Groundbreaking Immersive Theater Piece Tackles HIV Stigma

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The whole point of art is to hold a mirror onto nature, to express the experiences of humanity at its purest form — its beauty, vulnerability, and imperfection.

Many projects have tackled the topic of HIV, mainly displaying the historic fabric within the LGBT community itself. But one production is putting a modern twist to “theater activism,” and is performing it to audiences who need to see it most.

As Much as I Can is the community project of ViiV Healthcare’s ACCELERATE! Initiative, a four-year, $10 million, collaborative health-impact initiative to outreach, educate, and support the well-being of those living with HIV, particularly in Baltimore, Md. and Jackson, Miss. — both of which are among the top cities with the highest rates of new HIV cases

The production is a response to the disproportionate impact of HIV on Black Americans, especially gay and bisexual men. To tell the true stories of people who are both affected by HIV, ViiV Healthcare collaborated with creative agency Harley & Co. to bring the project to life. And trust me, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss.

Exploring the themes of faith, family, community, friends, and self-acceptance, As Much as I Can takes audiences on an immersive experience through the lives of four men who are impacted by the news of an HIV diagnoses, and deal with it in various ways.

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Pictured: P.J. Johnnie

While audiences are allowed to break the “fourth wall” (a theater term used to describe the separation between actors and audience), they are quickly reminded that these people are not statistics, but real, breathing, living humans who are doing as much as they can to accept their own realities.

“I lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s,” director James Walsh tells Plus. “[I] lost loved ones, survived, and lived to share the stories who weren’t as fortunate as the young gay men profiled in the piece. I have never considered myself much of an activist, but this piece has enlightened me about the possibilities of theater as an activist mode of expression.”

Written by Sarah Hall (with original content by Harrison David Rivers) and informed by the stories of Black gay men, the production had a run in Baltimore and Jackson earlier this year. After a successful return to Jackson this summer, ViiV Healthcare has sponsored another week-long engagement at the Baltimore War Memorial starting September 7th.

“This project was designed to help audiences build a bridge to empathy with the notion that it would fuel them to leave the experience and take action in their communities,” executive producer Alexandra Hall says. “By removing the fourth wall and immersing the audience, they are given the opportunity to explore what it is like to be a Black gay man affected by HIV.”

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Pictured: Monique Scott

Many of the actors play multiple roles in the show. With quick costume changes and an elaborate set designed to resemble the day-to-day interactions for these men, audiences in both cities truly see how stigma impacts their community and the opportunity they have to be part of the change.

“It is the most important project I have worked on in my career,” Hall adds. “I believe that we must surface the important narratives of the struggles and triumphs of Black gay men if we are going to create change.”

Based on more than a hundred interviews from the communities of Baltimore and Jackson, many of whom served as inspiration for the show, the goal of As Much as I Can is to have people walk away feeling empowered to take action.

And it’s not just audiences who are being moved. New York City-based actor, Brent Whiteside, knows first-hand the power this show has displayed both on himself and the people he performs to. “We have opened the door to having tough conversations — with no judgment or limitations. I am forever changed,” he says.

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Pictured: Dearl Welborn (left) and Brent Whiteside (right)

In the play, Whiteside plays Marcus, an affable personality who isn’t as educated about HIV as he lets on — and his overbearing, church going, mother doesn’t help. “I, too, am sometimes torn between what my parents want and what I want,” Whiteside says. “Like Marcus, I want to make them proud, but I also want to live my life on my own terms. Working through this with Marcus has helped me realize [that] our parents are people too and they also have wants, desires and make mistakes.”

Actor Cory Gibson plays the incomparable Larry, i.e. the town’s favorite drag queen, Miss Hope Chest, who by the end of the play shows to be a “representative of the art of survival,” Gibson says.

“He chooses to use both negative and positive situations to be a springboard to success and happiness,” adds Gibson. “I know firsthand what it's like to be prejudged and misunderstood due to fears and lack of knowledge. This show [proves] to people that what they see with their eyes may not always be consistent with their own preconceived truths… The audience will get a chance to see people like themselves and/or others in their lives and be provided a window inside of their hearts and minds.”

As Much As I Can is running September 7 to 14, 2017 for only ten performances. Tickets are free, but reservations are required and they’re selling out fast. Buy your tickets HERE!

Learn more about ViiV Healthcare and the ACCLERATE! initiative by going to us.ViiVHealthcare.com.

Tags: Stigma, Art, Stigma

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