Marching with my anger and my grief: “Notes on Me & You”

Produced as part of the Hartford Theatre Festival 
Created by Dawson Atkin and N.J. Collay
Performed by Sam Vana

October 9 – November 9, 2020
Hartford Fringe Festival
Hartford Fringe on Vimeo

Review by Kitty Drexel 

Vimeo/Hartford, CT — I write this review from the floor of the 4 bedroom apartment that I share with my brilliant, non-binary wife and our two housemates in Somerville, MA. I’m at my wife’s feet and as they work on COVID-19 science for a Cambridge lab. We’re both attacking work job projects with an unnecessary focus because we’d otherwise be rage scrolling Twitter for 2020 election news updates. Biden is in the lead while the Narcissist in Chief refuses to accept his electoral losses. 

Trump hates the LGBTQ+ community. His administration’s repeated attacks on us prove it. His vice president supports conversion therapy. 

Trump hates Black, Brown, and Asian people.

He hates immigrants. 

He hates disabled people. 

He hates everyone who isn’t him. He hates everyone who doesn’t worship in the cult of his narcissism. He’s allowing them to die from a highly contagious virus that there is no cure for. History is repeating itself. 

Why does he hate us so much? We just want to live.

Fifty percent of the US is voting for this hateful man. Even when Biden wins and finally takes the White House with Harris, it will be impossible to know who to trust just like it was in 2016. 

Reagan hated the LGBTQ+ community with such a passion that he let us die by the tens of thousands from the “gay plague” in the 1980s. His administration was indifferent to our deaths during the AIDS crisis. Reagan’s inaction was historically captured for posterity and was made into art: The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and now Atkin and Collay’s Notes on Me & You currently at the Hartford Fringe Festival.  

Notes on Me & You is a one-man musical with guitar and piano accompaniment about losing a partner to HIV/AIDS. Creators Atkin and Collay describe it as a visual album with moments of political activism. Film journalism from the late-1980’s depicts a national crisis through historical protest. The performance by Sam Vana expresses the crisis through personal, romantic loss.  

The film’s opening credits open on a pink triangle with a blue outline on a slightly lighter blue background. Two brown handprints are in its center. This image segues to a white triangle with a bold, black outline. Now there is only one, bright red handprint above which is written, “The Government has blood on its hands.” Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear comes into focus as more credits flow over AIDS protest art. More pink triangles. More protests. We’re reminded that in 2020 we are fighting the same war even though both sides use different tactics. 

Keith Haring’s “Ignorance = Fear,” 1989.

With such an impactful opening credits sequence, the musical’s proper beginning is a letdown. Sam Vana, although pleasantly cute, sits on a stool in front of shiny cheap bronze stage curtains in bad lighting. It is easy to assume he’s in a church basement. It looks like he is. Vana’s pretty, pure tenor is not enough to distract us from the fluorescence. His message is important; we try to ignore Vana’s surroundings.  

In its current form, Note on Me & You is a song cycle with occasional inter-song film meditations. The music and lyrics are intimate poetry. Vana sings it well. His voice is confident even on the rare occasion when his ornaments miss their mark. 

But, the story doesn’t flow easily. It feels unfinished; it isn’t a full one-person musical yet but it could be in its next iteration. The show is 42 minutes long with credits and during that time we meet the couple, hear their story, and learn about the political hate crimes surrounding their death. It’s too quick. We either need monologues between the songs, more multimedia from protests, or more art expanding our perspective. It’s a beautiful album but it tells an incomplete story. It feels unfinished; it isn’t a full one-person musical yet but it could be in its next iteration. 

Vana wears a face shield. Face shields are creating the need for a new kind of acting. Actors are now impossibly responsible for managing the glare from a face shield or other covering while acting. It’s like a new mic technique, working with puppets, or animals, etc. Vana sings into a microphone while wearing the shield. He bonks the mic. I sympathize It’s not like we train for this in our college theatre programs. Although maybe that could change. A Zoom, mask, and face shield workshop could be invaluable to the current and next generations of performers.    

Today is November 5. Soon, my loving wife and I will be watching the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta in remembrance of Guy Fawkes Day. In it, V says, people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. Tonight it is highly apt that the election results are slowly creeping in on the same day we recognize a populist plot to blow up Parliament. We liberals are blowing up fascism. 

Reagan’s legacy is tarnished by the very community he tried to kill. History will be equally as unkind as the current president who is ignoring a virus that has already killed over 200,000 humans

Meanwhile, says that, as of July, three people have been cured of AIDS. Hope is on the horizon. Art will capture the changes.

“I don’t know who you are. Or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope that you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.”  –  Valerie from V for Vendetta the graphic novel

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