In January 2017 an immersive play debuted that captured the emotional realities of gay Black men living with HIV. The cast, quite literally, took audiences by the hand and gave them an opportunity to witness the journey of navigating life after a positive diagnosis.
Through adjoining narratives and sharp dialogue -- inspired by hundreds of interviews and research by playwright Sarah Hall -- As Much as I Can dared viewers to learn about the complicated struggle communities face while living in cities with high rates of HIV and little access to resources.
Now the Harley & Co.-produced event is set to open this week at Joe's Pub, a venue at the Public Theater in New York City, where it will run for 10 performances.
The production is funded by ViiV Healthcare and its Accelerate! initiative, a $10 million program launched in 2015 that supports innovative projects improving the lives and outcomes of communities with little access to HIV treatment and prevention. The show's team has found the journey to New York to be well worth it.
As Much as I Can was based on interviews with men in Baltimore and Jackson, Miss., cities the Accelerate!program specifically targets because they have been hit so hard by HIV, and was originally staged in those cities. It has had two other productions since then -- including its most recent mounting, in New York's Harlem neighborhood last year.
"When we came to New York with the show, I think we were wondering how much [the message] would resonate," Hall says, referencing the fact that New York audiences likely have more HIV resources than the cities the play is based on. "Some people said, 'Is it still going to work?'"
"The reasons why [the play] needs to exist are still very much in New York," Hall adds. "We realized if New York needs us, then basically everywhere needs us, because this is such a persistent battle that we're fighting and there's no place where it isn't touching and affecting communities. So we need to be engaging everywhere, and we really need to engage in New York because sometimes when New Yorkers are their best, we can really lead the way."
In the theater canon, there are few commercially successful plays centering on the HIV experience. William M. Hoffman's 1985 drama, As Is, certainly brought the conversation to a mainstream audience. Other works like Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, Jonathan Larson's Rent, and most recently Ben Buratta's Affection, which opened in the United Kingdom in 2016, highlighted HIV through specific lenses.
No play, however, fully investigates the specific mental and emotional trials of Black people living with HIV, who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made up 43 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017. Of that number, 60 percent identified as gay or bisexual (researchers often categorize them as men who have sex with men, or MSM).
The cast of As Much as I Can. Courtesy Harley & Co.
"Part of the magic of this show is that we've engaged with Mobi, Native Son, Harlem United, Hetrick-Martin Institute, Callen-Lorde, all these critical organizations that are there every night," adds executive producer Alexandra Hall. "Every night we have men in the audience who've gone through this experience that can provide tremendous amount of mentorship and direct connection to services. The show in Harlem, we had a table outside because it provides an opportunity. When we're talking about the HIV epidemic, it's about connecting people to care."
"Art imitates life, which is something that as an artist, as actors, as theater professionals, you hear it spoken a lot," says director James Walsh. "What's been so interesting for me and continues to be the gift that gives is that this project continues to illuminate."
Activist Emil Wilbekin, cofounder of the organization Native Son and former cover star for our sister publication Plus, has partnered with As Much as I Can. As Wilbekin told Plus earlier this year, Native Son is a "movement and a platform to bring Black gay and queer men together to be in a safe space."
"I felt that there was this discomfort between Black queer men with each other when we are out socially, and we had limited spaces to be in the light and interact with each other outside of chat rooms and bars," Wilbekin added. "I think it's important that as a marginalized community, we build ourselves up to empower, inspire, and support each other. I've seen it in white spaces and felt, why don't we have that? So I decided to create it."
Immersive theater opens up new possibilities and opportunities to create emotional relationships between an audience and actors. As Sarah Hall points out, it's all part of the experience.
"Particularly now, we really struggle with other people's perspectives and life experiences," she says. "The best mechanism we had available wasn't to be passive watchers, but to have a seat at the table, a seat at the bar, so we have a role to play and make people really start to question: What's fiction? What's real? Who's acting? Am I acting? Am I playing a role? Am I playing the right role? And to have this sense of shared responsibility between the audience and the actors. One of the biggest takeaways in this play is that we have a responsibility as a community, as people who care for other people, to help support and take care of those we're speaking about in the play."
"The material is coming out of an immediate, real urgent life, with urgent problems and an urgent issue," says Walsh. "Its reflection on the stage, it's a wonderful lesson for many artists. In the ways in which we kind of forget that art imitates life and get stuck imitating other ways in which art imitates life, its wonderful to work on a piece where you get to discover your own very real, very concrete, very exciting, and very emotional expriences."
"That's what I'm really excited about at Joe's Pub," Hall adds. "The idea that you're not just here to watch entertainment, you're here because this is a civic engagement. We want you to participate, we want you to feel responsible, and we want to make change together."
The principal cast of As Much as I Can includes Stephanie Berry (Gloria: A Life), Brandon Gill (Holler If Ya Hear Me), Cory Gibson (Tell It to the Judge), Dimitri Moise (The Book of Mormon), Marquis Johnson ( Burn All Night), Vasthy Mompoint (The Prom), and Dawn L. Troupe (Moby Dick). Other featured cast members are Justin Crowley, Christian O. Jimenez, P.J. Johnnie, Joel Hurt Jones, Jasmine Rush, Jason Veasey and James Watson.
As Much as I Can opens September 12 and runs for 10 performances through September 16. Get tickets here.