I first witnessed the manic energy of performeractorartist Mario Gardner in the early 1990s, when he helped emcee many of the ACT-UP benefit parties under the drag name Melena d‘ la Moja. I wasn’t aware of Gardner‘s above-radar acting talents until 1994, when I went to Hamburg to see Reza Abdoh’s apocalyptic play Quotations From a Ruined City. Gardner appeared solo, naked, standing under a dead tree, and delivered a lengthy and powerful AIDS eulogymonologue: ”There were so many things I wanted to say to my old buddy. But this haze I‘m in bedimmed from the ailment and all. I just sort of wander in and out of things. I did tell him I love him though. I remember telling him that. I never could have told him years back. Even though I should have. Funny how men have trouble telling each other things like that. Until the pale horseman starts to gallop by the door. Gallop. Gallop. Gallop. Gallop. Gallop.“ I followed the production to Barcelona.
In addition to art venues and experimental theater, Gardner appeared in such mainstream productions as Hill Street Blues, Ill-Gotten Gains and Madonna’s Who‘s That Girl? He was a cast member of Secrets, an AIDS health-education theater project that toured L.A. County high schools.
Gardner’s suicide on June 27 came as no surprise to those who knew him well. Filmmaker Lawrence Elbert, who collaborated with him on the underground feature film Days of Pentecost and a series of 37 shorts called Whitney: Mama‘s Little Baby — The Series, described the nature of Gardner’s performance work: ”He was always suicidal and had demons inside him that came from the abuse he wrestled with. His work came from a place of real anger, he had a strong comedic sense, but there was a dark bottom to it. Our work together was specifically political even though it was slapstick. It was about homophobia, drug issues, child abuse and racism. Many of these came from his experiences growing up in Detroit. He had a completely addictive personality and mental illness. As time went by, he became more and more violent and angry. Leave it to him to turn his death into a performance art installation, and a three-day festival featuring a memorial, a funeral and a wake.“
His memorial service was called ”Imitation of Imitation of Life,“ named after the movie, and included a Dixieland brass band and a team of cardboard chariot horses adorned with white plumes. More than 100 friends and family members led a procession down Olympic Boulevard onto 18th Street in Santa Monica to Crazy Space, the newest live-art venue in the 18th Street Arts Complex. His sisters carried photos, his friends held symbolic dolls, and many had Gardner‘s favorite smoke and drink, Camel cigarettes and Gatorade spiked with vodka. In the space, a video retrospective of Gardner’s work was shown. Elia Arce, Marcus Kuiland-Nazario and Reza Sayed performed; many shared personal stories until the event hit the six-hour mark.
On June 14, Gardner did his final Crazy Space performance, called The Nigger of Sesame Street. He was onstage again with his longtime co-star Kuiland-Nazario, and directed by one of his performance idols, Keith Antar Mason. About five days later he went on a cocaine and crystal-meth run.
On the day he died, Gardner called young filmmaker Steve Moreno to take him up on his suggestion to play a drug addict about to commit suicide by taking an overdose. The filmmaker brought Gardner to his house, shot the scene on two cameras and ran out of film. Gardner‘s line ”I’ll probably be in the casket, hug me as if I was at my own funeral“ was realness in the harshest way. He made his way back home and continued imbibing alcohol and pills; he was found dead the next morning. Gardner is survived by his mother and seven siblings in Detroit and Oklahoma. Whitney: Mama‘s Little Baby — The Series is still doing the festival circuit, recently having sold-out screenings at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.