Meet the Cast of The Normal Heart: AJ Pate
In 2022, State Theatre Company South Australia presents our production of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking, multi-Tony Award-winning play, The Normal Heart. We’ll be interviewing the cast to chat about the importance of this play in the landscape of modern theatre and for LGBTQI+ communities. Read all the interviews.
We spoke with AJ Pate, who is making his professional debut with State Theatre Company South Australia in this production of The Normal Heart and hails from Maryland, USA. AJ portrays a number of roles in the production.
Pictured: AJ in rehearsals for The Normal Heart
What was your first ever encounter with The Normal Heart?
The audition/season announcement. I’m mainly a huge musical theatre nerd so I don’t get as much exposure to straight theatre as I’d like to. When the STCSA season was announced, everyone at uni kept telling me about how much this show suited me. I had no clue what they meant until I read the script for the audition. I felt so connected to it that I bought the movie and watched it at least three times. It made me realize how little the AIDS epidemic has been taught. It’s so interesting/disheartening that media surrounding gay culture during that time period is not prevalent in our culture today. I always knew that the AIDS epidemic happened in the 80s/90s, but I felt so ignorant not knowing how much discrimination queer men faced.
What does this role mean to you?
Throughout my entire career, I have played second (or third) fiddle to my straight-white counterparts. Being under the direction of a creative team that understands queer oppression, and encourages these roles to be played by those who live that struggle is not easy to come by. As much as I love Mark Ruffalo’s performance in the movie, he’s still a straight man who gets to go home to his beautiful wife and continue his unmarginalised lifestyle. When I step off stage, I can’t take off the gay, the same way I can’t wash the brown off of my skin. I think it’s important to show that some of the obstacles in the play are still happening in a modern context. HIV/AIDS is still in the community, there’s politicians in America doing whatever they can to encourage gay-hate policies, and simply existing as a homosexual is punishable by death in some countries. I can only imagine how hard it was to be a gay man during the AIDS epidemic, and even the time periods before. Telling this story means I get to honour those who have sacrificed their lives to make mine easier.
How do you identify with your character? Have you faced any obstacles in your own life similar to those of your character?
Craig doesn’t see much character development considering he’s patient zero of the play. It’s ironic because he has just found a man that he loves, which is hard in the gay community because you don’t often find love, or anything close to it for that matter. I actually feel privileged that I haven’t met the same fate as Craig. Thanks to today’s technology, gay men can reduce the risk of HIV by taking prescribed PReP. Even those diagnosed with HIV early on can still maintain their lifestyle without the virus being detected in their body with the help of modern medicine.
The Normal Heart is very much about the power of community – what’s a time where you personally experienced/witnessed the power of community?
Personally, I usually don’t feel included in the gay community. The gay community is very exclusive, which probably comes from the decades of discrimination that has occurred over many generations. I mean, how can you expect a community to be considered inclusive when the community itself isn’t included in society? I could take it personally, but I also understand that I might just have to wait my turn for the development of the gay community to accept a person that looks like me. There’s a lot of conditions for being accepted amongst the gays unless you’re a tall, muscle-y white man. What I sometimes forget is that outside of our community, the “more favourable” gay demographics still face some oppression I do. I sincerely hope one day we can destigmatise the marginalisation within the gay community altogether and learn to find a common ground celebrating our differences. This production of The Normal Heart has so much potential in showcasing the power of community, and how it can include everyone. The play itself shows how impactful community can be when it is present, while simultaneously showing how destructive it is when the community is divided. I’m very fortunate we can accomplish this with such a diverse cast.
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, directed by Dean Bryant, comes to the Dunstan Playhouse, 30 September to 15 October 2022.