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Two men, two lives tell one story in new play
Islander Peter Serko insists he’s a glass half-empty kind of guy. But judging from the story he plans to tell in a one-man show Saturday night at the Blue Heron, you’d never know it. With the provocative title “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg,” Peter spins a humorous yet poignant multi-media tribute to his late brother, David Serko, who died of AIDS during the height of the epidemic in New York City.
The two brothers, though close, were six years apart and spent the majority of their early adults years on different coasts. With David’s HIV diagnosis in 1988, everything changed. For the first few years, David continued performing on Broadway and at the White House for President Reagan, among other shows. But as David’s health declined, Peter, who is now 60, made more frequent visits to his brother, describing that time as an indelible experience.
“David’s illness brought us together,” Peter said, “and his death changed my life.”
This is a story with many topics and themes — AIDS, social stigma, lack of medical and personal support, honesty and unconditional love, the true meaning of friendship and courage. It is also a story within a story — one that tells a stunning tale about the unseen hands of synchronicity and the power of intention.
Peter instinctively knew in November of 1992, the last month of his brother’s life, that these stories needed to be told. He also knew he would do the telling. What he didn’t know was when, or how or what form they would take. For a glass half-empty guy, this meant taking a big leap.
It was David who helped him to land. No stranger to both the trepidation and ecstasy of the leap — he took any number on stage as a performer and as an early gay activist — David’s inner convictions always gave him a safety net of sorts, something he bequeathed to Peter in a final act of grace.
“The last thing my brother said was to follow your heart,” Peter said, “and I knew what he meant. Be true to oneself, follow one’s dreams and live life to its fullest.”
It took two decades, but in 2012, Peter jumped. He created The David Serko Project online to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his brother’s death. Peter knew six of David’s friends and wanted to connect with others. By chance, he found a photo gallery on the website of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the gay activist network. Scrolling through the images, Serko saw a picture of his brother being dragged to a paddy wagon by New York City police during a gay rights protest. That led to an important meeting with the photographer and spurred the launch of many other unexpected encounters. Then through the powerful and rapid reach of Facebook, stories and memories, photographs and video clips poured in from over 100 of David’s friends.
Moved by what he received and with David’s counsel ringing in his ears, Peter, who never intended to be a writer let alone a performer, began to write. It started with a poem about the day David asked Peter to plan his funeral.
“That day is still so vivid,” Peter said. “That whole time was one of the richest experiences of my life. It was intense. I never felt so alive or as in touch with who he was.”
Fourteen poems, several prose monologues, photographs and video clips later, Peter had the content for his play. Through another chance meeting, Peter met Brian Desmond, a former Pacific Lutheran University theater professor. Under Desmond’s direction, Peter crafted his show. The set recreates the AIDS ward in the New York hospital where Peter and David’s friends spent many hours together telling stories. As for the title, Peter says it came to him in a dream when he watched his brother give the creator of Facebook a peck on the cheek. Peter found it fitting because of Facebook’s key role uncovering the life and friends of his brother.
The timing to roll out “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg” couldn’t be better. With mainstream movies like “The Dallas Buyers Club” receiving critical acclaim, the story of the AIDS epidemic is finally receiving its due. Peter’s play joins these emerging artistic explorations of that dark and tragic “plague era” in which a generation of mostly gay men died difficult deaths in the prime of their lives.
Peter hopes his play will get people talking as AIDS still claims millions of lives throughout the world, with no cure on the horizon. He also plans to bring his story to Vashon High School in a panel discussion with several staff members whose lives were touched by the epidemic.
“Telling the story of AIDS is healing. It educates and it counsels,” Peter said.
It also put Peter on a trajectory he never intended.
“It’s crazy,” he laughed. “I still can’t look on the bright side, so to go ahead and do this show with no second thought is absurd. But I’m listening to my heart. And my brother is with me.”
“My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg” will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Vashon High School theater. Tickets are $8 for students, $14 for VAA members and $18 for general admission. This is a 2104 VAA New Work.