If Nora Burns’s words sounded straightforward, upbeat even, the story they referred to was far more complex.
“It’s about us, it’s about fun, it’s about New York—it’s about friendship,” Burns was saying, explaining her new one-woman show, David’s Friend, to me when her voice cracked slightly and she looked away sharply.
“It’s weird, but I always get….” She trailed off. The starkly personal nature of her comic memoir, which begins a run of performances this week at La MaMa in New York’s East Village, is both a tribute to and remembrance of her late friend David Burns (his chosen surname to match hers), who died of AIDS in 1993.
Just a couple of minutes earlier, the affable Burns had arrived in the bijou Soho coffee shop where we met, looking sleek and no-nonsense in a thin black cowl-neck sweater and blue jeans as she ordered a hot tea to warm up from the chilly, rainy, windswept day.
Burns was just back from the Women’s March on Washington. As remarkable as it was to see how well attended it was, she told me, what impressed her most was to learn of the many sister marches taking place across the country and abroad.
It seemed fair to say that the political urgency of the moment harkened back to the anger and outreach of the 1980s and 1990s around LGBT and AIDS activism.
Burns related how she used to join the demonstrations against New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade organizers for explicitly excluding gay marchers; back then, abusive slurs and epithets directed at her and her fellow demonstrators were commonplace.
How do you describe friendship? Burns, 55, aims to try with her piece, or at least honor the version of it she shared with whom she describes as her closest comrade. “When you have that person that you’re just bonded with, you feel that you always have them to go back to.”
The unspoken addendum is that, with David’s loss, that feeling of security and home ended all too soon.
She and David met as teenagers in Massachusetts, she from Cambridge, he from Lexington. “Liberal Massachusetts kids,” as Burns termed it, both hailing from middle class homes outside of Boston.
He was Jewish, while she jokes—due to her father’s enthusiasm for Judaism that sprang from contemporary guilt over his German origins—that her family felt as though it were Jewish. (Her father helped to start the Jewish studies program at the university where he taught.) As a girl, along with her childhood friend, she was enthralled by the Carol Burnett variety show and would put on skits for their parents and apartment house and anybody who would watch.
It was the late ’70s, and the apex of the disco era saw both Nora and David cross paths at the boisterous gay club BostonBoston.
The fast friends would continue their journey to New York City shortly thereafter, where Burns first arrived in 1979. David soon followed, and together they would see out the heady days of disco into the infancy of the gritty and gaudy ’80s East Village gay nightlife scene.
For this reason, David’s Friend serves as a time capsule that offers a storied glimpse of the music and goings-on of the era it portrays. Burns described how important music was to them both, from dance to rock to punk, and proclaimed Roxy Music as their band, and their song “Dance Away” as their song.
Would she and David have enjoyed a different sort of dynamic in any other sort of time or place? Burns demurred. “When you’re kids, you’re kids, no matter when it is—even now.”
Her tale is not so much about that time as it is about their lives at the time. Even though they ran in admittedly fabulous circles—including the fabled Studio 54 and later populated by colorful characters such as prominent drag artists Joey Arias and Lady Bunny (David helped the latter run the raucous and iconic Wigstock annual festival in the late ’80s)—Burns does not claim that hers is the definitive account of the setting. “I don’t go, ‘So we were at this party with Halston and then Liza showed up!’ It was everyone’s world, a smaller world then. There are far more fabulous people with star-studded stories to tell, and I leave it to them to tell.”
Nevertheless, her show provides the front-row seat into the world that she and David enjoyed. Unfortunately, the era was not just about its sights and sounds, but an unfolding sociocultural, and very personal, tragedy. The HIV and AIDS pandemic would affect so many, the LGBT community particularly on the front line—especially given the rampant homophobia of the time, and then-President Ronald Reagan’s failure to address the epidemic for so many years.
Did Burns recall her own first impressions of the disease? “I remember that newspaper headline,” she told me, referring to the now-famous headline “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS” under which The New York Times first reported upon the grim phenomenon on July 3, 1981.
At first, Burns and the others in her orbit felt that HIV and AIDS were not relevant to them, despite inhabiting the gay sphere in which it initially revealed itself. But soon the impact of became all too clear, as more and more of her gay male friends were diagnosed, or died.
“Some friends would disappear, or they’d go to the hospital, or they’d go out for some treatment, and you would never see them again, or you’d visit their homes and find out they were dead,” Burns said. “For this period, you could open the paper every day, and it was someone you know, or someone you know of. It was unreal.”
