, various messages and themes emerge in the texts: The dangers of stigmatization, the choices between absolute freedom and responsibility, and the hope that comes when communities form in response to crisis.

“’Angels in America’ is about the conflict between freedom and responsibility,” Proudfit says of Tony Kushner’s 1991 play. “In some ways, that’s the major conflict of America since its founding. How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to our social responsibility for others? That’s a question students and everyone need to be asking themselves right now. Coronavirus has brought that into focus.”

Of course COVID-19 is not HIV/AIDS. It’s a different disease altogether — it spreads differently, its diagnosis isn’t necessarily a death sentence (as AIDS was for many years), and it’s affecting the global population much more rapidly and visibly than HIV. The novel coronavirus isn’t associated with one minority or demographic group.

But there are some parallels and lessons to be drawn from 40 years ago. Ignoring a disease won’t protect you. Viruses don’t care about class or race or age, even though they may affect certain populations more acutely, viruses only care about finding new hosts.

“AIDS playwrights drew parallels to past plagues,” Proudfit said. “It’s natural for people to try to draw parallels between coronavirus and the AIDS epidemic” from overcrowded hospitals, an obsession with hygiene (then “safe sex,” now hand-washing and PPE), and that the virus will have greater effects on low-income communities.

Proudfit empathizes with students during a time of fear and uncertainty. He was an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the deadliest and darkest years of the AIDS epidemic in America. He enrolled feeling immune to the virus, but soon began losing friends and colleagues in the theater world.

“It’s felt like a time-warp,” Proudfit said, recalling how he and his then-girlfriend, now wife, would report to each other who’d died of AIDS or contracted the virus. “We’d read the papers and watch the news for notifications about new medicines or the government offering promises, and then the rug would get pulled out from under everyone with bad decision-making. There are the same sorts of frustrations now. It’s calling up a lot of the emotions I had at the time.”

In The AIDS Play, students study Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” which Proudfit calls “the pinnacle of the AIDS play.” On March 24, McNally died after contracting COVID-19.

“That someone who lived through that epidemic and saw all these loved ones pass away and wrote about that so eloquently, and yet is killed by coronavirus seems really cruel. It really hit me hard,” he said. “There’s no way McNally could have imagined this would be his death: Dying in a hospital in Florida from another virus outbreak. It’s strange and sad.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci — who’s been beamed into our lives through daily White House briefings over the last several weeks — was also a central figure in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Proudfit’s students become familiar with him through Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” and other texts in The AIDS Play, watching him stumble through early messaging around HIV’s transmission as the head of the National Institutes of Health.

“Does knowing this history lead to hope or despair?” Proudfit asks to no clear answer, though with hope that Fauci learned from those earlier mistakes.

Proudfit again sympathizes with students in needing to be informed, but also being exhausted by a constant media stream around the virus. He quoted author Andrew Holleran writing about AIDS in his book “Ground Zero”: “… I suspect there is one thing and one thing only everyone wants to read, and that is the headline CURE FOUND.”

“I get that,” Proudfit said. “I’m in that place now. I was in that place back then. There’s a feeling that you want to cut yourself off. Yet, loneliness and self-isolation can lead to darkness.

“But there’s hope in these periods, too, and you see that in youth and smart young leaders. That’s why I teach: I have faith in these smart and compassionate students in my classes.”