‘Cause You Got to Have Friends

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by Steve Desroches

Nora Burns met her best friend David when they were just teenagers dancing at the 1270 Club, a gay disco on Boston’s Boylston Street in 1979. They were still in high school. Two middle-class kids, she from Cambridge and he from Lexington, they left for New York City after graduation. She enrolled at Barnard College, the private women’s college located on the upper west side of Manhattan. But for Nora and David, life was all about downtown, as they partied in the then-gritty East Village and dicey Alphabet City, dancing their way up to the glitzy midtown world of Studio 54. Then, life in New York was a constant adventure, exactly what the two kids from New England wanted.

David died 25 years ago, in 1993, one of many gone far too soon in the AIDS pandemic. It was in the early 1990s that Burns followed her heart and talents into a career in comedic performance, now well known in New York and Provincetown for her work with the comedy troupes Unitard and the Nellie Olesons. But her latest work is a more sober look at a hedonistic time in her life as she presents David’s Friend at the Provincetown Theater this week as part of the Four Star Solo Show Festival.

As tender as the topic is, the show is equal parts drama and comedy. And anyone familiar with Burns’ work, knows that her jokes can be savage. While autobiographical in nature, this is no vanity piece.

Nora Burns goes back to New York in the 1980s in David’s Friends. Photo: Jason Rodgers

“I hate self-indulgent theater,” says Burns. “I hate it, hate it, hate it. Why do I care about your Cuban grandmother? It needs to connect. It needs to translate. For those of us who lived through AIDS, the experience is just wearing off now. In middle age you really see the value of friendship and how precious life is. It celebrates New York and youth and friendship.”

David’s Friend is a show, not a memorial, stresses Burns. Funny and thoughtful, Burns does choke up from time to time when she talks about her friend. It’s a grief she no longer throws a blanket over like she did for so many years. The trauma of those days, when she lost many more than just David, is still too raw. Each year on his birthday—December 6—she’d remember him. And about three years ago, she decided to post her thoughts about it on Facebook, which elicited so many memories and comments that she decided it was time to write a show, both to process the trauma and to make sure he wouldn’t be forgotten.

David’s Friend had its New York premiere in workshop at Dixon Place, followed by a spot in Provincetown’s Afterglow Festival, the annual mid-September live performance event, in 2015. But no matter how many times she performed it or read it, she couldn’t help but edit the constantly evolving show, helped by a commission from La MaMa, the famed off-off-Broadway theater. She created a more portable show and traveled with it to Los Angeles and back to New York at Joe’s Pub, and now back to Provincetown.

While heterosexual, Burns isn’t straight in the traditional sense of the word. If it’s possible to be culturally gay, she is. Since those disco days when she met David on the dance floor, Burns has been immersed in LGBT+ culture for so long that she’s become a significant part of that community’s cultural legacy in New York, Provincetown, and elsewhere. In 1992 she joined Planet Q, a gay comedy group formed at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York. That’s where she met Terrence Michael with whom she formed the Nellie Olesons, later to include John Cantwell. And she pulled double duty when she joined Unitard with David Ilku and Mike Albo. She even had a talk show on New York’s Gay Cable Network, where she interviewed people like RuPaul and Marc Jacobs. But she’s also been an activist fighting for LGBT+ equality and for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS. This show chronicles the early days of those experiences, and she doesn’t mince words or adapt to politically correct terms.

“Fag hag; I still say fag hag,” says Burns. “Proudly. I say fag hag proudly. Gay men have always felt like home to me. I see a group of straight people, and I just want to go home. I mean, I love my husband and all, but even he had mostly gay friends before we met.”

Nora Burns presents David’s Friend On Tuesday, June19 and Wednesday, June 20 at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St. Tickets are $20 and are available at the theater box office and at the downtown box office, 230 Commercial St. as well as online. For more information call 508.487.7487 or visit provincetowntheater.org.