This month, New York City will be home to one of the most groundbreaking immersive theater pieces about HIV.
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. After a successful run in Baltimore, Md. and Jackson, Miss., both of which are among the top cities with the highest rates of new HIV cases, the project debuted this week at Harlem Parish in NYC and will continue performances through May 24.
Co-created with and about the Black gay and bisexual men of Jackson and Baltimore, As Much As I Can is designed to speed up community-driven solution for Black same-gender loving men affected by HIV. With a script by Sarah Hall (original material by Harrison David Rivers) and direction by James Walsh, the project is also a collaboration with creative agency Harley & Co.
“I think the issues of silence, stigma, and shame around HIV and sexuality are as relevant in NYC as in Mississippi,” Marc Meachem, ViiV Healthcare's head of external affairs, says to Plus. “The disparities in HIV heath access and outcomes for Black and Brown people in New York City are evidence of this.”
The power of theater holds tremendous value when it comes to building bridges across disproportionate communities, giving audiences a chance to learn about the epidemic impacting so many — in 2016, Black gay and bisexual men accounted for 26 percent of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The project invites audiences into the lives of four men to explore their complex relationships to faith, family, community and — ultimately — themselves. 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 these people are not statistics, but real, breathing, living humans who are doing as much as they can to accept their own realities.
“Immersive theater performances in particular afford the audience a different level of engagement with the subject matter,” adds Meachem. “What we’ve heard consistently from audiences is that this experience has made them look at the issue of HIV and people affected by HIV with fresh perspective.”
“I lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s,” director James Walsh told Plus last year. “[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.”
“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.”
To learn more about the As Much As I Can, visit amaicNY.com.