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‘The Normal Heart’ Virtual Reading Set with Sterling K. Brown, Laverne Cox: “It Doesn’t Have to Be About All White Gay Men”

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 5/4/2021 Kirsten Chuba

The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s famed play following the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, will take on a new form during a historic virtual table read on May 8.

For the first time, an almost entirely Black, LGBTQ and POC cast of actors will star in the show, led by Sterling K. Brown, Laverne Cox and Jeremy Pope.

Vincent Rodriguez III, Guillermo Díaz, Jake Borelli, Ryan O’Connell, Daniel Newman, Jay Hayden and Danielle Savre will round out the cast, and Martin Sheen, star of the original London production in 1986, will also provide a special introduction.

Directed by Station 19 executive producer Paris Barclay, the reading is put on by ONE Archives Foundation, the oldest active LGBTQ organization in the U.S., and the Invisible Histories Project, which is dedicated to making LGBTQ Southern history accessible to the community. 100 percent of ticket sales for the event will go to the One Archives Foundation and its initiatives.

Ahead of the show, Barclay spoke to THR about assembling the A-list cast, highlighting Black love and seeing the story in a new way amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why was this something you were interested in doing? 

I was in New York when this play happened and felt the reverberations of it in every aspect of my life. I went and saw the original production at The Public Theater, in which Brad Davis played the Ned Weeks role, and not only was I moved by it, but it’s one of the things that made it clear to me that I couldn’t have a career without also being some kind of an activist. That’s the plea of the play, that we have to all get involved. We have to all do something to help each other. And so very, very early before I even was a director, I was still an advertising copywriter at that time, this play is one of the things that instilled the idea that there really isn’t a public life without activism.

How did this impressive cast all come together? 


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Beautifully, for one. What happened was I was offered the opportunity to do the reading of the play by the heroes at the ONE Archives Foundation. I immediately grabbed at it — I said, “Sure, I’ll do a reading, I don’t have anything to do with my spare time, I’ll just do a reading of The Normal Heart, why not. I immediately thought of Sterling K. Brown. I thought Sterling K. Brown would be exactly suited to the power, the passion and the emotion of Ned Weeks. Before the casting process even really began, I ran that name up the flagpole, it was agreed, I reached out to him and he agreed to do it. So he was the linchpin of the cast for me — I’ve always admired him, I’ve never had a chance to work with him directly, and we’re going to have that chance at some point soon, I hope. But he became Ned Weeks and once he became Ned Weeks I thought well, there’s no reason when you’re doing a reading not to cast it with people that you also think would be powerful in the roles regardless of who they appear to be.

I can cast this play with people that fit the roles and aren’t the usual suspects in these parts — it doesn’t have to be about all white gay men struggling, the story transcends the period. And so we started making lists and thinking of other people, and the idea of Laverne Cox came up as Dr. Emma Brookner. Again, I thought an unconventional choice that I think would be a wonderful, provocative, compelling way to do it. We reached out to her and she said yes. And it went on and on, through the list of wonderful people that we thought could really bring it to life but weren’t the usual suspects. We wanted a diverse group, we wanted people with different abilities. We wanted people who are gay playing straight parts, we wanted people who are straight playing gay parts. We wanted just the right people for the right characters. I’ve never been able to cast something the way that I’ve always wanted to, this is my first opportunity to do so.

Why did you want to do this with mostly BIPOC and LGBTQ actors, and a more diverse group than has played these parts before? 

The heart of the play is so much broader than the time and I wanted it to resonate, I wanted to have people who really would nail the characters. It’s just a reading so they have to be able to just deliver the characters with no real rehearsal and just bring it forth. I thought, “Let’s get the best people for the job.” That’s what we always talk about doing in casting, but then we don’t. I went with people that I thought would be wonderful in these parts, like Vincent Rodriguez III and Daniel Newman, and our people from Station 19 just coming in to help. I just wanted it to be the way that I imagined [how] casting of the future, and maybe even of the present, could be. I also really wanted to show a loving relationship between two African American men, and so with Jeremy Pope and Sterling, you’ll see when you actually see the work, it is electric. They are significant actors who really infuse the roles with so much heart and so much passion, and sort of just redefined the play and make it more relevant to today.

And Martin Sheen is a nice nod to the original. 

Yes, Martin Sheen played Ned Weeks in the original London production of The Normal Heart, so it’s kind of terrific. That was 1986, it’s a little while ago — we asked if he would be willing to just at least read the W.H. Auden poem that precedes [the show], that Larry Kramer had asked to be in every program of the play, and since we didn’t have a program, we wanted to present it in some way. He immediately agreed. We had a great phone conversation, it was terrific, since I haven’t actually worked with him since The West Wing, it was terrific to hear his enthusiasm for it and the heart that he put into it. And he read it beautifully and led off the play with a huge home run.

How does all of your experience as a TV director translate to directing a virtual reading?

We always complain in television about not getting enough time to rehearse — try to do a staged reading with people who are all over the United States. Some are preparing movies, some are on hit television shows, it’s the impossible mission. But these actors committed to coming together on Zoom, we read it all together, I gave them some notes and ideas, and then we did the actual presentation of the play. We really kept it as simple as possible, and I thought that just if you cast it right, and if the actors have the heart of the play in their souls, it will communicate. And that’s actually what you’ll see on May 8.

What’s the importance of bringing this show back in 2021? 

The ONE Archives Foundation is the nation’s oldest LGBTQ organization. They continue to present the history of the gay and lesbian people in America throughout the world, really, with their various history projects and displays, and they bring to light times that would be if not ignored, at least, sometimes actively swept under the rug. I think it’s such an important organization to keep our history alive, and this particular play crystallizes that period that I lived through, the ’80s in New York and what was happening and how confused we were and how we watched our friends die in a way that’s really a vivid historical document. That organization choosing this play just fits so perfectly, because it’s part of expanding its mission of getting our stories told.

Do you think people will view this story different now given what we’ve gone through in the last year?

As we rehearsed it, a lot of the lines and a lot of the situations are very resonant, especially to our life under the Trump administration in the beginning of the pandemic — the confusion about what we were facing, how transmissible it is, what the government should be doing and whether the government was doing enough is all a part of the play. I’m sure when people see that they’ll hear echoes of last year in their heads, because what goes around comes around and when you’re faced with an epidemic or pandemic, sometimes your government isn’t sprinting to solve the problems, particularly problems that influence a minority. In The Normal Heart’s case it was gay men, and in our case, currently, with COVID, it seems to be Black and brown communities that are still underserved by the resources to combat the COVID pandemic. So the parallel I think will be very clear — it’s a little sad that we didn’t learn anything, but that’s why we need to keep doing the play more.

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