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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: KQED Live Presents Bay Curious' National AIDS Memorial Grove Walking Tour – Nov 4-5 San Fran

San Francisco takes a lot of guff these days, but for me, and those who know and love San Francisco, it is a place full of beauty, grace, and community. The National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park superlatively embodies all those qualities. How fitting that KQEQ Live’s Bay Curious team has worked with local artists to craft public tours of The Grove, that marry the transcendent experience of nature, dance, music, and ritual with an oral history of the place and its people.

Dancers perform Andrew Merrell's "Something of Lasting Beauty" at the Nat'l AIDS Memorial Grove Photo: J. Norris

On a sunny November Saturday, KQED podcast host Olivia Allen-Price welcomes the forty 1:00 p.m. tour attendees at the entrance. She shares that as the AIDS crisis grew, in the mid-80’s, members of San Francisco’s gay community came together to create a place for communal mourning. The conception of the Grove was spearheaded by several landscape architects, to whom the Board of Supervisors deeded the requested seven acres of neglected park land for the project. Work began in 1991 and relied solely on volunteer labor and reclaimed or recycled materials in order to avoid siphoning away any funds from other AIDS organizations. Designed as a living memorial, The Grove is always changing with new seasons bringing new growth.

Tours will be led by KQED journalists. Allen-Price notes that the historical content and the performative offerings on the walk were all generated and inspired by interviews Bay Curious conducted with activists, survivors, and loved ones associated with The Grove. With this final thought we are split into four groups. My tour guide is Josh Decolongon, Community Engagement Producer for KQED Food, a 2016 San Francisco transplant from Vancouver.

As we walk, Josh shares signifiers from the AIDS epidemic. Hearing him speak about how AIDS effected the community and the country is interesting. While Josh, a relatively young queer person, is sharing a time in history which he has studied, I and others in the group experienced the epidemic in our adult lives. I was twenty-five when I arrived in San Francisco in 1988, at the height of the epidemic. I lost not only friends and colleagues, but also my father who died in 1989, on the AIDS ward of St. Vincent’s hospital in New York City. The Grove’s grandeur, sweeping vistas, and intimate walkways provide an ideal space for remembrance and reflection. Circular motifs appear amidst The Grove’s lush plantings and forested areas. Round plazas are often truncated or interrupted, in order to symbolize the imperfections inherent in all lives.

KQED's Josh Decolongon leads a tour of the National AIDS Memorial Grove Photo: J. Norris

As we approach the Hemophilia Memorial Circle, Josh reminds us of Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy with hemophilia ,who contracted AIDS in 1984 from a blood transfusion. White became the face of public education around the disease when he returned to school and faced harassment and discrimination.

Arranged along a curved stone wall we sit facing musician El Beh. With closed eyes and a warm closed-mouth smile, Beh performs their original cello composition. A repeating motif, which reminds me of a few notes of “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean,” is woven in among sustained low notes, creating a hopeful counterpoint to the more somber tones.

As we move uphill along a heavily shaded trail, the evocative scent of decaying leaf litter surrounds us, part of a process of renewal. Josh points out the ferns, planted to discourage soil erosion. He likens them to the elders who anchor the queer community and whose stories keep gay history from slipping away.

El Beh plays their original composition for cello in the National AIDS Memorial Grove; Photo J. Norris

At the Circle of Peace, a plaza free of inscriptions in dedication to all lives lost, we are treated to a contemporary dance duet featuring Zoe Huey and Catalina O’Connor. This is one of a trio of dances titled “Something of Lasting Beauty” that choreographer Andrew Merrell has placed at sites along our walk.

Following the duet, all four tour groups come together in the central grassy lawn for a full company performance with Huey and O’Connor joined by dancers Tahj Malik and Jubilee. Merrell explores similar movement in both the duet and the ensemble piece. Dancers move linearly back and forth in space, often facing away from the audience. They hold hands or wrap friendly arms around one another’s waists. Fists thrust defiantly upward before swooping down into one’s own upturned palm held in suspension with forceful opposing forces. Images are erased by fingers dragging sideways over one’s foreground.

While dancers return to each other often to touch base, they spend most of their time pursing individual journeys. Beh’s haunting vocals, supported by a repeating single note, launch us rhythmically into the ensemble. Rolling, running, jumping, the ensemble dancers take advantage of the soft earthen landing surfaces. Malik tumbles forward head over heels using the forward momentum to arch back up onto his feet in one continuous motion.

A duet for Jubliee and Malik set amongst a cluster of redwood trees completes the danced trilogy. They begin, and end, side-by-side on a bench, touching, but looking away from each other. I picture them as new friends, perhaps two people who have connected over the grief of a lost loved one. Jubliee spends time exploring the contours of a large tree. Observing their investigation, one almost feels the rough bark upon one’s own hands.

In a poignant sequence, Malik hinges backward, allowing the back of their head to come to rest in Jubilee’s outstretched hands. Jubillee having momentarily caught their friend, redirects Malik’s sinking energy, pushing them up and away, toward a tree, which stops Malik’s forward energy. In this way people and nature come together to help us catch our breath.

Dancer Tajh Malik supports dancer Jubliee in Andrew Merrell's "Something of Lasting Beauty," Photo J. Norris

It might be human nature to believe your tour is the best tour, but I think it is true. Both my guide and the route seem ideal. Guiding us convivially along, en route to our final stop, Josh offers a wry and fact-filled introduction to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence noting they are an order of queer and trans nuns, devoted to community service, ministry and outreach to people in need. During the AIDS crisis they created the first non-judgmental plain language safer sex brochure, which used humor to convey lifesaving information.

Five campily-clad nuns welcome us for a ritual of remembrance. Burning sage, they invite us to place flowers on the names we recognize among the 3,000 inscribed here, in the Circle of Friends. Alternatively, we may write the names of loved-ones-lost on the ribbons of their scepters to be used in the Sisters’ ceremony.

As we exit the Grove, we linger for a moment to appreciate all the volunteers who created and continue to maintain this national treasure in our own backyard. The Grove is a place for reflection as well as celebration. The interludes of music and dance lifted our spirits and provided necessary contemplative pauses along our investigation of this pristine national monument to lives lost.

Review by Jen Norris, published November 6, 2023 ------------------------------

Production Credits

KQED LIVE Bay Curious

Tours November 4 and November 5 at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm.

Live Event Producer: Sarah Rose Leonard

Featured artists include:

Choreographer Andrew Merrell and dancers Zoe Huey, Catalina O’Connor, Tajh Stallworth, Jubilee perform Something of Lasting Beauty

Composer/cellist El Beh

KQED led in-depth interviews with activists, survivors, and loved ones who are integral to the grove. We spoke with the AIDS Quilt Conservator, an activist living with HIV, a young gay man whose uncle passed away in the 1990s, the CEO of the memorial, a social worker, and longtime grove volunteers who lost their children to the epidemic. Their stories are reflected in the dances and music you’ll see during the tour. Interviews that inspired the choreography.

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