“Normal Heart” Production, Controversy Revisited Upon 25th Anniversary

Oct 16, 2014

Documents and pictures on display in the Special Collections and Archives Department at MSU’s Duane G. Meyer Library.
Credit Briana Simmons

An outcry of opposition to the 1989 production of “The Normal Heart” on the Southwest Missouri State University campus brought with it national attention. Now, 25 years later, the production is set to appear at the Springfield Contemporary Theatre. KSMU’s Briana Simmons has more.

The highly autobiographical play, written by Larry Kramer, is a story based in the lively 1980s of New York City at a time when those seeking acceptance also faced sickness in the wake of a new disease.

Rick Dines, leading actor in the role of Ned Weeks, a gay activist who finds himself at the forefront of the fight against AIDS.

“I feel at the core it is Ned starting out as a very outspoken artist who doesn’t really consider himself an activist and his journey into becoming an activist,” Dines said.

While Dines said he identifies more with the outspoken artist side of Weeks, he is also exploring the rest the character and investing himself scene by scene.

“I think at its core Ned just wants an acknowledgment of the problem a full acknowledgment of the problem from people who aren’t acknowledging it and the other members of the grouping they just want little pieces of action and get slow progress and to him no progress is going to be made until everyone’s on the same page acknowledging what the problem is. I think he just passionately wants that understanding that other people don’t want to give,” Dines said.

The production comes amid LGBT History Month and just days after Springfield City Council expanded its nondiscrimination ordinance to including protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identify in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.

Dr. Robert Bradley is directing this month’s production of “The Normal Heart.” He acknowledges some changes in Springfield since the 1989 controversy, when he served as department head for SMSU’s Theatre and Dance Department.

“Certainly the visibility of gays in Springfield in much higher now than it was and many people have become aware ‘Oh I do know somebody” and it’s when you arrive at that very personal realization and that is this is no longer a nebulas gay group out there or whatever that when you arrive at that point that this is an individual that I know you begin to think differently than what you might otherwise,” Bradley said. 

An exhibit currently on display in the Special Collections and Archives Department at MSU’s Duane G. Meyer Library includes original pictures and documents of the events from 25 years ago.

This display holds stacks of documents written in 1989 in disapproval of The Normal Heart production.
Credit Briana Simmons

Panel discussions are also planned to reflect on the history of the play. The first one, titled “The Normal Heart Controversy - Remembering 25 Years Ago,” will feature panelists such as Marshall Gordon, president of SMSU in 1989; and David Waggoner, actor in both the 1989 and 2014 production.

“The theatre community has grown a lot in 25 years. It’s expanding. There are more organizations producing and there’s a lot more theatre offerings in town. So I think in that regard we’re more diversified in what theatre does in the community,” Dines said. 

Dines will participate in the second panel discussion reflecting on the changes 25 years later, which will also include MSU President Clif Smart, and Charles Abernathy with the GLO Community Center, among others.

“The Normal Heart” premieres at the Springfield Contemporary Theatre this weekend.