“Rent” and Christmas

How does a young person find love after being infected with a fatal, sexually transmitted illness?

Rent, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, made its Binghamton University debut this holiday season, bringing that famously insouciant NYC swagger to the sleepy upstate campus.  Performed entirely by undergraduates, Rent achieved local acclaim.  But the present writer did not entirely enjoy the performance.  The musical raised several significant questions about the choices young people make, but failed to provide good answers.  When the final curtain fell, several questions lingered in my mind as I applauded.

How does a young person find love after being infected with a fatal, sexually transmitted illness?  Is love still an option in those circumstances?  With whom?  Does anyone care about these young people?  These are the most imported questions asked by the musical.

The action centers around three men and a building during one unspecified year in the early 1990s.  Mark, a struggling documentary filmmaker, and his friend Roger, a wannabe rock star, share an apartment in a rundown building in Manhattan’s dangerous Alphabet City neighborhood.  Their friend Benny used to live with them, but recently “married up” and became, of all things, their landlord.  Throughout the play, he threatens to evict his old roommates for failing to make good on one year’s worth of rent.

Mark provides the eyes of the musical, constantly recording his friends’ lives as they try to make something beautiful out of poverty and imminent death.  Two of those friends, Roger and Tom, start relationships that provide the romantic core of the musical and also provide a lifestyle dichotomy.  Roger falls in love with Mimi, an HIV-positive young woman who, now and again, takes to prostitution for money to support her drug habit and also survive.  Tom falls in love with Angel, an HIV-positive male transvestite who lives up to his name by giving inspiration and hope to others.  One of the most moving scenes is a tryptic of two reconciling couples in shadow while the spotlight holds in the center another couple in which one partner dies.

These young adults are hyper-aware of their own loneliness and poverty, but never conclude that their own behavior may push various opportunities away.  Benny manipulates his friends to advance his agenda as a property owner.  Mark refuses stubbornly to put down his camera and engage his environment without a cinematic buffer.  Maureen of course is the hyperbolic example: from the beginning of this drama to its last scene, Maureen dances in and out of her relationship with her girlfriend, one moment singing her praises, another moment snogging with a complete stranger at a dinner party on Christmas Day.

Ironically, the theme of Christmas runs through the musical, but not in a traditional, festive or religious sense.  While the action starts during one Christmas and concludes the following holiday season, the characters sing sarcastic songs with bitter notes rather than hymns.  They cheerfully announce that there is “No room at the Holiday Inn.”  And there is no place for Christianity in their lives.  From a certain perspective, that is a fair judgment.  The church has largely failed AIDS victims for most of the epidemic.  In one scene heavy with symbolism, a man in a cassock slams his door in the faces of strangers asking for help.  For many suffering with and overcoming HIV, this is the church’s story.  Their tragedy is ours whenever we fail to show them Christ’s light and love through affirming our common humanity.  That is what Christmas is about.  And we cannot do that from the audience.

This Christmas season, let us take to heart, then, a key message from Rent: there are unfortunates around you looking for love. Will you meet them on their terms or will you remain safely in the audience, warm and entertained?

Written by Dorollo Nixon, Jr.

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