“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.” —James Baldwin
When audience members walk into As Much as I Can, they aren’t walking into your typical theatrical experience. They are walking into much more: a gut-wrenching and emotionally draining yet fulfilling reflection that challenges the audience to question their own understanding of race, religion, HIV and discrimination in America.
As Much as I Can profiles four Black gay men, “exploring the complex relationships they have to faith, family, community, friends and themselves.” An audience of 45 attendees who don’t pay a cent to see the show get broken up into four groups, each one assigned a color.
“That color is your journey, and there are different journeys that happen throughout the show,” Alexandra Hall, who has a background as a social worker, says as she takes me on a tour of the set before a recent May performance. ”Groups of strangers coming together and having this experience together is what makes this so special for our audience.”
Each room is a different setting, like a clinic, a barbershop, a living room, a church and a gay bar. In each, the characters slowly reveal their personal circumstances and the subtle, powerful effects they have on their mental state, self-worth and relationships.
The play tells a true-to-life story, but not one you see often on Broadway marquees. A story like this has never won Academy Awards.
As Much as I Can puts real-life experiences and human faces on the staggering HIV statistics facing queer men of color in the United States.
In 2016, 17,528 African-Americans received an HIV diagnosis in the United States (12,890 men and 4,560 women). More than half (58%, 10,223) of African-Americans who received an HIV diagnosis were gay or bisexual men. Among African-American gay and bisexual men who received an HIV diagnosis, 39% (3,993) were young men aged 25 to 34.
But As Much as I Can isn’t defined by these numbers, which inevitably reduce the community they’re intended to represent. Instead, the play qualifies the lived experiences of these young men by bringing the audience into an immersive experience where we step into these men’s lives: the disruptions, dreams, disappointments and resilience. The audience witnesses the hope they’re holding onto, despite the odds and so much stigma stacked against them by a society that deems them ‘less than.’
As Much as I Can came into being thanks to ACCELERATE!, ViiV Healthcare’s four-year, $10 million commitment — aligned with the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States — to support innovative projects that focus on improving HIV outcomes for Black gay men in two cities hit hardeart by HIV: Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Mississippi.
“The south is the epicenter of HIV now currently in terms of new infections,” Marc Meachem, Head of External Affairs for North America at ViiV Healthcare, explains to us. “And again you have the disparities there and the disparities in care delivery because it’s not New York or Boston or San Fran where you have this cluster of world-class medicine.”
“And also, we looked at the willingness of the community to coalesce to do better, and accelerate the response,” he says. “So those two cities rose to the top. But we could have chosen a number of places because this exists in Oakland just as in Alabama.”
To kick off the initiative, ViiV Healthcare commissioned an ethnographic research study beginning with a comprehensive environment assessment to familiarize the research team with daily life in Baltimore and Jackson.
The assessment also helped establish an understanding about the contexts in which black gay men operate at home, in the clinic and out in the world. ViiV Healthcare committed to use the research not only to inform the company’s future initiatives and goals, but also to produce an educational experience making the community more aware of these issues.
Sisters Alexandra and Sarah Hall of Harley & Company, a New York-based creative agency who create and produce similar immersive experiences, were brought on board to help.
“We were inspired by this research and the story,” Sarah tells Hornet. “What we had for source material was just incredibly rich and so incredibly compelling. Basically, the ethnographic research and all of the research they collected that you don’t see just in the report, there are these unbelievable portraits of people, and they are so compelling.”
The research team interviewed 30 men, both HIV-negative and HIV-positive, in addition to their friends, family members and other influences. Interviewers spent one to two days with each man. The study team also interviewed civic leaders, providers and others involved in the HIV care environment in these two cities and conducted an extensive review of media, images and messages that shape the broader cultural conversation around HIV/AIDS.
“What if we could take this mechanism that most people are using just to entertain and use it to actually powerfully change people’s perceptions and beliefs?” Alexandra asks. “We felt like if we wanted to do that, we would have to do it in a way that was as powerful as the end result.”
“That’s how we got into all the listening sessions with the hundreds of men in both cities,” Sarah says. “Sending the script out to all the different types of of people in the script: pastors, nurses, doctors. Doing feedback sessions after each show. The actors giving us feedback on dialogue. It’s really been a collaborative effort of hundreds of people.”
“The show starts in the clinic,” says Alexandra. “This is the waiting room and the beginning point. A clinic is a really important part of these men’s lives. Negative experiences so often happen in the clinic for them and they can affect them to have no desire to go back and seek treatment or seek further care.”
When asked about the intersectionality of the issues Black queer men face, from racism in the LGBT community to homophobia in the Black community, Hall answers that intersectionality defined the journey audience members go on.
“Thinking about that intersectionality, that was very thought of in the design of this,” Sarah says. “There is mimicking of those metaphors and the intersectionality of those issues in these men’s lives and how they intersect in these rooms. Going from a church to a bar to where you may be more comfortable, back into the family’s living room, how those intersectionalities overlap and unfold is a big piece of this.”
