Robert Chesley; Wrote 1st Play on AIDS


Robert Chesley, the activist who wrote “Night Sweat,” the first play to deal with the AIDS crisis, has died in San Francisco. He was 47.

Chesley died of the complications of acquired immune deficiency syndrome on Wednesday night in Mt. Zion Hospital, his agent, Bert Herman, said.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., Chesley grew up in Pasadena and studied music at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He married and taught music at private prep schools in New York for 10 years.

But in the mid-1970s, Chesley revealed his homosexuality, separated from his wife and moved to New York City, where he became an activist gay theater critic. His reviews appeared in Gay Community News, The Advocate, Gaysweek, The San Francisco Review of Books, “The Bay Guardian and New York Native.”


He began writing plays with homosexual themes in 1980. His first play, “Hell, I Love You,” was produced that year in San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros.

“Night Sweat,” about AIDS victims who act out their fantasy death scenes at a resort, was first produced by Meridian Gay Theatre in New York City in May, 1984. It was presented a year later in the Fifth Estate Theatre in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times theater critic Dan Sullivan wrote: “It’s enough that they help the viewer to acknowledge the crisis and to see the need for a personal response to it. If Robert Chesley’s ‘Night Sweat’ . . . helps its audiences to do that in regard to the AIDS crisis, it’s welcome.”

Chesley attracted even more attention with his 1986 play, “Jerker,” about two men who stand on opposite sides of the stage and talk sex by phone. The play was branded pornographic by the Federal Communications Commission when it was performed on Pacifica’s KPFK radio in Los Angeles. It was presented in San Diego’s Sushi Performance Gallery in 1988 and at Los Angeles’ Fifth Estate Theatre the following year.


Chesley is survived by his mother, Betty Rottger, and a sister, Joan Apodaca, both of Redondo Beach; his father, Leon Chesley, of Long Island, N.Y., and his longtime companion, Gene Weber of San Francisco.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to Project Open Hand, 2720 17th St., San Francisco, 94110.

A memorial service is scheduled for noon Jan. 6, at the Celebration Theater, 426 N. Hoover, Los Angeles.