Wilson Jermaine Heredia as ANGEL and Jesse L. Martin as COLLINS in RENT (2005).
"Live in my house, I'll be your shelter. Just pay me back with one thousand kisses. Be my lover and I'll cover you." RENT showed up on film in 2005, but it first came into the cultural sphere in 1996 when it stormed onto Broadway in 1996. For theater kids of a certain age, this show is a beacon; for the genre overall, it's a game changer. The central theme of this story is a group of folks battling AIDS and a cost of living that is just too damn high. Here we get to see what it looks like for a Black gay man to love, as Collins is undeniably smitten with the drag queen Angel. Their love is unabashed and unashamed. Then the worst thing happens: Angel dies. And with that we see what it looks like for a Black gay man to mourn. "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" is a scorching, powerful ballad, and it's rare that I can hear it without being affected. When I was reflecting on this work, though, I did notice one thing. Since Angel was a drag queen, he was comfortable with male and female pronouns. This meant that their big love song, "I'll Cover You" still read as a heteronormative one: "You'll be my king, and I'll be your castle; You'll be my queen and I'll be your moat." This doesn't diminish the importance of the show, but it still leaves open a space for an explicitly male - male love song, in a musical, on screen or wherever. And it speaks to how when creating Black gay characters for screen (or stage), it's often still through a lens that centers heteronormativity, at least at this point in time. (Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that this song is eerily similar to Ashford & Simpson's "Too Bad". It's not credited, but I hope they get their just due for this sample...)