Thirty years ago — when AIDS was a deadly disease but still considered limited to gay men — medical companies in the US knowingly sold HIV-infected blood to Japan. More than 2,000 Japanese citizens died as a result.
Robert Allan Ackerman’s world premiere play Blood, presented by Los Angeles’ Garage Theatre Company now through April 3rd, promises to expose the truth behind this shocking, little-known scandal. Ackerman is the Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated director of numerous made for TV exposes including Nothing Sacred (1998), Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) and The Reagans (2003). He recently spoke with me via phone about his new and possibly most important project.
CC: How and when did you first become aware of the “Japanese tainted blood scandal”?
RAA: I first became aware of it as it was happening, in the early- to mid-1980’s. I was living in Tokyo at the time and was approached by a film company to write a screenplay about it. They gave me all the research and I read it all and followed what I could in the press. I wrote a treatment but was then advised not to do it because it could be dangerous for me, that I could be targeted by someone involved. So I put it away and moved on to other projects.
CC: What made you decide to dramatize it now, and for the stage?
RAA: When the tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukishima nuclear power plant happened (in 2011), and there were constant reports of misinformation coming out of Japan. I thought “maybe it’s time to take another look at this piece.” I took out the treatment and turned it into a theatre piece. Blood is a fictionalized account, including making the main reporter American as was originally suggested by the film company. Also, I had retired from film and TV and returned to my roots in theatre.
CC: The play’s press release describes Blood as a “political thriller with music,” which seems an unusual combination. How does the music figure in?
RAA: It is predominantly rock music (composed by “The Virgins” bassist Nick Ackerman and “Jet” drummer/vocalist Chris Cester) and some music borrowed from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. I sort of envisioned Blood as a theatrical opus incorporating music, vaudeville, kabuki theatre, kind of everything I know about theatre. I also added humor because it could otherwise be a very dark piece. I envisioned the villains more as vaudevillian clowns, which I think is more interesting.
CC: Despite considerable strides in prevention and treatment, AIDS remains sadly relevant for the gay community today. Is there any other specifically gay or LGBT content in Blood?
RAA: No, not really. There are no gay characters in the play. When the AIDS crisis began in Japan, it was hemophiliacs getting it through infected blood. I remember that in the gay section of Tokyo, all the bars had signs out saying “No Americans allowed.” At the time, AIDS was seen as a gay American problem.
CC: You’ve previously helmed TV dramatizations of such major real-life figures as Judy Garland and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. How has your approach to the story told in Blood been similar to or different from those previous projects?
RAA: This is kind of different. Dealing with Garland and the Reagans, we were very, very careful to be totally historically accurate at every moment we could be. With Blood, I really had to condense the timeline and events. For example, the main trial in Japan (holding those accountable for selling infected blood) took eight years but we depict it as just lasting a few months in Blood. It’s necessary to do so from a dramatic standpoint or else the play would last forever.
CC: What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Blood?
RAA: I’m hoping people begin to feel a sense of activism. It’s a story about taking action against greed, hypocrisy and corruption. For me, the enemy is pacifism, knowing something is wrong but doing nothing about it and avoiding responsibility. What really opened people’s eyes in Japan was when a young man, a boy really, went public and said “I have AIDS.”
CC: Were you personally impacted by AIDS in the 1980’s-90’s?
RAA: Oh yeah, very close friends and my companion of 20 years died. Many of the people I worked with in the theatre in New York died. I very much feel that Blood is a memorial to them. Whenever people today say “AIDS is so passé,” I tell them “No, it isn’t.” It’s still happening.
For more information about the play or tickets, please call 323-960-7745 or visit www.plays411.com/blood.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.