The crowd crammed themselves into the room at the top of the Boston Taj hotel, almost entirely taken up by white folding chairs save for a tiny performance space at the center of the shining black and white tile floor. Clad in bow ties and sleek gowns, the attendants looked equipped to bid on pricey art or observe a string quartet. Instead, they were watching dancers splattered in tribal paint perform interpretative dance to Kanye West’s "All of The Lights" in a show patched together the month before.
That was the scene at the annual Emerson Fights Aids (EFA) Gala last Saturday, where the main event, student production Moan for Man, challenged the stigmatization of the homosexual community through song and dance.
Moan for Man was the directorial debut of Hannah Tehrani, a performing arts major who had previously only been an actor. She was drawn to the gala show because its open-ended nature allowed someone without directing experience to take the helm, as opposed to other, more rigidly structured productions at Emerson.
"I like things without rules," she said. "This was the blankest slate I could find at Emerson."
The "blank slate" nature of the gala show allowed Tehrani to take creative risks with Moan for Man. The hour long production that told a story through action and expression without dialogue, set to a soundtrack that spanned musical theater classics from the Gershwins to pop fare like Regina Spektor.
The ensemble cast of 16 Emerson students, dressed in torn clothes and smeared with bright paint, represented a tribal society where same-sex relations are the norm. A couple played by Max Sangerman and Lanea Ritrovato, both junior performing arts majors, find themselves attracted not to their common sex but to one another. The heterosexuals fall in love, but their community meets the relationship with intolerance and violence.
Tehrani said the purpose of Moan for Man was to make the audience examine the way homosexuals are stigmatized by society and used as scapegoats. "I wanted to write a story disclaiming homosexuality as the cause of AIDS," said Tehrani.
Tehrani chose to tell the story through song in duet and ensemble pieces to emphasize the unity of the cause. Accompanied by a band of students from Berklee College of Music, the performers sang pre-written songs with lyrics that fit into the context of the narrative and created new meaning for the music. During the performance of the Beach Boys’ classic marriage fantasy "Wouldn’t It Be Nice," the tribe’s males danced with one another and tenderly kissed. The only song whose words were changed was "All of The Lights," which was given new lyrics by Max Sangerman that reflected his character’s frustration with the ignorance of the tribe.
Throughout the creative process that went into developing and rehearsing the show, the director and cast never lost sight of the purpose of their show.
"It was never about the final product. It was about the process and what we really wanted to show along the way," said Ritrovato. "It was not about a quota or making a mark, it was about spreading a message."