Exclusive Interview: amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost talks Angels in America fundraiser & lessons from AIDS in the time of COVID-19 “it’s clear that prejudice & racism are again playing a role in the disastrous response from our government”

During this current global health crisis, amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research), has been working to identify gaps in current COVID-19 research efforts and to quickly mobilize resources to fill them. Drawing on 35 years of funding HIV research and working to find a cure for the 38 million people worldwide living with HIV, amfAR have said “We understand that epidemics and pandemics demand an immediate, unstinting response. This is why, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, amfAR has joined the fight against COVID-19.”

Glenn Close as Roy Cohn and S. Epatha Merkerson as Belize in The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America online benefit for amfAR’s Fund to Fight COVID-19. Courtesy of amfAR.

The latest fundraising effort in this fight has seen amfAR team up with playwright Tony Kushner and director Ellie Heyman to present The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America, a 60 minute digital selection of scenes from Kushner’s iconic play featuring an all-star cast, which will livestream on YouTube on Thursday October 8th. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set at the height of the AIDS epidemic, seems to take on a new resonance for 2020. The significance of using this work which takes place during another pandemic, to support the fight against COVID-19, particularly when globally theatres have shut their doors, seems additionally poignant.

amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. Courtesy of amfAR.

Ahead of the digital broadcast, The Queer Review’s Dr. Emily Garside spoke with Kevin Robert Frost, who joined amfAR in 1994, and has been Chief Executive Officer since 2007. With a long history of AIDS activism, and work in both AIDS research and advisory roles, Frost was appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in 2010. Here he talks about the way his experience influences his take on the current health emergency, what we might learn from the AIDS pandemic, and what impact he hopes The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America may have on audiences in this new format in this moment.

Dr. Emily Garside, The Queer Review: As someone who has been at the forefront of politics and HIV/AIDS activism for many years, how has that impacted your take on COVID-19?

Kevin Robert Frost, amfAR CEO: “AIDS activism was born out of frustration and rage that gay men were dying in droves and the government was extremely slow and reluctant to do anything about it. In the COVID crisis, it’s clear that prejudice and racism are again playing a role in the disastrous response from our government. What’s been interesting is that this new pandemic has coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement, so we’ve had people marching in the streets across the country but not about the coronavirus. The tragic irony is that Black communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID, as amfAR was one of the first to demonstrate, just as they have been by AIDS.”

Patti LuPone in The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America online benefit for amfAR’s Fund to Fight COVID-19. Courtesy of amfAR.

What lessons do you think those who have been involved in the political as well as medical fights against HIV/AIDS can transfer to the current situation? 

“Follow the science! Time and again in the AIDS epidemic, we’ve seen progress stymied when politicians start to inject their own ideological and political biases into the medical and scientific arena. Whether it’s abstinence only education or opposition to harm reduction – as soon as they start trying to bend the science to fit their own agenda, we pay a terrible price. We’ve seen that kind of interference taken to a new level in the COVID epidemic. And we are seeing the consequences.”

How did the idea of the Angels in America fundraiser come about? 

“In April, director Ellie Heyman contacted amfAR about doing a livestream of selected scenes from Angels that speak to our present American moment and how to persevere through a plague. I contacted Tony Kushner and, to my delight, he wanted very much to support Ellie and amfAR on the project. Together, Tony and Ellie came up with the idea to expand it into an innovative “theater meets film” project. They brought on a tiny army of artists, many of whom had been impacted by COVID-19, who donated their time and talents to amfAR and the project, including Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who composed the score, and creative director Paul Tate dePoo III.”

Andrew Rannells in The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America online benefit for amfAR’s Fund to Fight COVID-19. Courtesy of amfAR.

What elements of the play do you feel will have a particular impact on audiences in 2020, and through this new digital format? 

“The digital format and the fact that this is selected scenes from what is quite a long play should make it accessible to a wider audience. The production itself is beautifully realized and, of course, the performances are just astounding. It’s also rich in humor. But there are so many themes that should resonate in this particular moment, particularly the theme of healing. The play also reminds us that the world is constantly in flux, in motion, just as it is today. And there’s the wonderful notion, expressed by Prior at the very end, that we’re all part of it and we all have our place: ‘You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.'”

Theatre has a long history of activism and fundraising in relation to HIV/AIDS causes. Can you talk about your experiences there?

“amfAR is fortunate to have had unstinting and incredibly generous support from the theater community, which was hit very hard by AIDS. We’ve partnered with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on numerous fundraising initiatives. A highlight was a 1996 tribute to Angela Lansbury at the Majestic Theater, which raised a million dollars for both organizations and drew a great many Broadway stars. Theatre and activism really came together in the person of Larry Kramer, who of course passed away in May. I still vividly remember meeting Larry for the first time at Tower Records shortly after I moved to New York in the early 90s. It was at his urging that I joined ACT UP.”

Jeremy O. Harris as Belize in The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America online benefit for amfAR’s Fund to Fight COVID-19. Courtesy of amfAR.

What do you hope audiences take away from this new version of Angels, and your work at amfAR? 

“For people too young to have experienced or witnessed the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, I hope it will provide some insights into the plague many of us lived through back then and perhaps make them want to learn more. Also, there are glimmers of hope in Angels in America and we can certainly use that right now. AIDS may not be over but the crisis of the 80s and early 90s is over and people aren’t dying on the streets. I hope people will take some comfort in knowing we’ll get through this crisis, too. And I hope they’ll learn that our work is far from over since we have a lot to contribute to the fight against COVID and there are still 38 million people living with AIDS worldwide who urgently need a cure. People can learn more about our work at www.amfar.org.”

By Dr. Emily Garside @EmiGarside

The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America will livestream on Broadway.com’s YouTube channel on October 8th at 8:30p.m. EST, and will be available for one week.

The cast includes; Glenn Close, Laura Linney, Patti LuPone, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Rannells, Lois Smith, with appearances from Alan Cumming, Whoopi Goldberg and Jake Gyllenhall in interstitial moments. The broadcast will present scenes from Kushner’s two-part epic which reflect and speak to the present moment, in an exciting new digital format. It will be followed by a live conversation moderated by Paul Wontorek, Editor-in-Chief of Broadway.com, and feature Mr. Kushner, Ellie Heyman, amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost and several of the actors from the production who will discuss the play, as well as activism and COVID-19 research. The conversation will offer viewers who make a donation of $100 or more an exclusive opportunity to hear directly from the cast and creative directors about the event and the importance of joining forces to support COVID-19 research.   

For viewing information, please visit www.thegreatworkbegins.org.

You can donate amfar.org/donate all donations will go towards Amfar’s work.

Scenes from ANGELS IN AMERICA (Teaser Trailer)

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