“I can’t imagine what those years were like. I don’t even know how to… I can understand what it was. But I cannot possibly feel what it was.”
In Matthew Lopez’s Olivier Award-winning, two-part play, The Inheritance, Eric Glass, a gentle millennial living on the Upper West Side of New York City, confides these words to Walter Poole, an aged neighbor and soon-to-be mentor and friend. Words that caused me to lean forward in my seat, not out of judgment, but out of recognition. Recognition for the number of times I too have spoken as a millennial grappling with understanding the magnitude of the generation before me. The epidemic that ripped through time. The figures that defined queer history, queer culture, queer identity.
And so, this has brought me to question incessantly since leaving the seat I called home for an entire day in the Barrymore Theatre where The Inheritance is playing: What exactly is our inheritance today? And what will stand to be inherited by Generation Z onward?
But perhaps, before we can begin to move forward on these answers, a thought, or rather an equation, that struck me even harder was simply this: If there is indeed something to be inherited, then there must be someone with a felt responsibility to give the inheritance in question.
So with the first of many intermissions to come from the day’s experience approaching, I made a note to turn to my seat neighbor. A man, as I visually took in during pre-show, twice my age. And from his audible agreements whenever Walter spoke on his generation, I could tell this was a man of experience.
As you’d have it though, once the lights came up on intermission number one, my neighbor beat me to it, turning and asking, “What do you think?”
We dove into conversation, quickly working past the niceties of, “Great play,” “Oh yes, great play,” and came to the question I was in need of asking: “Do you identify with the word ‘Survivor’?”
He confided, eyes focused on presumably many memories elsewhere, “You know… the hardest part about today is that just last night, I dreamt about two of my friends I lost.” And as our conversation deepened, he asked me to take a look around the theatre. Asked me what I saw.
To interject myself in this moment — taking stock of a theater’s demographic is a game I learned to play while in college. Paying attention to the audience around you. Taking note of who’s buying tickets. Remembering what does and doesn’t sell on the stage. This has always been a game of numbers and finance, or as I can also admit, a game of “Am I the youngest person here?”
Yet this time, tasked with opening my eyes by a familial stranger and encouraged by Matthew Lopez to feel, I realized something that still sits with a welcomed heaviness on my heart: I was sitting amongst survivors. There were people of all ages, colors, and expressions hugging each other in the aisles. Plenty of tears still being wiped away. A communion of love and compassion being passed amongst other strangers. Suddenly, getting the opportunity to say “I’ve seen The Inheritance” transformed from hype to honor.
My neighbor noticed this in me and said, “I’m a survivor.”
I asked him if he carried the responsibility of sharing that inheritance. He smiled and said, “I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
Now, when the doors opened on Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in 1991, the world met a newly anointed prophet named Prior Walter who received the now infamous proclamation, “The great work begins!” He’s terrified and admittedly defiant that he must bear the weight of delivering this message to a world plagued by an unrelenting epidemic. An inheritance to tell the world that it must continue to move forward. But nevertheless in Part 2: Perestroika, Prior meets his maker (or lack thereof one) and delivers for himself, “The Great Work Begins.”
This moment in LGBT theatre history gave audiences, who were in the midst of recovery, a chance to reflect on their responsibilities to self and to their communities. “The Great Work,” however that was individually perceived, asked people at large to open their hearts to a future of kindness, progress, and health. And over 25 years later, as we reconvene in our proscenium court joined by my generation and even Generation Z, Matthew Lopez reminds us not just that the Great Work continues, but to remember our history. Teach our history. Learn our history.
As Eric Glass later echoes, “If we can’t have a conversation with our past, then what will be our future? Who are we? And more importantly: who will we become?”
I can only speak to my experiences, whether that is as a man, a homosexual, or a first generation Italian-American. But as I begin to reflect on what I’ve inherited, these are the truths I’ve perceived, as has been passed to me from the mouths of those before me:
With those who stood at Stonewall, we inherited a right to resistance.
With those who fought against AIDS, we inherited a right to speak.
With those who advocated for gay marriage, we inherited a right to unions.
And today, with those who continue to challenge pronouns and expand the queer spectrum to its fullest, we have inherited a right to continued awareness and acceptance.
So perhaps, therein also lies an answer to what will be my responsibility to teach: awareness and acceptance. Tools which Generation Z will inherit and use to create a better world. One that’s fierce in love, proud in appearance, and strong in will.
I do find myself though, in mentioning Generation Z and even further Generation Alpha, wondering what it is they will be gathering to discuss in the theatre, over brunch, or on a train ride to Fire Island. What will the next 25 years bring for queerness in the theatre, in this country, in our identity?
Did Blue Ivy just release her own Lemonade? What exactly will be the legacy of Laura Dern? Is Drag Race on its 100th season? Will Matthew Lopez and Jeremy O. Harris be revered as prophets?… Will we have experienced the death of the binary? Will polyamory be recognized in court? Will there have been a reclamation for queer people of color? Will the White House have seen a gay/female/non-binary president?… Will we have cured HIV/AIDS?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to any of my own questions. I also don’t believe one human can fully tackle all the minutiae of living. But by doing right by our identities and staying true to our natures, that is what we will use to shape this world and continue to give love and power to those on the same journey. An acknowledgment of a never-ending inheritance.
Speaking for myself, The Inheritance has awoken an immediate call to know my history, culture, and identity as a gay man so that I may be better prepared for the future of awareness and acceptance.
As Walter Poole turns to us, just like Prior Walter did so many years ago, he instructs us with love: “You do what they could not. You live.”
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