Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens