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Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Zona Rosa Project brings AIDS awareness to Davis

“I basically spent the entire summer waiting for production to begin,” says recent University of California, Davis alumnus Michael Lutheran of the upcoming play The Zona Rosa Project.

Michael plays the lead character in the play he describes as, “a little bit like Memento.”

The Zona Rosa Project is based on the powerful and true story of UC Davis professor of the department of theatre and dance’s MFA design program, John Iacovelli.

The production was in fact the brainchild of Iacovelli.

“I brought the idea of this production to our department … It is largely based on my letters and memories of when I lived in Mexico City in the late 1980s,” said Iacovelli, describing the production as an “emotional and cathartic” experience.

Iacovelli’s story is set in Mexico City circa 1987-88. Iacovelli was then working on a Disney film in the foreign country. At the time, he was in a relationship with a man named Francisco Estrada Valle.

Valle, who was a medical doctor and a renowned AIDS activist was murdered in an unsolved “homophobic hate crime” in the year 1992.

Iacovelli, who had eventually returned to the United States sans Valle, discovered the tragedy that had transpired years later in 2008.

Maggie Morgan, the costume designer for the play and part of UC Davis department of theatre and dance faculty said, “Despite the fact that it is far removed in time, John discovered the tragedy much later and it’s a many layered thing about a huge international issue.”

The production brings attention to the stigma associated with AIDS and what Lutheran calls “the sense of innocent love.” Morgan agrees, “This is such a big story in so many ways and then it’s also just a very, very personal tragedy. It’s a little window into Francisco’s life through John.”

The story unfolds in the form of flashbacks as we see Lutheran play both Johnny – the Iacovelli of the ’80s and John – the 2008 Iacovelli who discovers the painful truth of Valle’s death.

According to Morgan the play ignores some conventions utilized in a full production.

Instead the production, directed by UC Davis’ artist in residence Michael Barakiva, a professional director from New York, required the actors to dig deeper within themselves as they collectively researched and wrote the script.

“Working on this show was a lot of fun. There was always rewriting and editing, and we’ll keep changing things even when the show is running,” said actor Christopher Boyle, who plays an older version of John, describing the dynamic structure of the production.

Barakiva, who is of Armenian/Israeli descent, is also gay and captured the themes of love, loss and homosexuality with a brilliant sensitivity and intuition.

When asked what they wanted the audience to take away from the production, the entire cast agreed that AIDS awareness was the preeminent issue. In modern society, AIDS is often oversimplified with comparisons to diseases such as diabetes that are in fact treatable.

“I started working in theater in early 1980s. So many friends died from AIDS in that time period – it’s like reliving that past,” Morgan said.

“HIV and AIDS were directly thrown at the gay community as if it were their disease,” said Felix Cuma who plays a bartender in the play.

The production is a soulful experience that promises to bring viewers a rather unexplored aspect of a contemporary social issue.

The production opens at Wyatt Pavilion Theatre on tonight at 8 p.m. and plays through Sunday at 2 p.m.

SASHA SHARMA can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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