St. Louis audiences are no strangers to the many talents of Jade Esteban Estrada. Over the past decade the out and proud showman has delighted us at Pridefest and engaged us with his ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World trilogy.
Estrada wears many creative hats - he is actor, dancer, singer, director, playwright, author, teacher and comedian. Indeed, with a love for queer history and an even greater love for his craft, Estrada is the modern American renaissance man.
On February 16, the master entertainer brings his latest offering, A Lullaby for Ryan: The History of HIV/AIDS in America to The Urban Eats Cafe (3301 Meramec). The musical comedy introduces us to Boobs (a.k.a. the Bubonic Plague), Jimmy, a real estate agent in New York City in 1981, Rock Hudson, Miss Protease Inhibitor 1996, Bill McPhil, a 53-year-old HIV-positive cowboy and LaShonda, an African-American mother of three in Chicago's Southside as they chronicle the last quarter-century of the AIDS epidemic in the United States with stories of courage, strength and human triumph.
Vital Voice Magazine recently caught up with Estrada via telephone to discuss "Lullaby," its many characters, and why he was compelled to pen a comedy about HIV/AIDS.
Colin Murphy: So you are returning to St. Louis with A Lullaby for Ryan.
Jade Esteban Estrada: I am and I'm really excited about it. I really love the show. It's a musical comedy and it's got a lot of laughs. Many wonder at first how a show about HIV/AIDS can be funny - they've got to see the show. A lot of people who have survived the epidemic have tapped into the resource of laughter.
CM: Is this a show that you can do now but not necessarily a decade or so ago - pre-protease inhibitor?
JEE: Yes. Before 1996 or even 1998, I don't think I could have come out and done this because when the protease inhibitors came out it was huge shift in the experience of what HIV/AIDS had been not just for our country but the world. It was a ray of hope that really changed everything. It changed the disease from being, as some people say, a death sentence to being a chronic illness.
CM: How many characters do you play in this piece?
JEE: Seven characters.
CM: And how do you transition from character to character?
JEE: How I transition from character to character - did you see the ICONS series?
CM: Yes, I saw Vol. 1.
JEE: I haven't changed necessarily the format of how I do things. I stay on stage the whole time and I slowly transform, sometimes swiftly, from one character to the next. It's seamless.
I created Lullaby for everyone. This topic has been, at least for the older generation, very taboo - if not for everyone. I feel like my "ICONS" trilogy was preparation for this kind of dialogue in this format.
CM: I was going to ask if "Lullaby" was born from "ICONS..."
JEE: No, it was not. It was just something that I felt I wanted to write about. I hadn't seen anyone take this comedic approach to it. Because of what I do - as a standup comic - I use humor in every aspect of my professional life. I've been doing so many HIV/AIDS organization benefits and events, that it seemed like a very natural evolution for me to discuss the face of HIV/AIDS today in the 21st century. I debuted this in December 2007 - it was commissioned by the Diamond Foundation of Nebraska.
CM: Do you have a favorite character you would like to talk about?
JEE: I absolutely love the Bubonic Plague. I call her Boobs and she's this very loud, annoyed Jewish woman from the 1960s. She carries a pet rat named Pookie. She's just so fabulous and the audience really loves her. What I love about this character is that I have the opportunity to give an infection/disease a voice. Everybody talks about how diseases are horrible things but these diseases don't have a voice to talk about what they want and need. That's where I come in.
There is this one moment in the show where I really connect with everybody and she's talking to them with "kawfee talk" - talking about this and that and she says, "You know - I like you. I want to tell you a little secret about us diseases. I probably shouldn't even be telling you this, but there are only two things that us diseases want to do when we get into the human body: survive and multiply. Repeat after me: survive and multiply."
And usually everybody says it with her and she says, "I said repeat, but whatever." And she's making them laugh, but she's also having a very sobering moment with them - she gets across that diseases are organisms - they are living things that have a mission. I enjoy that character so much because I can see in the faces of the audience that most of them have never had a conversation with a disease before. It's a lot of fun to portray her because of who she represents. I mean the Bubonic Plague is this big, scary thing and to be able to see her in a comedic light just trying to do what she does - spread her diseases - being kind of clumsy and crazy and eccentric - it kind of gives a face to a big scary monster.
CM: You also play Rock Hudson.
JEE: I do and it's one of my favorite roles of all time.
CM: I was doing the math and it has been 25 years since his passing. He was a tragic figure. Do you think that people are viewing him in a different light 25 years after his death?
JEE: He was the person to give AIDS a human face and that was a very important connection for the public who had only been hearing these crazy stories in the newspapers and on television and rumors from other people. It didn't have a human impact to the masses until someone as famous as Rock represented what he did at the time that he did it. He was once the biggest star in the world and for him to have this experience was quite shocking at the time.
When I re-enact his press conference in Paris through song; it's like reliving the moment and I think it brings home the idea that it was a turning point. That press conference was a turning point in the people's understanding of what was happening.
CM: "A Lullaby for Ryan" is obviously a nod to Ryan White - does his character appear in the show?
JEE: No, he does not - not as a character. The show is named after him and he's mentioned once in the very beginning of the opening song and then there is no more mention of him. A lot of people say "Ryan White's not in the show - why is that?" My answer to that is, I only have 65-75 minutes with my audience. My audience is a smart crowd - I've learned who they are over the past decade. My answer to anyone who asks me that is usually, "If you don't know who Ryan White is you need to Google him."
CM: You are also conducting an Acting Master Class while here in St. Louis - could you talk about that?
JEE: Before I'm a person, I believe myself to be an actor. I love my craft very, very much. I have been drawn to directing and teaching acting technique for years. Recently, I have been holding my Acting Master Classes - I call it "Acting Master Class 2.0" - in other cities across the country. It's such a wonderful opportunity for me to connect with my people - and by my people, I mean other actors. I've been doing solo theatre for a long time so one thing I do know is how to survive on stage and survive well. I create and build characters. I enjoy sharing that with the next generation of actors who will come after me.