Rent is based on the opera La Bohème, which ended tragically with the leading lady, Mimi, dying of tuberculosis.
When Jonathan Larson adapted the 1896 opera for his 1996 musical, he substituted AIDS for tuberculosis. It was a logical move because in the 1980s and early '90s, an AIDS diagnosis was as much a death sentence as TB was in the 19th century.
But now, as SummerFest launches its own production of Rent, the disease seems as distant to many teens and twentysomethings as tuberculosis.
"For me, it's hard to imagine an epidemic like that, because I never witnessed it," says Jessica Lucas, 20, who plays HIV-positive Mimi in Rent, which plays through Sunday at The Arboretum. "Hearing the stories, it's really scary."
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Nick Vannoy, who plays Tom Collins, a character whose lover has AIDS, says, "I'm 22, so if I had to describe it, you know how people in the '80s described it as almost a gay disease. To my generation, it feels like an African disease. It doesn't feel like it's close to me.
"What this play is dealing with is very different from what my age group — which is the age group of the play — deals with today. It just doesn't seem as present."
HIV and AIDS certainly have not gone away.
According to the World Health Organization, 33.4 million people were living with HIV in 2008. Though the number of deaths declined to 2 million in 2008 from 2.2 million in 2004, about 2.7 million new infections still occur each year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1 million people are living with HIV in the United States, and there are 18,000 deaths from AIDS each year in the United States.
But Brian Slate, resource coordinator for AIDS Volunteers of Lexington, knows that younger people generally are not aware of the plague that struck just a generation before them.
"Younger people haven't seen what we saw," says Slate, 46. "Most of the news we see about AIDS now is from Africa.
"The face of AIDS is changing. It's not a death sentence anymore. If you are diagnosed with AIDS in your 20s today, you can probably expect to live into your 60s, or longer."
But that does not mean it is not a serious illness, and he and others believe it is important younger people learn more about the disease.
According to a 2008 CDC report on AIDS/HIV, 41 percent of the 36,828 newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 2006 were in people ages 13 to 34. AIDS disproportionately affects men who have sex with men, African-Americans, Latinos and intravenous drug users.
Two Rent cast members — Emanuel Williams, who plays Angel and is gay, and Johnny Dawson, who plays Roger and is bisexual — say that when they came out of the closet, one of their families' primary concerns was that they might contract AIDS. Both say they are well aware of precautions they need to take.
"The thing is, it is one disease that is 100 percent preventable," Slate says. "But because it is mixed in with sex and all the taboos, we don't talk about it."
Rent, which features four HIV-positive characters, talks about those topics, and the cast has been getting an AIDS education, both from AVOL and each other.
As early as a January musical theater workshop at the University of Kentucky that had Rent as its centerpiece, music director Mark Calkins was reflecting on the atmosphere of fear created by the emergence of AIDS in the '80s.
At the time, the associate professor of voice at Berea and Centre colleges and his wife, Cynthia Lawrence, were budding opera singers in major cities.
He recalls going to the home of a vocal coach who he had not seen for a while and learning that he was HIV-positive, Calkins says. "We went in and worked, but I was nervous," he says.
At the time there were a lot of unknowns. As much as officials said HIV could only be spread through intravenous drug use or sexual contact, people were unsure.
At least one member of the Rent cast remembers the pall that AIDS cast in the '80s and '90s.
Chip Becker, 40, who plays Mark, said, "I remember being in college, and every night on the nightly news, there were stories about AIDS, and how nobody really knew what it was or how you contracted it and that you shouldn't use public toilets. That's what we grew up with. If you got AIDS, you died quick, and you died ugly."
The disease struck close to home for Dawson, whose character, Roger, is HIV-positive.
"My Uncle Jonathan died of AIDS in 1994. He got AIDS and hep-C," he says, referring to hepatitis-C, a disease frequently contracted along with HIV. "My mother and I watched him deteriorate very quickly."
That experience has prompted Dawson to work with organizations such as Moveable Feast, which delivers meals to people living with AIDS- and HIV-related illnesses. It also gives him a sense of urgency about continuing to get the word out.
"You hear about kids who are 16 years old getting it, because they don't know how serious it is," Dawson says. "People say be careful, wear condoms and stuff, but it's not enough."
Slate says it is good that AIDS is now much more controllable and less lethal than in the 20th century, but it should not drop off the radar of public consciousness.
Locally, the Rent cast has been getting informed. They spent time recently with AVOL members learning more about the disease firsthand from volunteers and people who are living with it.
"There was a lot I did not know about how people got sick, about how the disease really worked, and how many people it affected in that time period," Vannoy says.
Rent director Tracey Bonner says, "The AVOL people really showed us the humanity of people living with AIDS. It's very easy to take a disease like AIDS and put it out there and say it's this thing, it's this white elephant that doesn't affect me. But these people sat and told us how it affected them and their families and allowed us as individuals to think, 'How would my life be, if this was me?'"
And the cast has also tried to give back by performing at recent AVOL events and inviting the organization to be a presence at performances of Rent this week.
"Tracey and Joe (Artz, SummerFest's executive director) have done a phenomenal job of including the community," Slate says. "It's made the play so much more than just a play."