World AIDS Day Performance Highlights Power of Storytelling

Nov. 30, 2009Bookmark and Share
The year is 1974, and two 12-year-old boys are sitting side-by-side at a day school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Their teacher asks them to turn to one another and share a story. Paul Browde turns to Murray Nossel and asks, “What’s your story?” But Nossel is stuck. “I don’t have one,” he responds. “I don’t know what to say.”
Browde and Nossel performing "Two Men Talking" at Barrow Street Theatre [Image credit: Edward Marritz]
Browde and Nossel performing "Two Men Talking" at Barrow Street Theatre
Image credit: Edward Marritz 
This is the story that begins a 36-year friendship that wends its way from South Africa to New York, where both Nossel and Browde today teach in Columbia’s narrative medicine master’s program. It is also the first story in Two Men Talking, a performance by Nossel and Browde about their shared journey as friends that they will perform at Miller Theatre on Dec. 1 to mark World AIDS Day.
Nossel and Browde, both gay, first launched Two Men Talking in 1996 as a way of telling the story of their lives against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in New York City. They also wanted to explore the power of storytelling in relation to healing and issues related to identity, diversity, illness and sexuality.
“What happens when we commit to sharing the space and finding a commonality for our two stories? That creates a connection and understanding that may not have been there before,” said Browde. This philosophy underpins “Co-Constructing Narratives,” a course they co-teach about the power of both telling and listening to stories.    
Browde and Nossel’s story is filled with surprising narrative twists and turns: While the two first met at the age of twelve, their acquaintance only turned to friendship decades later with an apology. As students in high school, Browde made fun of Nossel's sexuality in front of their entire class. “I went red from top to toe, and Paul stood there triumphant,” said Nossel. The two then went separate ways—Nossel first went into the military and later became a psychologist, and Browde went into medical school to be a psychiatrist.
Columbia's efforts in fighting HIV/AIDS
By chance, they met again in New York City in the early 90s. Nossel was enrolled at Columbia for playwriting and his play was being performed at The Knitting Factory. The partner of the play’s director happened to be Paul Browde, who had relocated to New York in the late 80s.
After the play, Browde approached Nossel and apologized for insulting him so many years earlier. The power of that apology launched an immediate closeness, and the two were soon sharing memories whenever they had the chance. “We were telling each other huge numbers of stories about our histories and finding these points of intersection and difference as well,” said Browde.
Over the next few years, as Browde and Nossel’s friendship developed, storytelling emerged as a catalyst for healing in their professional careers as well in their own lives. Browde was using drama therapy in his residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center, and Nossel, pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia’s School of Social Work, was applying storytelling techniques to help people dying from AIDS in Brooklyn find meaning in their lives.
In Two Men Talking, the two friends recount personal struggles, some of which illuminate the stigma of being gay in societies marked by fear and homophobia. During a performance at Barrow Street Theatre in October, Browde shared the challenges he has encountered being HIV positive. Nossel asked the audience for some water to drink while Browde watched his friend sip from the bottle: “What if I had drank from that bottle?” he said to the audience. “I have HIV. These are the things I think about.”
Beyond the stage, Nossel and Browde have taken Two Men Talking and Narativ, the company they founded, to communities in need of open dialogue around sensitive issues. Last summer, Nossel went to Kenya to help transport workers with AIDS tell their stories. They have also been invited to India to run a similar program for people with AIDS and recently went to Croatia to help patients with intellectual disabilities.
In the work they do, on stage or in class, Browde and Nossel emphasize how both telling and listening to stories can introduce new ways to see ourselves and others. "'Story,'" Nossel says, “is synonymous with one’s sense of self and one’s being on the planet and one’s political right to be.”