Joe Goode uses movement and music to try to make sense of the AIDS epidemic. 

The Great Equalizer

Joe Goode calls death a "great equalizing experience." He's witnessed more than his share of loved ones and acquaintances succumb to the merciless claws of AIDS. For the past 20 years, he's lived in the Castro district of San Francisco, an area characterized by a large gay population, a population hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. This devastating experience forms the basis of Goode's musical dance theater piece, "Deeply There, Stories of a Neighborhood," which will be performed by The Joe Goode Performance Group on Friday, March 3, at the Carpenter Center. The show also includes Goode's "Spite," a light piece about love affairs danced by Virginia Commonwealth University dance students.

"I wanted to make a piece about alternative families, the families I've seen crop up around this epidemic," Goode says about "Deeply There." "This story hasn't been told — not to my satisfaction. Family was my original idea for this work."

Of the many profound lessons Goode has learned from the "natural disaster" of AIDS, he's seen that death brings people who may not otherwise meet, together. "Suddenly you have a Baptist mother from Alabama, some Bible Belt woman, sitting at the same bedside as her son's gay lover," Goode says. "At first she's appalled at his friends and his lifestyle. But they have something in common, which is that they both love the person who needs help with inserting a syringe into his arm or changing his bedpan. I've witnessed a lot of surprising alliances. I've been amazed at the level of compassion and other wonderful things that have come out of this crisis."

"Deeply There" is a character-based production and, despite its sorrowful topic, is full of humor. Goode plays Frank, the lover of Ben, who is dying. Among the many who attempt to help or complicate Ben's dying are: Imelda, a high-energy transvestite; Becky, a lesbian mom; Joyce, Ben's homophobic sister; and Ben's greatest love, his dog, whose thoughts, similar to the other characters, get revealed through song, dance and text. A particular comic scene involves Frank and Joyce getting drunk together, their antagonism softened with each sip.

Each scene, with its menagerie of conflicted characters and tender or antagonistic exchanges, reflects upon love and grieving, a response to death that survivors, particularly gays, have difficulty addressing. "There's a void with dealing with grief," Goode says, "because there's no vehicle for it. People don't recognize gay partners as legally united or committed to loving."

"Deeply There" continues Goode's preference for exploring gender issues through a blend of song and dance. He finds both forms "pure." Movement or the voice quickly communicates what may otherwise take hundreds of words. "So much emotion gets conveyed in a simple way ... through the timbre of the voice," he says. "Dance gets to a truthfulness that is unencumbered by society's rules."

Though he claims the West Coast as his home, Goode knows Richmond well. He attended VCU in the first year the school adopted its new name and he graduated from the theater department in 1973. It was here that he first studied with William Prosser, whose experimental methods with sound and movement influenced Goode greatly. He considers the time he spent in Richmond to be pivotal to his artistic development, and is amazed by the many changes to the city and university. "When I was here, VCU didn't even have a dance department!" he exclaims.

But it's the changes to the Castro district, among the constant presence and fear of death, that preoccupy Goode. When he first arrived in San Francisco, the gay population was shallow, caught up in whimsical behavior, concerned with appearances. "I've watched a very hedonistic, superficial gay male culture, very white, very homogenous in a certain way," he says. "I've watched that culture really change and grow up as it dealt with this crisis and become a more integrated community because blood relatives came to take care of their dying."

Death, as Goode well knows, does not discriminate based on age, race, gender or sexual orientation. Nor does grief. "Deeply There" attempts to make sense of this epidemic and to show, despite differences in lifestyles and values, that we carry fundamental commonalties. Goode has one word for it:

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