Thursday, April 28, 2011

Deconstructing the HIV Stigma and Drama re:Nashville Dinner Theatre’s Production of Rent

Those of us who live it know that people with HIV sometimes die of stigma. It may not have been written on their death certificates, but we’ve been present when stigma was the true cause of death. 

by Mark Hubbard

Disclosure: F. Daniel Kent, the writer of last week’s Rent Violations: Nashville Dinner Theatre Evicted from Dining Out for Life, and I began our friendship about ten years ago when we met through mutual acquaintances shortly after his HIV diagnosis. I’m one of several folks Kent leaned on for moral support (but not for content) during the time he was writing the piece. The two of us move in a couple of the same circles and we share what I like to call the “gay Broadway gene.”

For the record, this article was not his idea. I wasn’t there at the Rent rehearsals and I haven’t seen a performance. Although I know and admire one cast member, I don’t know any of the individuals quoted or written about in the article. I am only involved in the Nashville theater scene as an occasional audience member.

I’ve been looking back over the past week and trying to find meaning in the midst of what has at times devolved into a pissing match. I keep reminding myself that there are things I believe, things I know, and things that I can never know.

I know that word got to me and others in the community about fear and stigma on the set of Rent before Kent ever mentioned it to me.

I know that Nashville CARES’ involvement was a rather late development, occurring only after Kent had been working on the article for some time.

I know that Kent was very determined to get this story right. Early on he decided that if key and corroborating sources would not go on the record, he would not write the story. I also know that he was more patient than usual – waiting days and weeks to talk to those involved.

I believe that my friend had nothing to gain and everything to lose, including his considerable reputation, should he fail to write the story responsibly. Kent has worked on both sides of the stage in music and in theater for sixteen years, and is extensively networked in the entertainment field. In addition to writing prolifically for local and regional media, he has published articles on artists like Jennifer Hudson, Keith Urban, and Nicole Kidman in and on national media outlets like the, the Bay Area Reporter, and US Weekly.

Those familiar with his work know that he often uses the simple Q&A style made popular by Interview magazine. What are often phone interviews are always recorded. I asked Kent whether that applied to the unnamed sources in his story. “Everything I did was recorded,” he replied. “There was fear of reprisals; there was fear that they’d be removed from the show. In order to get the story, I had to promise certain parties that their anonymity would be guarded.”

Nashville is too big to call a town and too small to be considered a city by those who live in a real one. That can present challenges. Kent deals with them in media, I deal with them in HIV advocacy. We wear a lot of hats, and it’s difficult to keep the roles cleanly delineated. We have to constantly think about how actions in one arena might affect us in another. We can’t afford to accumulate enemies. There are often too few allies sharing the load, and sometimes the fact that information can’t be shared with them for extended periods of time is stressful.

Subsequent to the publication of his story on, Kent invited a group of friends, some out of town guests and the replaced actor to accompany him in seeing the show. Invitees were told to be on their best behavior and that given the scenario, admittance was not assured. During his interview, theater owner and co-director Kaine Riggan had offered to “comp” him and a couple of guests so that they could evaluate the show on its own merits. Kent admits that he probably brought more guests than expected but also asserts that he was unable to reach Riggan to discuss this despite making repeated calls during the day. There was a confrontation after the show that revolved around Riggan’s desire to have the story taken down. He had been working to intimidate into doing so, and was eventually successful. Kent promptly moved the story to his own site, NowHearThis!

The dialogue continued the next day in an embarrassing Facebook exchange for which both parties were in my view responsible. Riggan seemed to think Kent’s integrity was for sale – that some deal could be made for him to withdraw the article. Kent, on the other hand, succumbed to the temptation to exploit that by offering to trade the story against a rather lengthy and detailed set of demands. While his intention was to address each of the very real harms that had been inflicted, I think it was a mistake for Kent to step into a role better filled by others in the community. I also think Riggan’s suggestion that the article should be removed was ridiculous.

Neither of the two are innocents. Both admit having very strong personalities. Kent confesses he can be a confrontational loudmouth. Riggan describes himself as a tantrum throwing closet redneck. I believe Kent has at times been too easily sucked into the personal drama and needs to examine his own complex motives. I believe Riggan responded to the story with desperate, unwarranted legal threats and innuendo; he and his defenders have at times falsely accused Kent of dishonesty while propagating mistruths of their own. Kent needs to let his excellent work stand on its own merits. They both protest too much, methinks.

There are a few other things that are clear to me.

Nashville CARES is a large, long-established, highly respected organization that consistently exhibits careful judgment and exceptional public relations skill. Their decision to remove the Nashville Dinner Theatre from the Dining Out for Life website speaks for itself.

Had Kent wished to maximize personal embarrassment for Riggan, he could have. He certainly failed to mine a wealth of material in the recorded interview. Had he wished to write a one-sided story, he wouldn’t have featured the categorical denials by both Riggan and Creative Director Vance Nichols.
Riggan has a reputation among the theater community in Nashville – one made up of positive and negative elements. The dinner theater crowd seems to have cheered his more traditional productions over the years both downtown and at the suburban senior center location where he was previously in residence. The facility where his new company resides has been lauded for its historical character. On the other hand, it’s known that Riggan departed two previous positions amid controversy, hard feelings, and accusations.

I can never know whether Byron Rice’s replacement was directly related to his HIV status. I can never know what went on in the head of actress Joanne Coleman, who was apparently shocked by Byron’s frank acknowledgement that he is HIV positive.

Whether it was a sincere disclosure or a ruse, Riggan’s claim that he and other staff thought that an individual would prefer being let go because of his HIV status over being let go based on his fitness for the part is telling. It appears to me that this production was mounted by a company whose management did not possess the cultural understanding necessary to do so with integrity.

I don’t want to see Nashville Dinner Theater or its production of Rent fail. Having multiple theater venues in Nashville means variety and options. As a gay man living with HIV/AIDS, though, I get nervous when folks who don’t share or truly understand my experience try to explain or portray it.

The cast who threatened to walk if the show was mutilated are heroes. I believed it when one of them emailed to say “what matters most to me is that someone was touched, moved, and inspired to think more deeply and more broadly about their lives...and to experience compassion for this human experience.” Byron Rice is also a hero for bravely owning his positive HIV status.

Those of us who live it know that people with HIV sometimes die of stigma. It may not have been written on their death certificates, but we’ve been present when stigma was the true cause of death. My friend F. Daniel Kent is my hero because even though he was faced with a difficult, personally affecting story, even though he stood to gain very little, he dared to investigate and tell the tale when no one else would.

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