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Art meets activism in the immersive theatre piece As Much As I Can
The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Broadway's upcoming The Inheritance -- epic tales about white men living with HIV/AIDS are well represented in American theatre. But what about the black experience of the epidemic? It's a story dying to be told: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American gay and bisexual men have the highest rate of new diagnoses at 26%, even though black people make up only 13.4% of the U.S. population.
Thankfully As Much As I Can is breaking the silence. An immersive theatre piece with an unconventional development process, the show was born out of ViiV Healthcare's ACCELERATE! Initiative to reach black gay and bisexual men in Baltimore, Maryland and Jackson, Mississippi, two cities heavily impacted by HIV. Over four years, researchers interviewed hundreds of men in the target demo, hoping their personal stories would hold the key to destigmatizing HIV testing and treatment in the black community. In 2017, ViiV Healthcare partnered with creative marketing agency Harley & Company and playwright Sarah Hall to transform these tales into an intimate and engaging live event, where audiences get schooled on what it's like to be black and HIV positive. After touring to many U.S. cities, including a stop in Harlem last year, As Much As I Can returns to New York for a limited run at Joe's Pub from September 12 to 16.
While the show is a work of advocacy, it's also wildly entertaining, replete with direct address, glittering performances and audience interaction. "We have the conversation in a healthy, authentic, non-offensive and inclusive way," says cast member Brandon Gill, who appeared on Broadway in Holler If Ya Hear Me. Although a white woman dramatist helped organize the interviews into a structured narrative, Gill appreciates that the script is made up of the testimony of black men. "Sometimes educated people try to tackle this idea without actually knowing a person who's experienced all the things that the play talks about," he says, noting that in As Much As I Can, "voices of color are heard."
In addition to HIV, the play also explores intimacy and intersectionality issues among black men. For cast member Dimitri Joseph Moïse, the script struck such a tender nerve that he considered skipping the final callback. "I was literally vomiting for like an hour beforehand because the play just hit me in my core," he recalls. "It's literally my life and I just could not get myself out of bed. It hurt so much." Moïse, a Broadway performer whose HIV coming-out story was documented in HIV Plus Magazine, says what pulled him through was his faith in God and the realization that the play could be a game changer for black queer men. "HIV is on the rise in our community whereas our white counterparts have seen decreases," he says. "How do we change that? Conversation."
As Much As I Can addresses the shame surrounding HIV and homosexuality in the African-American community, which leads to secrecy and the proliferation of the virus. As Moïse points out, it spreads from black men who have sex with other black men (sometimes on the down low), who then have sex with black women and suddenly everyone is infected yet no one is talking about it.
Gill sees this hiding as a natural outgrowth of 300 years of forced resilience, with black men afraid of being seen as weak or vulnerable. As Much As I Can sets out to abolish that antiquated take on black masculinity, and Gill hopes it will prove freeing and healing for his peers. "I try to use my art to entertain, educate and inspire," he says. "I think this is a piece that can do all of those things: inspire you to get up and make a change in your community."
A dancer, teacher and playwright, Juan Michael Porter II has contributed articles to Ballet Review, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, Broadway World and HuffPost. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Courtesy of Harley and Co.
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