Community for Rent

Recently, I attended the UGA Theatre Department’s performance of the musical Rent in the Fine Arts Building.

If you’ve never seen it before, the musical written by Jonathan Larson centers a group of struggling artists and musicians in Brooklyn during the AIDS/HIV outbreak in the 1990s. The friends are all struggling to keep up with finances and are threatened with eviction while several of them deal with their HIV diagnosis. Through love, heartbreak, sickness, social justice, and struggling to find their artistic voice, the group of friends leans on their community to support themselves in times of need. 

Being set during the time when HIV/AIDS was running rampant, Rent raises questions pointed towards the stigmatization of certain people groups and shows us how a community can be used to combat social ostracization.

The characters Roger, Mimi, Angel, and Tom Collins all were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and each was nervous to tell their partner about their fate. However, when they were met with the same news from their partner, it brought them closer together and the couples were able to bond over their shared pain and suffering.

Especially after Roger’s ex-girlfriend could no longer find the will to live after learning of her diagnosis and spreading it to Roger, the mental and emotional weight- not to mention the physical repercussions-  of telling someone you care about that you have a deadly disease to which there is no cure, must be immense.

To be accepted and loved by the person that you desire it most from provided the characters who were HIV positive an experience that society at the time told them they would never have.

Furthermore, they were not rejected by their friends who were not HIV positive. By social standards, it would have been completely acceptable and expected for Mark to cut off ties with Roger and Tom. Instead, Mark continues to love and support his friends. He even goes so far as to make his film in Angel’s memory and show to the world that people with HIV/AIDS are still humans who deserve to be treated as such. 

Even though the community that Angel and Tom were already a part of with their friends was incredibly supportive, they also turned to their community of other HIV-positive people in a support group. This support group was vital to Angel and Tom’s development in their own journeys and their relationship.

Being able to open up in a group where they did not have to explain themselves, feel shame for their diagnosis, or prove to anyone that they still deserved to be treated as a human with feelings, gave them a sense of solidarity.

In a setting where Angel was already vastly misunderstood and looked at differently for being a drag queen, and then adding HIV/AIDS on top of this, Angel was able to let his guard down in the support group, and with Tom Collins. Angel’s name marks him as someone who gives guidance when it’s needed the most, and that’s exactly what he did with Tom. When Tom was at his lowest, Angel was there to pick him and bring him to the support that he never knew was available. 

Another aspect of community that is explored and protected in Rent is the contrast between physical homes and spaces where people gather. 

Many of the scenes take place in Mark and Roger’s apartment, which is constantly under threat of having no power, no heat, and Mark and Roger are nearly evicted. Though extremely bare and lacking many of the essential aspects of a home, the most important element is easily found in their apartment- their friends. Because this space was used as a gathering place and where so many of the group’s bonds were created and fostered, they wanted to protect it by any means necessary. Really, the only physically significant aspect of the apartment was that Mimi lived next door. Other than that, the significance given to the apartment came from the emotional value that it held to the entire group. 

However, they also sought to protect a space that held immense significance physically- the vacant lot near their building where homeless people squatted. Though they were fighting against their former friend Benny, the friends knew that the people who lived in the vacant lot would likely die if they were forced to move. The conflict of losing their own house and the possible eviction of the homeless people in the vacant lot shows that a home doesn’t have to be a grand, furnished home with years of family history for it to be worth fighting to protect. If a community calls a certain place home, even if that place is a bare apartment or empty lot, then to that community- it’s home.

Though the importance of physical space is emphasized by their protest saving the lot, physical space is also transcended at the beginning of the second act when the cast comes together and lines up on stage to sing “Seasons of Love.” This song and the placement of the cast brings them all together despite their different spaces occupied on stage and roles in the musical, showing that a community does not have to all be in the same place for it to be important to those community members. 

The last aspect of Rent that I found to challenge our perceptions of community was how each character rejected their biological family in favor of one that they created.

Throughout the show, we would see Mark’s, Joanne’s, and Mimi’s parents appear above the stage and leave a voicemail expressing their love and worry, and tell their child they missed them. But we never see any of their calls returned, or even hear a character mention them. No character ever talks about their parents, where they grew up, or expresses the desire to go back to their parents. Even though they are starving, struggling, and dying of HIV/AIDS, they would rather live out their days with the people they’ve formed a new community than with the family they grew up with. The characters commit themselves to one another in a way that directly compares to marriage and a traditional family. The characters learn to stick together for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as they are all alive and even when some of them are gone. 

 

author

Mallory

Hey there, my name is Mallory Mason. I am 21 and studying English, Writing, and Environmental Ethics at the University of Georgia. I'm passionate about cultivating community, seeking peace and justice, and learning how to be a better person to others and the planet. I love music, nature, and laughing with my friends. Thanks for visiting my website :)

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