Currently, Angels in America, the most Tony Award-nominated play in history, is smack in the middle of its much anticipated revival on Broadway in New York City. Debuting in 1992, Tony Kushner’s iconic and surreal tale tackles external and internal homophobia, Reaganism, McCarthyism and the AIDS epidemic in a much grittier mid-’80s New York City.
Despite its one character of color, Belize, Angels—like other popular epidemic narratives, including The Normal Heart, Longtime Companion and How to Survive a Plague—conveys the darkness of the early days and pay homage to the generation of men we lost, mostly through a white lens. But given that it’s 2018—when it’s estimated that in the near future, 1 in 2 black gay men will test HIV-positive in their lifetime—it’s clear that the face of the conversation needs a serious makeover.
Thankfully, some 60-plus blocks north of the Neil Simon Theater, where Angels is playing in Manhattan, there’s a production in Harlem that amplifies the voices of those most at risk and, sadly, often ignored.
As Much as I Can, a collaboration between ViiV Healthcare and design and branding studio Harley & Co., centers on black gay and bisexual characters from the South and colorfully explores the intersections of HIV/AIDS, racism, faith, masculinity, homophobia, stigma and resilience. The production, which debuted May 8 at the Harlem Parish, is also an immersive theater experience that breaks down the fourth wall, allowing the audience to enter the characters’ complex and private world through boldly colorful rooms, including a living room, a clinic and a nightclub.
This unconventional way to consume art allows for people to have a more intimate and deeper connection to the stories being told, Sarah Hall, the play’s writer and the founder of Harley & Co., tells The Root.
“Because you’re in such an intimate setting, it’s as if you’re actually experiencing what’s going on,” she says. “It feels as if you’re sitting in that church pulpit waiting on that sermon or in the living room listening to a mother and son fight about him being gay, or witnessed the man confront the man that gave you HIV.”
She adds: “I find that we often separate ourselves from others, but with the immersive aspect, it’s impossible to do that. You can’t walk away without asking yourself how complicit you are in what is happening to these men.”
As Much as I Can is funded by ViiV’s Accelerate!, a four-year, $10 million, collaborative health-impact initiative that works to support the health and well-being of African Americans. It’s an extension of the ethnographic report “Meet Me Where I Want to Be” (pdf), which highlights the voices and experiences of more than 300 black men who have sex with men (or MSM) in Jackson, Miss., and Baltimore, two cities that have been hit hard by HIV/AIDS.
“We found that a lot of men did not want to be labeled as gay; they just wanted to be them. We also found that many of the men encounter stigma in places like the church, the barbershop and at home. We wanted a deeper understanding of how this impacts their lives, HIV risk and how they see themselves,” explains Marc Meachem, ViiV Healthcare’s head of external affairs.
“While there were stories of hope, there was this overwhelming belief that being a black man in the South was one strike, being gay was another one, and being HIV-positive was the third and final strike,” Meachem continues.
From there, ViiV conducted focus groups of roughly a dozen men in each city to see if its findings were on par with their own experiences. The answer was not only a definitive yes, but even more stories began to flow, which later served as the foundation of As Much as I Can.
“So many times it feels as if our culture is for sale, but what makes our play so amazing and transformative is that it is grounded in our truth on our own terms. And outside of Moonlight and Tongues Untied, it’s rare that we get to see that,” Meachem adds.
To further ensure its authenticity, there was a serious vetting process after the script was written that included crucial feedback from doctors, pastors, HIV/AIDS advocates and other black gay men, Hall stresses:
We were given a lot of notes on what worked and what didn’t, which Scriptures pastors would use, specifics on how one would get an HIV diagnosis in a clinic setting, and certain phrases some men felt they would or wouldn’t use. Even the cast weighed in. This was truly a collaboration of over a hundred people, and I am so grateful for this experience.
And while the voices in As Much as I Can are grounded in the Southern African-American experience, Meachem isn’t concerned that they won’t resonate with a New York City audience.
“New Yorkers try to think that their lives are different, but we’re not all that removed from the Great Migration, and not everyone in New York is from New York,” he says. “That, and here there is a high level of homelessness, with [LGBT] teens getting kicked out of their homes for the same reasons as in the South. So, yes, this audience will definitely relate and be moved by what they see.”
And as mentioned earlier, As Much as I Can couldn’t be more timely.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among all MSM who test HIV positive in the United States, black MSM have the highest rates with 38 percent, compared with 28 percent for white MSM and 26 among Latinos. This means that 1 in 3 black MSM is living with HIV, but sadly, if this trend continues, the CDC estimates that this rate will shift to 1 in 2.
In addition, health outcomes for black gay and bisexual men who test positive aren’t encouraging. Only a mere 24 percent stay in care, and only 16 percent are undetectable (meaning that they’ve achieved viral-load suppression thanks to taking meds).
“While we’re seeing a decrease in new HIV infections among white MSM, we can’t say the same about black MSM. Our numbers are not going in the right direction, and we need to talk about what is going on, openly and honestly,” Meachem stresses.
But Meachem is clear: This increase in transmission doesn’t mean they don’t care.
“Studies keep telling us that young black men are worried about HIV; they just don’t know enough about it or enough about sex in general,” he says. “We only teach them about where babies come from, which isn’t helping them. Hopefully, this play is a step in the right direction.”
Jarvis Griggs, a New York-based actor who stars in As Much as I Can, agrees with Meachem, adding that even his own friends won’t talk about HIV or getting tested.
“It’s 2018 and it’s still a taboo topic, and rarely does HIV ever come up with my friends in conversation,” Griggs says. “Part of it is because there’s an attitude of ‘Oh well, there is a pill, it’s manageable,’ but stigma is real, too. I had a friend who kept his diagnosis a secret from me for two years. He was afraid that I would treat him differently.”
He adds: “Fear is stopping us from talking to each other, and these conversations are vital if we want to change these statistics and be there for one another.”
In the end, Hall hopes not only that the play will empower black gay men and reinforce the fact that they matter, but also that straight folks in the audience will finally recognize how much work they have to do to uplift these beloved men.
“What struck me from the focus groups was that in various forms, so many men told me that they didn’t matter and that no one cared about them,” Hall says. “How do we live in a world where this is true? We have to do more to love, support and show up for our black gay men.”
As Much as I Can runs from May 8 to 24. Free tickets are available at amaicny.com.
Kellee Terrell is a Chicago-based, award-winning filmmaker and journalist who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, Hello Beautiful, Ebony, Al-Jazeera, The Body and HuffPost. Follow her on Twitter.