Sarah Hall’s award-winning production follows the lives of Delius, George, Marcus and Larry who are in their 20s and struggling with their first loves, taking responsibility for their decisions, reconciling relationships with their families and building a community. The friends are also managing how HIV intersects with all of this.
The play’s main female characters, Shawna and Patrice, are mothers to two of the younger men in the play and are trying to support their children, while the community and church reject their sons’ sexuality.
The production’s title is inspired from an iconic Grace Jones’ lyric “You kill me for living my life. As much as I can. As black as I am.” The script is based on interviews with hundreds of gay and bisexual men from Jackson, Mississippi, and Baltimore, Maryland.
The production—a collaboration between Harley & Co, a NYC-based creative studio, and ViiV Healthcare—uses neon lights and sprinkles of glitter to amplify emotion and exaggerate reality. Each scene shifts in color to create new moods and places. The bedroom is a rich, warm yellow-amber, depicting where characters feel safest. In contrast, the clinic is an icy blue, because characters face stigma regarding their health status at the doctor’s office.
Black gay and bisexual men are more affected by HIV and face more disparities in treatment than any group in the United States, according to the CDC. In the south, the stakes are even higher. Nearly 44 percent of all people living with an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. live in the south.
Southern black men who have sex with men (MSM) are disproportionately impacted, the CDC reports. African-American men make up at least 54 percent of new HIV diagnoses. The CDC reports that general discomfort around queer sexuality in the south, along with socioeconomic factors like poverty and income inequality, play a role in whether people will seek preventative treatment.
Hall said in pop culture black people with HIV are often regulated to the past.
“It looks at what happened 10 or 20 years ago,” Hall said. “I think that’s misleading, potentially for audiences and doesn’t communicate how present it is and how immediate it is.” She added, “Also, in many of those shows the actors are white or are not black.”
“From the beginning, it’s been hidden and silenced more so in the black community—and it shouldn’t be. It should be equal attention and visibility.”
The play began from a startling CDC statistic. Three years ago, the CDC revealed that if infection rates don’t change by 2020, one in two black men who have sex with men in America will be infected with HIV in their lifetime.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic hits close to home for Hall. When she was a child, her uncle died with the disease.
“I remember it very vividly him being sick and how scary it was,” she said. “He was my guardian angel. He helped me go to school in New York, which ended up being theater school and that’s how I connected to the people who are part of the production.”
In honor of her late relative, the actors say her uncle’s name “Chuck” in the show.
“Had he been alive he would have been devastated by what’s happening,” Hall said. “He would have wanted to fight for all men who are part of the community.”
Actor Jason Veasey, who plays the pastor, said the production acts as a form of outreach.
“I know so many people in my life who are HIV positive,” Veasey said. “We know how people can contract the virus, but I don’t think we pay enough attention to stigma and shame. That can directly affect how someone takes care of themselves.”
“We cannot have these statistics where black gay men are having this level of infection given the standard of care that is available,” Hall said. “We have to support black gay men.” She added, “There is no reason that the shame and stigma that exists should be persistent.”
“You might be a straight white man who comes to the show, but you can understand how challenging it is to negotiate intimacy with a partner and how power dynamics can be very complicated,” Hall said. “That can be a way to say, ‘I understand and have felt these things too.’”
As Much As I Can is at Joe’s Pub, NYC, Sept. 12 to 16.