My first encounter with HIV/AIDS came by way of Pedro from The Real World: San Franciso. I was about seven or eight years old when the beloved MTV reality show truly lived up to its creed, and viewers “watched what happened when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
There was nothing realer than the televised documentation of a gay man living with AIDS, and for a lot of America Pedro became an unlikely teacher.
I was a child. I didn’t know what AIDS was, nor did I associate the illness that would leave him weak, frail and later take his life as a “gay disease.” I thought Pedro, the skinny boy from Cuba, was sick and it was sad because he seemed nice and had a wide smile and liked to laugh. Pedro was easily a favorite when living in a house with David “Puck” Rainey. The skinny white boy with skin stained red from sun burns was rude, and unjustifiably vile in 1994 when the show aired.
It would be decades later when my own friend, a black gay man would tell me he is HIV positive. With advancements in medicine, I knew having the disease wasn’t a death sentence, but it still meant my friend’s life wouldn’t be the same.
In the play As Much As I Can, attendees participate in an immersive experience that details the lives of black gay men dealing with HIV and its emotional effect. The 90-minute production focuses on men from Baltimore, MD and Jackson, MS which are the two cities affected most by the disease.
Playwright Sarah Hall, Head of External Affairs for Viiv Healthcare Marc Meachem and journalist, activist and Native Son creator Emil Wilbekin talked to VIBE about the importance of the play, and the stigma surrounding black gay men they hope this piece of art will shatter.
VIBE: What is your involvement with As Much As I Can?
Marc Meachem: I think the genesis of the play is work that we’ve done at ViiV Healthcare. ViiV Healthcare is a company that is 100% focused on HIV medicine. That’s all we do is research and develop medicines for HIV. I have a focus in the U.S., particularly in the disparities in HIV patients and people of color, especially gay, black men. So four years ago we launched a new initiative that was a $10 million initiative to accelerate the response to the HIV epidemic and black gay men. That initiative was called Accelerate.
With Accelerate, we started wanting to get an understanding of the lives of the men, and so we launched an ethnographic research project that we did and that lead to a series diving into their lives centered around relationships and testing. That lead us to do a series of deeper dives and interviews and we ended up talking to about 200 men in both cities and the basis of those conversation was the play and the immersive experience that’s called As Much As I Can.
What was your first introduction to HIV?
Meachem: My first introduction was when the first reports broke out and they weren’t calling it HIV then. Those first case reports of clusters of gay men in San Fransisco and New York having a rare cancer and them not knowing what it was. I remember reading that and thinking ‘This is some sort of infectious element. This is not just some spontaneous cancer.’ I remember being afraid.
Why were you afraid?
Meachem:I was afraid because I was gay. I wasn’t out at the time when I was reading it (laughs) that’s why. I am gay, rather.
When you first heard about HIV, how was it presented? Was it done in a scare tactic sort of way?
Emil Wilbekin: No, it was more like there’s the plague. It was scary because people really didn’t know what it was. I don’t think it was a scare tactic. People literally didn’t know what it was. They knew there was a virus that was affecting gay men and people were dying at a very rapid pace. It was challenging because it was happening so quickly.
In regards to the play, were there any moments that really stuck with you?
Wilbekin: [The play] is a great representation of what the LGBTQ community go through when they come out because a lot of it is about coming out. It also was very honest and true to the black gay experience. Not everybody’s, but it definitely triggered a lot within me about finding out about my own HIV status, and then the process of having to deal with it, share it with my friends, share it with partners or dates, share it with my family, my church, my community, the public. It really triggered a lot within me.
Take me back to first learning you were HIV positive.
Wilbekin: I contracted HIV when I was the fashion director at VIBE . This is about 15, 16 years ago. It was a lot because at that time I was on television a lot. I was in the public eye a lot. That complicated things because at that time there was still a stigma attached to it, so I had to process what does that mean. The shame and kind of ignorance that I had around the virus, I had to unravel. I had to educate myself, I had to get comfortable with the fact that I, for the rest of my life, would have to be on medication. I had to deal with the shame that I felt for being this successful, intelligent black man that didn’t take care of myself that I allowed that to happen.
What came out of it for me was this sense of activism. Like how do I make a difference? I was really blessed that friends of mine who are HIV positive helped coach me through the processing of it. I knew it wasn’t a death sentence immediately because I had friends who’ve been living with the virus for a while and they were healthy and living very full lives.
You wrote the play so you know it just as well as the actors do. Were there ever any times throughout the play were it got too emotional for you?
Sarah Hall: Yeah, definitely. The thing that is really sweet is a lot of the production team every night, we take off our headsets and we all go into watch the last scene. It’s in this bar and we all cheer and honestly I think we’ve all seen the scene hundreds of times. I think the magic in theatre in a way is where we all return to the same room to hear the same thing said in the same place every day. Those words are about love and acceptance and glitter and magic and drag queens. It’s incredible.
What do you hope someone who is heterosexual women who doesn’t have HIV, doesn’t know anyone with HIV, what do you hope she gets from this?
Hall: I hope everyone takes from it that you deserve to love yourself, you deserve to be loved and you need to advocate for that no matter what. That’s something you should never compromise and no one should ever make you feel bad about being who you are in this world. I think if we all felt that way, we would be better people.
For the play, what I really hope is that the importance of seeing people and recognizing if you are a woman who’s straight and you don’t know any men who are gay and black or have HIV, maybe you should think about why that is. Figure out maybe you do know them or do something to put yourself in full proximity. We need to have diversity and exposure in our lives and we also need to support these men. That is the mission-critical and we all need to be involved in that. They’re incredible and they need to feel loved and supported.