The Blue Marble

Ari Brand is an actor, musician, and lifelong New Yorker. He has performed on Broadway, off Broadway, and across the country. Brand spoke to us about his current LABA project, a play based on his own experience of discovering that his father, the renowned pianist Natan Brand, lived much of his life as a gay man. Natan Brand died of AIDS in 1990.

I had this birthday party when I was turning six, it was May, 1990. My dad was sick but not debilitated, and he was videotaping the party with our bulky, temperamental VHS camcorder. He was very present that day—his health would fluctuate in that last year of his life—but I’d known that he had been sick for a while. 

My friends came over, and my mom had hired an actress, Jubilee Judy, who led us in a group reenactment of The Legend of Zelda, a video game on Nintendo. I was really into The Legend of Zelda.

She played the musical theme on the stereo, and using a handheld tape recorder, she made a kind of audio play with us.

Jubilee Judy said, “And the Octoroks made their sounds!” 

And the kids would go, “Kuhpshew! Kuhpshow!”

“And then Link said, ‘I will overcome!’”

And I said into the microphone, “I will overcome!”

I got to be Link, the hero, because it was my birthday. I got to defeat the bad guy and save the princess.

We did the play, and it was super fun. After the play, she passed out these blue marbles. She said they were magic marbles, that everybody should think of a wish, hold on to the marble really tight, and the marble would make your wish come true.

I remember wishing my father would get better. And I remember that my father was watching me in that moment, through the lens of the video camera, and I wondered if he knew that I was using my special birthday wish for him.

He died about seven months later. I brought that marble to the cemetery, and I dropped it in the grave. 

I guess in my six-year-old mind I knew that the marble had failed, that it didn’t save him. But I still believed in its power, and I thought he should have it. 

I first learned about my father’s hidden life when I was 16. I was in Israel. I was on a youth group trip, and when the trip was over my brother and mother came to hang out with my father’s family in Jerusalem. 

My brother Jesse and I were on the beach and we took a walk. He’s four years older; we’re very close. 

He said, “Do you want to know how Daddy got AIDS?”

It was a question that I never asked myself.

I said, “You know?”

Jesse explained that he had started therapy. His therapist pointed out that in the 80s AIDS was very uncommon in the straight community. 

Jesse had asked our mother about it, and she confirmed to him that, yes, our father had slept with men, though she stopped short of putting a clear label on his sexuality.

I was shocked, and maybe a little hurt. Not because he was gay, of course—it was 2000 when my brother and I had this conversation, I had gay friends, I knew older gay couples. It was more that he’d had this whole life that I never knew anything about, that seemed to have been hidden from us. And it was likely linked to his death. 

Back to the beach: My brother said, “You know Robert?”

“No way!” I responded.

Robert was my father’s best friend. Turns out he and my father were once lovers, and then roommates for a while, and then stayed friends. 

After my father died, Robert tried to keep in touch. He’d send us birthday cards and a five dollar bill every year. But I never reached out. And then I heard that Robert died, maybe around 2010, and I realized that I had lost this massive opportunity to learn more about my father, about a part of his life my mother could never illuminate. That worried me, and for the first time, I felt the need to ask more questions. Since then I’ve talked to all these people—my father’s piano students, his friends, our family in Israel. 

That was the beginnings of my play, Missing.

It takes place in the 80s and the present day. It’s the story of this one family over two generations, spanning from the end of the father’s death, to the now grown-up son’s pursuit to figure out who his father was, how he lived and died. 

It’s not strictly autobiographical, I’m changing the timeline of some events, characters have been shifted. But it’s close.

I think my father died feeling like he was being punished for his sins, that there was something inherently wrong with him, and that he let me, my mother and my brother down. This play is an attempt to set his soul free. 

Brand will be performing excerpts from his work-in-progress, Missing, at LABAlive, Saturday, February 2nd at The Theater at the 14th Street Y at 7.30. Click here for tickets.