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It was a packed house for a Monday at Arena Stage in Southwest, D.C. yesterday during a special benefit production of "The Normal Heart." It was an intimate, but international crowd as the theater played host to organizers of the 26th International AIDS Conference being held in D.C. Proceeds from the performance will go to the Washington AIDS Partnership, an organization that provides grants to AIDS outreach groups in the region.
The play is set in 1985, before the auto-immune deficiency even had a name. It was also the same year of the first International AIDS Conference. The play's characters talk about the stigma attached to AIDS and their frustration at the lack of action from then-politicans and health officials.
More than a quarter-century later, the play is still very relevant, said Molly Smith, executive director of Arena Stage.
"'The Normal Heart' is a play which educates, and it takes audiences into the problem, and the desperation about the problem," Smith said
One of the benefit's attendees was Mats Ahnlund, with the International AIDS Society that helps organize the conference. He pointed out the AIDS conference battled its own stigma in trying to come to the U.S.
"That's because, this is the first year that the conference has been held in the States in more than two decades because of a travel ban that on foreigners who were HIV positive," Ahnlund says. "This would have included organizers and participants."
The ban was lifted in 2010, "and immediately after that we said, ‘Now, we go back to the United States,'" Ahnlund says.
It's appropriate, he adds, that the conference is being held in D.C., a city where the HIV infection rate is almost 3 percent — a level considered an epidemic by the World Health Organization.