Denial within the gay community did not help matters. Burns recounted the story of a group of young men who showed up in one of the gay venues where she performed. They were keen to declare to any and all that “We’re not sick.”
They wore their seemingly healthy countenances with pride and defiance; but of course, Burns mused, some or all of them may have already contracted the still-invisible HIV and had no way of telling just yet. “New York was so sexual and so exciting. That was the last thing you wanted it to be,” meaning infection. “It can’t be that.”
David never disclosed when, or even if, he knew that he was HIV-positive. Instead, recalls Burns, she was working at the West Side nightclub The Tunnel in the mid-1980s when one day—she is not even sure of the exact date because of the emotional blow—he phoned her to say he was in the hospital. It was due to PCP, or pneumocystis pneumonia; as one of the notorious AIDS-identified illnesses, there was no doubt left as to the grave implications of his news.
“I broke down. I lost it, that day. And then I really didn’t again. It was just—OK, let’s deal with this.” As his health declined, he left the city to go upstate. “I wasn’t there with him. I was still a city girl. I wasn’t ready to be in the country at the time.”
She realizes how hollow that may sound now, and attributes being older to why things are hitting her so hard now. “Oh, so that’s what it’s like to face mortality—and what these people were going through at 25, 30, I wasn’t.” (David returned to the care of his family prior to his death. The tale of his sickness and the toll it took is told by Burns in the play.)
While Burns deeply mourned her close friend’s passing, today it is a new, broader sense of awareness of the full gravity of his passing that led her to want to write and perform David’s Friend.
Burns traces the gestation of the piece to what would have been David’s 53rd birthday in December 2014. Burns is not much one for social media, but she had posted a Facebook status in observance of the occasion that also crystallized her sense of loss, as well as her appreciation for what David had meant to her.
It began with a vignette about how they met dancing at 17. “We spent the rest of the night rolling each other around the Fenway in a shopping cart with a boom box and didn’t leave each other’s side for the next several years. I moved to NYC that fall and he came several months later. It was 1979. We had amazing adventures and spoke a language I’ve never had with anyone else. He died in 1993 and I miss him more than I can say, but he left me a wonderful legacy: Many of the people I love and admire most I met through David so I would just like to say, Thank you David, I love you.”
A comedic theater veteran, Burns felt the impulse to devote her craft to what would be a humorous, and, she hoped, heartwarming celebration of her friendship with David.
It was her affinity for the gay social world that fortuitously led her to her acting career. “I was so fully entrenched in the gay community,” she said with a grin, and as an aside to demonstrate, she mentioned how she had hosted the Mr. New York Leather contest.
One day at the city’s LGBT Center, she spotted a flyer looking for members to form a sketch comedy group, Planet Q. She took the plunge, and it was there that she made the acquaintance of Terrence Michael, with whom she later departed to form their own comedy troupe, The Nellie Olesons, drolly named for the antagonist from Little House on the Prairie. She also is a founding member of the sketch comedy trio Unitard.
A previous solo piece, Honey, I’m Home, also incorporated what she calls biographical stand-up, but she wanted David’s Friend to be a more specialized, mixed-media version of that. She inaugurated it the following summer of 2015 at Dixon Place, a performance space on the Lower East Side. After performances that served to further refine the work in places as far-flung as Seattle and Toronto, as well as Provincetown, she returned early last year to Dixon Place.
“If I’m going to do this, I want to do it right,” Burns said. Even though she had initially thought it would be a one-off performance, “it resonated with people, and I felt: OK, I’m going to keep working on it and see what it turns into. As long as it still really feels like I’m doing this show about US, and not just, oh, I’m doing a show!” She said that with an expansive gesture and an exaggerated tone of self-importance. “While it’s still something I need to do.” Performing the piece was cathartic, she said.
I asked Burns about a potentially off-putting label she forthrightly claims for herself, on stage and on her website, of being a “fag hag,” referring to a woman who surrounds herself with gay men and prefers their company. What does it mean to her?
“It feels like home when I walk into a gay bar,” she said simply. “It’s where I’m most comfortable. I had a gay friend in high school named Francis. Back in Cambridge, I was in play at Harvard with a bunch of gay guys and they started taking me out to gay clubs, and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m never going back there [referring to what came before]. This is for ME.”
