A contemporary multimedia performance. At least that’s what I thought I’d be getting myself into when I went to the premiere of Aids Follies at Sophiensäle in Berlin-Mitte. But it was far from the eclectic musical exploration I had expected. AIDS Follies is about the history of the HI-Virus and how it connects humanity on a deeper level. 
The stage is an 80s-Tron-style matrix with TVs, a movie screen, several props and a baby orchestra. Four attractive actors take you through the many aspects of the life of the virus. It starts and ends with Gaëtan Duga, the Canadian flight attendant once widely regarded as “patient zero” or the primary case for AIDS in the United States. “He was made a monster, he was a hero” is the brazen statement we hear from the stage. A direct attack on the then media coverage and a direct attempt to open your mind to the fear within you. Gaëtan, the face of AIDS, becomes a metaphor for our survival instinct. He is the bush drum inside your mind that makes you put on a condom for a one night stand. We have failed him as all the others like him. And we are still failing them. 
Travelling in 4-D, back and forth through time and space, Aids Follies investigates instead of lecturing. It entertains instead of showcasing. Sound clippings of German commercials and American news of that era, original TV footage and quirky yet daunting compositions in French, English and German language heighten your senses and take you on a crazy trip through stigma wonderland. Half way through it I realise it must be the boldest approach to HIV since Lady Di. It makes me question why and when and what. And it makes fun of me somehow. Three theories that highlight the human desire to find any explanation are brought to life in haunting vocal performances. Did the Pentagon fund a biological weapon project gone wrong? Did the aliens of Roswell mess with our DNA to annihilate our species? Was it African witchcraft to seek revenge for slavery? The seductive angel of death, sung by Valerie Renay, makes you both smile and despair as facing your own demise never seemed more glamorous. Mixing scientific lectures with absurd conspiracy theories helps craft this particular virological evolution with ease and nonchalance.
Putting reason before doubt and science before mystery, Aids Follies goes further into the matter than anything I’ve ever seen. Scientists seem to agree that the HIV genomes all shared a common ancestor that existed no more than a hundred years ago. It probably began as a virus affecting chimpanzees in Cameroon, West Central Africa, in the early 1900s. At some point it jumped species, maybe because people ate infected bushmeat. In the 1920s, the nearby city of Kinshasa – then known as Leopoldville – became a very attractive destination for young working men, and therefore also for sex workers. Here the virus mutates and spreads quickly through the population. Being one of the best connected cities in Africa it then travelled to cities as far as 1500 kilometres away in just twenty years. Add incubation times and increased health monitoring, all was set for a world wide outbreak in the 1960s. Just in time for the age of sexual liberation. It’s a long story told with such commitment and carefulness that you can’t help but feeling part of the problem. 
Real intimacy issues, a conscience for sexual health and the abandonment of shame is what Aids Follies ultimately leads up to. In a white bed on wheels the actors find tender closeness free from fear. Chanting “PrEP works“ and “They are closer to finding a vaccine than ever before“ is a bold look into the future, interrupted only by the key message: To forget the history of HIV means to lose the grip on the current reality of it. Or as director Johannes Müller puts it: “To listen to what everyone has to say about it is my way of making clear that the problem is not solved yet.“ Aids follies should be touring the world. To entertain, to add to the debate and – most importantly – to remember that we are all equally vulnerable.
Photography: Benjamin Krieg
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