It's 7:10 p.m. in Jackson, Mississippi, and I am late.
After driving three hours from New Orleans and making several wrong turns in this unfamiliar city, I tumble from the car into the performance space. I am funneled through several layers of handlers telling me I can't, then can, come in; putting a neon band on my wrist; spiriting me up the stairs; shuffling me toward a stage crew member who shuffles me toward my audience group, whose wrist bands match my own.
Adults of all ages, primarily black and in Saturday-evening casual dress, are crammed into a dimly lit white box. I'm hoping to slide surreptitiously into a seat. Who doesn't want to be invisible when they've done something others might judge? A woman's exasperated face meets mine as I enter the space.
"Do you have your form?"
She holds a clipboard. Her voice is more bored, and yet more strident, than the earnest crew members. Did I need a form? Didn't I just go through this downstairs? Did I somehow end up in the wrong place? I have a wristband. ... Wait; is she dressed as a nurse?
"You forgot your form?"
This question is louder, as if her volume will cut through my confusion. I am aware that many near me are watching. I'm still half-stuck in the journey to get here; I'm underdressed; I'm over-layered; I'm sweating, and everyone can see me, can smell me, tell what a mess I am.
A kind voice cuts diagonally through the crowd to my left. "You can sit right here," the young man says, moving over for me on a large white cube serving as a stool. I exhale, mouth "Thank you," make myself as small as I can to squeeze through the crowd to my spot. My relief is real, though it is now quite clear that the setting is contrived: The performance has begun, and we, in part, are it.
As Much As I Can is an immersive performance shaped by the experiences, and largely through the bodies, of black gay and bisexual men. Mounted in Jackson on the final weekend of January and in Baltimore, Maryland, two weeks prior, the performance has been crafted to echo the findings of a unique and ambitious research project undertaken with men in those two cities.
"[We talked with] national stakeholders," said Marc Meachem, director of external affairs at ViiV Healthcare, "getting their point of view on the cities that could most benefit from an effort to accelerate the response to the HIV epidemic in black gay and bisexual men."
After considering this and other factors, the "winners" were Jackson and Baltimore -- two cities where overlapping systems of poverty, racial bias, state violence and other traumas abound.
Our crowd of spectators is shepherded back and forth across an open-plan venue, through self-contained spaces representing an exam room, a bar, an AA meeting, a young man's bedroom, his mama's living room, a church and more. Our audience is small; the performance is meant to accommodate 35 spectators, though on this night they've shoehorned in 42. Still, I see acquaintances, friends. Black LGBTQ and HIV community folks are here from across the South. We make eye contact, wave, grin "hello"s, mime inquiries as to when we last crossed paths.
Constant movement and shifts in mood keep us alert, teetering on disorientation's edge. As is perhaps the nature of immersive performance, we are in places we should not be.
"Immersive theater is powerful because you have to be willing to enter into experience, be an active participant in witnessing," commented Isa Wrenn-Jones, a fellow voyeur and familiar community face. Sé (Isa's preferred gender pronoun) is going on 25 and works as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) coordinator in Jackson. "It's inherently humanizing: You and the actors are so close, they could run into you, you could touch them, and people are having real dialogue, all at once."
We peer through face-sized holes into a room where, one after another, two diagnoses are delivered to two men: one HIV negative, the other positive. We press to walls listening to the exhausted, anguished 12-step testimony of a community mentor. We eavesdrop on a Greek chorus of homophobes at a barber shop. We hear a mom worry that her son will be shot for walking, driving, living, while black. "You can't run away; you can't clock out of that experience," Isa said, "because you're also never in a room long enough to get stuck."
ACCELERATE! researchers immersed themselves in the daily lives of participants' communities to better understand their experiences. Moreover, at every step in the research process, they listened.
