Every time someone he knew died of AIDS, playwright Larry Kramer would write the name on a small piece of paper and throw it into a large box. When he finally counted the slips, he discovered he had more than 500.
"That's what fuels me," he says. "All that memory and all that sadness and all that anger. I really don't know why I'm alive."Eight years into the AIDS epidemic, Kramer is fighting on the front lines, on the street and in the theater.
"Looking around at the people who are alive, we all react in either one way or the other," he says. "One is denial. People just go on with their lives and try not to think about it. Or there are people who turn into walking furies like me."
On the street, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis and later formed ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). "We protest everywhere," he says, proudly pointing to a photograph of his arrest in front of the White House.
The passion carries into the plays he writes. "The Normal Heart," produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1985, was one of the first AIDS plays to reach a mainstream theater audience. The play, which starred Brad Davis as a hotheaded gay activist not unlike Kramer, was a defiant cry, a shout against bureaucratic and personal paralysis in the face of the devastating disease.
Now he has written another play, "Just Say No," which he says is not an AIDS play, although it deals peripherally with the disease. Kramer calls his new play "farcical." It's meant to make audiences laugh.
"While a farce, `Just Say No' is a very angry play," Kramer says. "It's really another attempt to do what I did in `The Normal Heart,' which is to bring shocking conditions to the attention of the public."
The setting for "Just Say No," on view at off-Broadway's tiny WPA Theater, is Georgetown, the capital of a mythical country called New Columbia where a Mrs. Potentate, a more than just first lady, reigns supreme. Other characters include her ballet dancer son as well as the mayor of Appleberg, the largest northeastern city in New Columbia. Theatergoers are free to draw the obvious connections.
"It's all been checked by lawyers," the playwright says with a sigh. "So many times."
Kramer sits in his book-filled Greenwich Village apartment. His dog Molly - "my muse," he calls her - sits at his feet as he talks about "Just Say No."
"It's political theater," the author says. "I guess it goes back to what they did in Berlin in the 1920s. It deals with contemporary public issues. I don't know if people 10 or 15 years from now will know most of the references. It's very much of the moment. I love dealing with the immediacy of today."
Before working in the theater, Kramer spent much of his career in the movie industry as an executive at Columbia Pictures and United Artists. He produced and adapted D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" for the screen and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Has he always been an iconoclast?
"I don't know," he says. "I think that's the reputation I have now because of `The Normal Heart' and all my AIDS activities. I write a lot of AIDS blasts.
"What I'm interested in is `gossip as life,' exposing hypocrisy and sham and trying to tell the world the things the world doesn't know or want to know."
"The Normal Heart" was turned down by every major play agent in New York, all the networks and more than a half-dozen producers until Joseph Papp decided to put it on at the Shakespeare Festival.
"Just Say No" was no easier to bring to the stage, says Kramer. "It got a faster reading everywhere, but the play scared everybody just as much as `The Normal Heart' did. People say it is outrageous in every sense of the term. They either love it or hate it."
"Just Say No" was to have been produced by the Shakespeare Festival as a commercial offering, but legal problems because of the festival's non-profit status forced it to bow out. However, Kyle Renick, artistic director of the WPA, had an opening on his fall schedule.
The play was written about 18 months ago, but Kramer got caught up in his AIDS activism and put it aside. He says it should have been done earlier and wants it on before the presidential elections.
Kramer says his anger has made him unbelievably productive. He has written another play, a serious, companion piece to "The Normal Heart," as well as the screenplay for "The Normal Heart." He also has a book coming out in February called "Reports from the holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist."
It's holocaust with a small `h,' Kramer says, and the book contains about 400 pages of writing he has done on AIDS for various publications as well as about 100 new pages explaining why he believes the AIDS epidemic can be called a holocaust.
"You can't be a gay man in New York without really being swamped by AIDS," the 53-year-old Kramer says. "I've never seen such a major problem being handled by second-rate people and that's across the board, from Mr. Reagan obviously, Mr. Koch obviously, but all of the people in all of the agencies from Health and Human Services to FDA to NIH to CDC."
Does Kramer want to write about anything else?
"There is absolutely nothing else that's of any interest to me," he says. "I feel a responsibility to write about AIDS so that there is a record of it or at least my version of the record of it."