The morning David died I made a promise to myself … one day I would tell the story of his life and death.
My brother David Serko died November 23, 1992, from complications of AIDS at age 32. David was one of 33,590 who lost their lives that year to a disease that was still spiraling out of control. Seems like a drop-in-the-bucket compared to what we are enduring in 2020 with COVID-19, doesn’t it? An HIV diagnosis in 1988, when David was diagnosed, was a death sentence plain and simple. Fortunately for many COVID-19 is a survivable disease. Yet, there are many similarities between the two. Bigotry, misinformation, inaction were all part of our country’s response to AIDS much as they are today with COVID.
Although HIV/AIDS has all but disappeared from public discourse, it is still with us, killing 690,000 worldwide in 2019. 38 million people are living with HIV/AIDS across the globe. An equal number have died since the early 1980s.
I’m the oldest in a family of four kids. David and I were 6 years apart in age. When I left home to go to college, David was 12 years old, in 6th grade. After that, I was basically out of the picture. Regretfully, I missed a lot. David and I had spent most of our lives living far apart. He lived in New York City after graduating from college, I lived in the Pacific Northwest. He was a gay man, a multi-talented entertainer who performed on stages all over the world. I was a married straight-guy, a stay-at-home dad with three kids at the time of his death. Talk about living in different worlds!
Yet, there was great love between us, a love that grew stronger and more real for both of us during the course of his illness. His final request, “listen to your heart” has been a challenge that has both haunted and inspired me in the 28 years since his death. The David Serko Project began as an attempt to learn more about him, it became so much more than that, in many ways it became a journey of discovery of who I am.
It started with a quilt
In the Fall of 2011 our family put the final touches on an “AIDS quilt” for David to be joined to other quilts as part of the Names Project. David died in November 1992, so the quilt project had been almost 20 years in the making. Spearheaded by my wife Sue and her sister Lucinda Keers the quilt was finally assembled after several long days of stitching. It was an emotional experience for us all.
I have to admit little enthusiasm for the quilt project all those years because in my mind it hardly seemed enough, how could 4 x 6 piece of cloth possibly capture who my brother was or what he meant to all of us? Fortunately, through the perseverance of these two women, the quilt was completed in spite of me dragging my feet. It gave us great joy to present it to my parents.
The David Serko Project
Inspired by the quilt and suddenly aware of the approaching twentieth anniversary of David’s death in 2012 I decided it was time to make good on that promise I made back in 1992; “The David Serko Project” was born. I had no idea what might be the outcome of my efforts but, I knew I needed to learn more about my brother’s life, the things I missed in our years apart, I wanted to find people who knew David, I wanted to hear their stories.
Using Facebook I found over 100 people who knew him at some point in his life, most I didn’t know. People shared stories, both large and small, photos, videos, even audio recordings of David. The scope and depth of what I learned was astonishing.
One thing was crystal clear from the start, David was loved and adored by all who knew him.
And then an idea… a crazy idea
A year into the Project I realized I needed to share what I had learned and tell MY STORY too. David’s illness and death were life-changing, I had to share some of the remarkable things that happened between us in the months and days leading up to his death. I decided the only way to do justice to this tale was to get up on stage and perform it, I needed to create a theatrical experience, immerse myself in my brother’s world. Problem was, I had never written for the stage nor performed before, never even taken a drama class in school. Now, that is what I would call a crazy idea!
My dream was to perform in my hometown in upstate New York at the Cider Mill Playhouse a regional theater where David performed many times. Within a year I completed the first draft of a script. I decided to call the play: My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg after I had a dream that David kissed Mark Zuckerberg founder of Facebook. Of course, David never really kissed him but it seemed like a good title given the fact that Facebook played such a big role in the Project.
I contacted the Cider Mill Playhouse to pitch the idea of doing a show there, fortunately, there were people still involved with the theater who knew David and were eager to work something out. We finally settled on July 19, 2014. Now the work began… in the Fall of 2013 I booked two performances at a small theater in Tacoma, WA for early February 2014 in order to prepare for the Cider Mill show. Rehearsal began in December 2013 with my friend Brian Desmond as director.
The play opened on February 1, 2014, to good audience reaction and critical review. In late June we packed up the set and shipped it to upstate New York. I brought my director and stage manager along with me. The sold-out performance at the Cider Mill Playhouse was mind-blowing, to say the least. Many of David’s friends who participated in the Project on Facebook were in the audience along with my friends, and my parents and siblings. I met people who I only knew through Facebook. It was a magical evening! 📷 See performance photos.
From the outset of the Project, I filmed just about everything. Since I had no idea what twists and turns the Project might take I wanted to have the option of perhaps creating a film later.
In July 2014 with videographer Richard Montague in tow, I traveled to New York City to film at several locations a few days before the performance of My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg in my hometown in upstate New York. While in the City we met-up with Clay Walker the man who took the now-infamous 📷 photo of David being arrested in 1988. Standing in front of Trinity Church, where David was arrested, an idea popped into my head … construct a film around the story of the photograph.
Fast forward to September of 2016…
With a rudimentary knowledge of Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software, I began assembling a visual story drawing from live performances, interviews, old family movies, and so on. As I worked, I recorded an extemporaneous voice-over narration for each scene. I later transcribed what I’d done made a few edits and later recorded the voice-over narration in a professional studio.
By early February of 2017 the film was down to 38 minutes complete with a music soundtrack, including the song “Dance of Love” written about David by Ron Cadmus (another Project discovery) with a terrific vocal track by Broadway performer Michael Demby-Cain. With the able assistance of my pal Eric Perlman we mixed-down the audio tracks and color corrected the entire film, it was finished February 13, 2017. 🎥 Watch Footnote on Vimeo (38 min)
Two more stage productions
The original solo production evolved into two other plays. A “reimagined” My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg debuted in Oct 2015. 🎥 See production video Pacific Lutheran University October 2015.
OUT!, the second play, features multiple characters. A staged reading of OUT! took place in December 2019. 🎥 See the video of OUT! staged reading.
Header photo at the top of the page taken April 24, 2013 ACT UP “Tax Wall Street” protest NYC. Jason Serko, Jeff Serko, Peter Serko. Photo credit: Nancy Borowitz