Kenyon Farrow of Treatment Action Group, a longtime HIV activist and policy expert from whom I have often sought insight, was also in my audience group. Kenyon had an advisory role with the ACCELERATE! project and facilitated some of the listening sessions with black gay men in Baltimore and Jackson. The groups included some "usual suspects" from the HIV workforce, but also many men not at all connected to that circle. According to Kenyon, this inclusiveness broadened the study's insights.
Participants noted that no one had ever provided space for them to talk about their own needs and concerns. "A lot of times, funders will just decide [what to spend money on] ... and the same people submit the same grants they've been submitting for 1,000 years to fund the same work," Kenyon explained. "The fact that ViiV spent time to listen before even putting a funding strategy into place says a lot."
In Baltimore, rife with HIV research sites, men already felt used and disregarded by such institutions. In Jackson, nestled in a state marked by anti-black racism and state-sponsored homophobia, participants held the "profoundly fatalistic" notion that nothing useful would come of studying their lives.
This is the dynamic to which ACCELERATE! endeavors to model alternatives. Another important distinction of the initiative, said Kenyon, is investment in community mobilization activities such as As Much as I Can -- "to build more community among black gay men in both cities," he said, "but also to give other people that are connected to black gay men (services providers, family members or whatever) a space to engage and think differently about how they see and learn about the lives of their sons, or their colleagues."
As Much as I Can was brought to life by a mix of professional actors -- many from Baltimore and Jackson -- and community members acting for the first time. One of those community members was Cedric Sturdevant, a Mississippi native and Jackson local. Cedric and I go back to 2011; I am tickled to see his warm, caring presence in the role of pastor in the church scene. He's been part of ACCELERATE! from the start and was one of the community captains in Jackson who gathered men for the group conversations on which the performance is based.
"I did it here in my house; I prepared food," Cedric explained. The men, about 10 total, filled out a questionnaire, then ate and talked about it in this relaxed environment for more than two hours. A creative studio took the stories and research results and wrote and produced the immersive theater piece.
As Much as I Can is a kind of godchild of the investigative theater of groups such as The Civilians and choreographer Bill T. Jones' 1994 work Still/Here, crafted from intensive "survival workshops" across the U.S. with non-dancers living with terminal illnesses, including HIV (with which Jones, now as then, is living). But the shadow over As Much as I Can is less an imminent physical death from complications of advanced HIV than the social purgatory of diagnosis -- and the poor health such conditions can hasten -- in a culture already bound by layers of overlapping stigma.
We hear this from most of the characters, including Miss Hope Chest, a drag performer and mother figure to younger black gay men. She laments decades "here with these boys," supporting them as they struggle to survive their surrounding circumstances -- while she herself has lived with HIV since the epidemic's early days. Cedric has a similar nurturer role in Jackson, which you can see beautifully portrayed in the 2012 documentary deepsouth; aspects of Hope Chest's character were based on him.
We also get to see and celebrate moments of humor and profound intimacy: friends laughing and joking together or holding one another in pain; community members haranguing us to take shots (of Kool-Aid) at the makeshift bar; and one stunning interpretive movement sequence between two lovers, which literally swirls around spectators as we sit, still and crunched, on our bits of carpet in the mock bedroom.
"I saw the dancing, body language, touch, as kinesthetically communicating: 'See me; love me; can you see me? I am vulnerable; I'm not inherently anxious, but I love in an anxiety-producing world,'" said Isa, who was particularly affected by that sequence.
When the movement piece is over, I am left suspended in this realm of honesty and vulnerability. Khafre Abif, an Atlanta-based community organizer at the Southern AIDS Coalition who's practically family at this point, saw the performance on a different night and had a similar experience. "I didn't want to leave the room," he gushed. "I sat there -- I was just ... 'Ahhh!'"
An usher arrives at the doorway and, to get my group's attention, cracks a joke in a louder tone than has been set in the room -- "That was a provocative one!" -- to nervous laughter from the crowd. I land back on the carpet with a clunk. Was this part of his "script" -- or did the physicality and vulnerability of this scene between two black gay men leave the usher feeling uncomfortable or, perhaps, a bit raw? We move on.
