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Remembrance: Rebecca Ranson, activist and visionary figure in Atlanta theater

Ranson's 1984 play Warren was one of the first about the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Hers was a distinctive voice, as well as one that was passionate and ground-breaking. The Atlanta theater community lost a visionary figure in September when Rebecca Ranson passed away at the age of 73 in Virginia from Alzheimer’s. Throughout a long career, Ranson was a playwright and an arts administrator in Atlanta, as well as a civil rights and AIDS activist. A public celebration of her life was held at 7 Stages Theatre, the theater she called home, in late October before a private ceremony for family and close friends in Chapel Hill a few days later.

After attending the University of Georgia and getting a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film, Ranson later received a MFA in playwriting at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Alongside her second husband Coke Ariail, she founded Pocket Theatre in Durham, North Carolina, helped create Alternate ROOTS in New Market, Tennessee, and was a playwright in residence at numerous theaters.

Atlanta, though, was where she spent the majority of her professional and personal time. Her playwriting career was prolific, with over 30 produced plays. Ranson wrote one of the first plays dealing with HIV/AIDS — Warren.  It was performed at 7 Stages in 1984 and was very personal to her.

“She had a close friend [Warren Johnston, a founding member of Alternate ROOTS] who wound up passing away,” says Heidi Howard, 7 Stages’ artistic director. “From that experience, she knew this was a story she needed to [tell]. And this was one of the first plays about the subject from a known theater.”

Ranson’s son Charlie Engle believed that by writing about her friend, she was hoping to motivate him to stay alive. That it was a woman who was one of the first to write a play about HIV/AIDS was a powerful message that the gay community was fighting the epidemic together.

The play was produced at other theaters throughout the country as well as at the CDC’s first international conference about AIDS held in Atlanta in 1985.

Ranson continued to act as an AIDS activist and conduct interviews with PWAs here and in San Francisco. Engle was aware of the work she was doing and what it meant to her. “When I got married for the first time, my mother threw me a shower a few years after Warren,” he remembers. “There were nine or ten couples — one couple was a lesbian couple and the other nine male couples. A few years later only three of them were alive. For my mother, during that time frame, she lost her entire set of friends. It was like they went to war and did not come back. It changed her — her priorities, her attitude. It did not sour her but it did kick her ass for a long time. She spent time in San Francisco, washing and cleaning the dead bodies of gay men who did not have anyone in their lives for them. To say it was an important issue for her was a great understatement.”

Ranson’s home base was 7 Stages Theatre.

Two years after Warren, Ranson cofounded SAME (Southeast Arts, Media and Education) in Atlanta, with a mission to provide education and artistic expression during the AIDS crisis. The organization was instrumental in presenting numerous plays, Amethyst (a literary magazine), the Arts for Pride festival and various events. SAME participated in the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad and officially founded Out On Film, Atlanta’s LGBT film festival. [Full disclosure: the author is now festival director of Out On Film.] Also an early part of the organization was Southern Voice, the LGBT newspaper.

To her the work was extraordinarily valuable. Yet it wasn’t something that came easily. “My mother was not a business women and she would be the first to admit it,” says Engle. “It was an incredible leap of faith for her, to take on a business. But I’d call it her single most important undertaking — to provide information to her community and support. It was deeply meaningful for her. It was not a moneymaking prospect. She never did a single thing in her life for money.”

Creating a film festival almost from scratch and having to learn how to fund it was an ongoing battle. “She was an optimistic person and on more than few occasions she called me and to say literally this doesn’t look like it’s working out,” Engle recalls. “She’d say, ‘There is no money. We had six people show up at this and we needed 60.’ She’d sleep it on a day or two, though, write another letter, or another grant — she was the master of the grant writers. She had friends who would donate and get involved, but she was also good at working in and outside the system.”

Ranson worked for SAME until the company disbanded in 1996. She continued to teach acting, fight for equality and write. Her other plays included Elmatha’s Apology, Blood on Blood and The Incarceration of Annie, as well as a beloved performance as her alter ego, Brownie Broadway. As part of the research she did post-Warren, she penned the play Higher Ground in 2010. By that time, however, she had left the area and moved to Cape Charles, Virginia.

Something of a free spirit, she went through two marriages before falling in love with another woman and identified as a lesbian afterward.

Ranson became a voice for those without a voice.

Emory University archived Ranson’s work a few years ago. Randy Gue, curator of Modern Political and Historical Collections at the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory University, feels the work Ranson donated hints at what she was about. “We are happy to have it because her work shows vividly, clearly how to be an artist and how to be an activist at the same time,” Gue says. “Her papers contain this remarkable community of voices and lives — her journals, correspondences, the raw material she used to create her work.”

Howard worked with Ranson on the play A Glorietta, which dealt with discrimination and prejudice in Atlanta’s own Kirkwood neighborhood, but also rented a room in Ranson’s house for a while and the two developed a friendship outside of 7 Stages. “I got to sit on her back porch with her, sipping coffee or wine, smoking cigarettes,” Howard says. “She was able to bring this genuine humanity from the personal to the stage. Her writing always included this honest effort to fight for people and their humanity and voices, not just the LGBT community.”

Engle was always aware of his mother’s beliefs and causes — and how she easily took up new ones in order to make a call for change. “There was never a cause that she didn’t believe in that she didn’t take action on,” he says. “One of the things she taught people is saying you believe in something is useless without action to back it up.”

The lessons his mother passed on to him have left indelible marks. “She taught me how to think but not what to say,” he says. “That is the greatest gift she gave me, to be thoughtful and to have a desire to explore the world physically and emotionally. She taught me to never follow the crowd. I have no fucking interest in that — and neither did she.”

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