“And it’s spot on,” adds Meachem, “because in the initial research, these men in the South were saying that being a Black man in the South you have one strike against you, being a gay Black man is your second strike and getting HIV is your third strike and you’re out. And that plays out in the play.”
That idea gets powerfully expressed in one scene in particular, presented through a mother’s lens: the first scene, set in the living room, “a place where many things are just not spoken of.”
The audience walks in on the mother of one of the four men watching a documentary on race riots. She breaks the silence by speaking directly to the audience. Her monologue is slow-paced, calculated. The actress breaks down a feeling relatable to almost all parents and mothers: worry. She admits why she worries for her son, because when he leaves her house, he is a young black man living in the world today.
As a white gay man, I reflected and thought of my own mother: a huge worrier herself. But the thought of her worry wanes in comparison to the worry of this woman sitting right next to me on this couch — in fact, it moved me to tears. Later on I’d found out that the scene from As Much as I Can affected others, too, including a gay man who had adopted a black child. He felt especially moved by this moment.
Another powerful scene in As Much as I Can is the pas de deux between two lovers in a yellow-lit bedroom. Their representation of queer love is honest, intimate and a rarity considering how rarely the media portrays black-on-black gay love. Many people walked away from this scene affected, too, saying they didn’t even realize one of the characters had never spoken and only communicated through dance.
Sarah Hall, who hosts a talk-back session after each performance, explains to me how the attendees are walking away from these scenes.
“We’ve had men who are HIV-positive talk about watching some of the scenes that were really written in response to moments that a lot of the men in our research told us they never had,” she tells us. “So they’re getting to have catharsis watching these scenes that they never had before.”
One of those men was audience member Greg Millet.
“It’s tough,” he tells me outside the theater after seeing As Much as I Can. “I have a bizarre POV on this. I am a scientist for the CDC who has worked on President Obama’s national HIV strategy for the White House. I’m also a person living with HIV. So just a lot of complex emotions around it.”
“I thought it was extremely well-done,” he says. “I loved the way they juxtaposed all of the scenes. I think they dealt with some very sensitive scenes in very intimate ways. I love the intimacy of the testing scenes. I think a lot of gay men can really identify with those scenes. It was just extremely well done, and it moved quickly. I was surprised that they were able to pack in so much in such a short period of time.”
But did he relate?
“Oh, yes,” he says. “When somebody tells you that you’re positive, the feeling of being unlovable and everything else, which thankfully of course didn’t happen. I have been in a wonderful marriage now for 15 years. But you kind of harken back to that when watching the play. And I was actually looking at two friends of mine who are also doctors and also positive. I am wondering how they are doing with some of these scenes as well.”
Sarah Hall says part of the power is that this story hasn’t really been told before, especially at this level. “Just the sheer power of where we tell our stories and what we say matters,” she tells me. “When we have a story happening at a level where that story isn’t really being told, I think it’s really powerful. Fact check me, but 85% of theater in New York is still white.”
She adds, “Angels in America tells the story of HIV and AIDS, but through a very white lens.”
“If you look back at the movies, Philadelphia, there was one principal character and he was the homophobic lawyer,” Meachem continues. “If you look at the popular art that came out out at the height of the epidemic, it was almost always predominantly white faces.”
“My hope is as many people as possible experience this play,” Alexandra Hall says.
The limited New York run of As Much as I Can has closed, but the team behind it hopes the play continues, possibly resulting in a more permanent off-Broadway production.
“Part of the plan is we want to take this to as many communities as we can,” Meacham says. “Part of bringing it to New York City was ‘Will a story about Baltimore and Jackson play outside of those places?’ And the response we have seen here has been tremendous. The issues of stigma in 2018 are not gone and they still exist, even in New York City.”
Sarah Hall brings the conversation back to ViiV Healthcare. “We work with a lot of companies and brands. What they have done is extraordinary,” she says. “We live in a transactional world, and there is nothing transactional about this show: literally and metaphorically. They just supported a piece of art. That never happens. And that piece of art is a piece of public good. Why don’t we have more free theater? Art and theater and this type expression and this type of change shouldn’t cost $150 a ticket.”
Hall ends her talkback every night with a nod to the “indescribable and incomparable” James Baldwin, who she cites as part of the reason why the show was produced in Harlem. “We found our poetry where poetry was found in the lives of others. We could have only done this through love,” she says. “By knowing that whatever happens to them happens to us, and by us I mean what Miss Hope Chest (the play’s drag queen character) says, all of us.”
In the living room of that mother, there’s a Bible on the coffee table. Hall’s nod to Baldwin reminded me of a quote from the Book of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me, and God replied, ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers… you did it to me.'”
As Much as I Can tells its viewer that you aren’t just a viewer. You’re not just on the sidelines but a participant. You may not be a black queer man living with HIV, but you do participate in the stigmatization that society thrusts upon this marginalized group.
Ultimately, the play asks, What are you going to do to change that?