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Image: William Way LGBT Community Center

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the New York Times’ watershed first article on the emerging AIDS Crisis (July 1981) and Philadelphia’s first reported case (September 1981), writer/director Ain Gordon partners with Philadelphia’s William Way LGBT Community Center and its John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives to create an alternative memorial to the era’s resilience and tragedy, specifically inspired by Philadelphia’s Ronald R. Piselli Funeral Chapel, which offered respectful and empathetic service to those who succumbed to AIDS/AIDS related complications at the dawn of the crisis, when virtually no one else would

In those early years of the AIDS crisis, with little consensus as to how the disease transmitted, few funeral directors would willingly enter an “AIDS Ward” to gather a body, or knowingly offer funerary services to anyone who succumbed to AIDS or AIDS related complications, let alone embalm them. (The National Funeral Directors Association recommended a “Disposable Protective Apparel Kit” nearly resembling Hazmat gear.) Ron “Rex” Piselli of Piselli’s Funeral Chapel voluntarily stepped into that void. Interviewing Piselli it’s striking how many funerals he provided for those he knew had died of HIV/AIDS but whose friends or family omitted/disguised the cause of death in public announcements and to mourners. This project, however, seeks to frame those who were not accorded even that level of communal mourning. Piselli also accepted bodies arriving virtually unaccompanied because fear and stigma, particularly in those early years when no one knew the plague’s parameters, proved too much for some – in other cases, literally no one close to the deceased had survived to mourn. Remembrance seeks to finally honor these under-mourned lives though a new theater piece written/directed by Gordon, while contextualizing the era through a community-driven oral history project directed by Waheedah Shabazz-El, creating a public “going home ceremony” for community mourning directed by Alexander Stadler, and memorializing the whole process in a dedicated portal on the William Way LGBT Community Center website under the direction of archivist John Anderies.  Remembrance culminates in June 2022 and is funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

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