To the suggestion that the term can be seen as derogatory, Burns said she felt that it was instead similar to the reclaiming of the former epithet “queer.” To her, to be a “fag hag” simply means being the most dedicated and loyal of straight allies and, rather than a disparagement, is a badge of honor.
Like Grace in Will & Grace, did Burns also entertain misguided romantic feelings for David in the beginning?
She paused and tilted her head. “I wasn’t even looking for a boyfriend then. But yes, we were in love, and we were kids, like puppies intertwined, and we could make out, and it was very physical.”
But it was always about intimacy as friends, and the lines never blurred for her. She noted wryly that she kept a journal at the time, excerpts of which she includes in the show, and there would be entries complaining, as she tells it, “Ugh, David’s off with his boyfriend tonight.” But it was the possessiveness of any friend, she said, and she was always eager to meet and get to know whomever he was dating at any given moment.
Burns herself is happily married to an emergency room physician, Pedro, with whom she has spent roughly 30 years, and who did not begrudge her devotion to David during the years they overlapped.
They have two children, their 15-year-old daughter Fred, and 13-year-old son Bruno (who, Burns said, is a big Key & Peele fan and shares the same appreciation for sketch comedy his mother has). She relishes being an “NYC mom,” who wants her kids to take advantage of all the activities and experiences an urban setting can offer.
After David’s death, I asked Burns, had she ever formed a similarly intense sort of bond with other gay men? She shook her head. “Sure, I would tell somebody, ‘You’re my new best friend! You’re awesome!’ But it never had that same sort of speaking the same language that I had with David. We were so similar in our upbringing and our thinking, that whole thing. We had a special language and I’ve never had a friendship like that again.”
She lowered her head and added softly, “Close, wonderful friends, yes, but whether male or female, I never had that again.”
I gently asked if, given David’s death in 1993, tantalizingly near to the arrival of the retroviral drug cocktails that finally proved reliably effective just a couple of years later, Burns had ever thought to herself, “So close!”
“Oh, yes. All the time,” she said vehemently. “With David, he wanted to live so much. He really fought for it. That’s what’s so heartbreaking. It was the time we lost so many friends, ’93, ’94.”
She teared up. When the sea change came, it was striking. “You would think, ‘Oh, I’ll never see Ian again,’ but then they made it to the thing [effective treatment] and they survived. Of course, for some, the damage [to their health] had already been done.”
We mused upon how the contemporary preventative HIV therapy, PrEP, has further changed the landscape of HIV infection and safer sex practices. What, I asked her, would David have made of this new world: one in which he could legally marry, and AIDS was now not the death sentence it used to be?
Burns seemed momentarily overwhelmed by the hypothetical. “It’s so hard to say who he would be. He had some demons to sort of work out, so I would love to know who he would have become. That’s what’s so weird when someone’s gone at 31—you don’t know who they could have been.”
A wistful cast came to her green eyes. “As a friend of mine said about him that he did have a hard time being loved or accepting love, but I hope he would have found it. I think he would have. When he did start going upstate, he loved the outdoors, and he loved the country. I don’t even know if he would still be living in the city. That’s what such a mystery about it all.”
The AIDS crisis represented a time that, Burns suggests, we are only now able to begin to fully process and understand. She envisions the intervening decades as being marked by a cultural post-traumatic stress disorder, where the pain was still too fresh for proper recollection, reflection, and reconciliation.
“Right afterward, it’s as though we say, ‘I can’t do it right now, we have to move on,’” Burns said. “But now, I think, ‘Oh my god, this whole chunk of our past is gone, and now we can go back.’”
She mentioned an Instagram project, The Aids Memorial, which allows users to submit their photos of those they lost to the disease along with personal notes about them.
Now is the time to take stock, and Burns hopes that David’s Friend can be one piece of that larger puzzle. Perhaps, she said, there could be events where others could come to share tales of their own “Davids,” akin to the “New York Stories” event she had hosted at the Stonewall Inn in 2014, where patrons shared their reminiscences of the New York City of the ’70s and ’80s.
“It is so emotional for me,” Burns said of the show devoted to David. “I don’t know if I could make it for a six-month run. But it’s OK, because in some ways it’s about getting to spend time with him again. He was an amazing person. It’s nice to bring him back.”
David’s Friend is at La MaMa, 74a East 4th Street (3rd Floor), NYC, Jan. 27-Feb. 5; Fridays & Saturdays at 10 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m. Book tickets here.