In the tradition of activist performing artists, writers, and designers, The NAMES Performers troupe was formed specifically for the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to pay tribute to thirty years of artists’ creative responses to HIV/AIDS. Through musical and theatrical performances on the Red Hot Stage at the Creativity and Crisis program, The NAMES Performers conveyed the story of the AIDS epidemic, honored those artists who were lost, celebrated their lives and legacies, and offered a glimpse of hope for the future.
The NAMES Performers, directed by acclaimed director, writer, choreographer, and professor, David H. Bell, presented a variety of performances on the Red Hot Stage throughout the Festival addressing different aspects of the intersection between AIDS and art. The Start of the AIDS Epidemic used quotes from newspapers and magazines, along with contextual musical selections, to illustrate the confusing and polarizing first years in the history of the disease. Three “Arts and Advocacy” segments spoke to the way that various artistic industries addressed AIDS through their artwork. The Broadway segment used the music of Broadway and stories of the early losses in the theater community to honor the efforts of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, an organization that has used the theater arts to raise money and awareness of the disease since the 1980s. Similarly, The Design Industry addressed the creative strategies that artists developed to fight ignorance and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS within the field of design. Lastly, The Music Industry explored the use of popular culture to fight the disease, including the work of The RED HOT Organization, which has produced over a dozen benefit albums, films, and live performances, whose proceeds serve a multitude of HIV/AIDS projects.
The Call My Name sequence celebrated the artistic legacies of artists from all walks of life who died young, and yet whose lives continue to have relevance through their songs, stories, movies, plays, and visual art. Imagining the Quilt delved into the creation of the NAMES Project and the imagining of the profound memorial that it has become, both to remember those loved ones that have departed and to call others to act in honor of the millions who have succumbed to the disease. Meanwhile, Quilt Stories created a window into the real life behind the panels by exploring their diverse imagery and the accompanying stories written by family and friends, ranging from the funny and tragic to the brave and inspiring. Finally, The Last One, inspired by a specific panel that is preserved by The NAMES Project Foundation but will not be sewn into The Quilt until the end of the pandemic, wasa moving celebration of the possibility to end AIDS. This segment created awareness of the global impact of the disease and celebrated the courage that parts of the world outside the United States have shown in the face of their own struggles with the pandemic, while acknowledging that the disease is not yet over in our own country. Most importantly, this segment envisioned, with hope, an AIDS-free future.