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FERNDALE – When actor/director Joe Bailey returned home to Metro Detroit after a long stretch on the road, his plans included more than just introducing his new Wyoming-born partner to life in the Motor City. What was missing from the local theater community, he believed, were the type of quality shows that used to be found at Detroit’s Attic Theatre, and so his mission in life became quite clear: to create a local theater company that produces the off-Broadway shows that seemingly don’t get staged anymore.
With 18 months of planning now behind him, the curtain will finally be raised June 22 on the first-ever production staged by his newly created theater troupe, Who Wants Cake: Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.”
Although the powerful AIDS-themed drama was popular for several years following its 1985 debut, interest in it has waned. That’s a mistake, Bailey believes, since many gay men and lesbians today are totally unaware of the impact AIDS had on the community during the early years of the epidemic. That point became quite clear one night as Bailey and partner Joe Plambeck joined friends for dinner, and the conversation turned theater.
“I had been mulling some things over and trying to come up with the perfect script to do for our first show,” Bailey, the troupe’s artistic director, recently told BTL. “‘The Normal Heart’ was mentioned, and a friend who was with us didn’t know the show. I was sort of appalled at that. He’s also a gay man with theatrical leanings, and it occurred to me that this is the twentieth anniversary of the play and there’s a whole generation of people who may not know what was happening back then. That’s a travesty, really. So something must be done to correct that.”
It was a decision that didn’t require any arm-twisting, Bailey admitted. “‘The Normal Heart’ was the first play I ever directed about 17 years ago, so it’s been interesting revisiting it.”
In Kramer’s somewhat auto-biographical tale, HIV-positive novelist Ned Weeks and a handful of friends form a non-profit agency in the early 1980s to educate the gay community about a disease that was beginning to wreak havoc in New York City. “Nobody knew what was going on back then,” Bailey said. “There was such panic from the gay community and the straight community, but for different reasons. But you quickly discover that everyone in the group has a very different agenda. It becomes a battle between Ned and everyone else. It’s about how everybody who could have made a difference chose for whatever reason not to do anything.”
Given its subject matter – and the desire to use the show as a fundraiser for a local LGBT organization – it only made sense for Bailey to approach the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale with his plan. And according to Bailey, the agency couldn’t have been more agreeable! “MAPP was receptive right from the start. They even helped us find a space!”
That space turned out to be the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale. “When we first went there, it felt completely right,” Bailey said. “They have a stage, lights and everything!”
It also has seating for 250, which the director believes should be enough to handle the projected crowds throughout its three-night run.
And it’s in one of two cities Bailey initially targeted for his troupe. “I was really interested in keeping it in either Ferndale or Royal Oak. I want to see how theater plays out in one of those cities.”
Craig Covey, MAPP’s chief executive officer, is delighted that his organization is involved with Who Wants Cake’s first production. “‘The Normal Heart’ is a wonderful play, and MAPP is very pleased to be a part of this local production. The theater community has been very generous to our agency over the years, and we appreciate their support.”
In the future, Bailey expects Who Wants Cake will offer a full season of shows. Not all of which will be LGBT-themed, however. “I don’t want our mission statement to pigeonhole us one way or the other, because I don’t want to be ‘just’ a gay theater company,” he said.
But for now, Bailey has high hopes that the LGBT community will turn out for “The Normal Heart.”
“Obviously, this show is not the ‘feel good hit of the year,'” he concluded, “but it’s certainly something that will make people think!”