Near the beginning of As Much as I Can, the character Marcus receives an HIV-negative diagnosis and cannot wait to get out the door. When asked by the nurse whether he has any questions or needs more information, he basically concludes, "I'm good."
This is an example drawn directly from key insights of the Meet Me Where I Want to Be study report: Black gay men expected to be tested regularly for HIV and considered a negative result a "green light" to continue with whatever strategies they'd been using since they'd succeeded so far in staying HIV negative. Marcus later describes asking his boyfriend whether they can "cool it with the condoms" -- a milestone of increased intimacy. This was another insight: Intimacy and trust were important to black gay men in their relationships, and condoms ran counter to those ideals.
One of the more memorable moments in the performance for those I spoke with happened in the opening waiting-room scene: The receptionist not only is brusque to the point of rudeness but also side-eyes clients as she lists the people they know in common, threatening clients' confidentiality.
That was one scene that Cedric flagged as feeling particularly true to Jackson-area culture. "Especially some of these small towns," he added, "where they immediately call out so-and-so and [say], 'I know this person's cousin or sister.'" Circumstances like these, according to the report, can lead men to distance themselves from care.
"By the time the person gets [to the exam room in the back], why are they totally shut down?" Khafre asked rhetorically, having also seen this happen. "Why in the world would I trust to share with you after I've just had this experience up front?"
The report's insights also highlight the correlation between support (emotional, spiritual, psychological) and staying connected to care. Meanwhile, the performance shows different ways that support is withheld from many black gay men or is conditioned on their silence around whom they love -- before HIV even enters the frame. We witness the character Delius' struggle with homophobia from church and family. We later connect that trauma with his hesitance to seek care or disclose his HIV-positive status to partners. We learn that (spoiler alert) George, the young man diagnosed at the beginning, acquired HIV from Delius. We see the padlocked doors standing between Delius and pride in himself as a full, complex person who happens to be living with HIV.
Michael Benjamin-Robinson was in my audience group with his husband, Earl. "The play did a great job of showing that the person who [transmitted HIV] was also a victim of stigma," said Michael, who works in public and mental health in New Orleans -- "of being afraid of being rejected, of feeling as if people were going to treat him as a sick person, that they would look at him differently. Delius was struggling with all the same things that George was struggling with.
"At the end of the day," Michael concluded, "they both needed love and support, to continue to survive."
Closing persistent gaps in health outcomes for black gay and bisexual men takes "more than experts, research, evidence and 'science'; it requires a shift in people's perceptions and beliefs, and how those perceptions and beliefs drive their actions," asserted Meachem. "Engaging real people in the community who are not part of health care or HIV work is going to be the key ... to bring that success we're seeing in places like San Francisco to the South."
That will mean facing intersecting stigmas around race, sexuality and HIV status. The ways the immersive performance addresses these biases is refreshingly complicated: One mother orders her son to tell stories of imaginary girlfriends to their nosy acquaintances "because everything is everybody's business," while another mom wishes for her son to have a simple, under-the-radar life of wife, children and modest success -- essentially so he can stay invisible and, she hopes, safe. As she speaks, footage of police violence against civil rights and Black Lives Matter protestors plays on her living room television, reminding viewers that, for black people, the potential cost of being visible, being different, can be unfathomably steep.
Since racism, sexism, homophobia and other systemic biases are forms of trauma, it's clear that, as Isa pointed out, doing HIV-prevention work, case management or any kind of HIV care is trauma work. "What it actually is at its core is dealing with people who have been traumatized in so many ways," sé said. "The immersion theater experience says: 'See me for who I am; I am not evil or all these stereotypes. Love me.'"
Key to addressing stereotypes and stigma is to empower the stigmatized by supporting the leadership of those most affected. "What [funders, organizations and care providers] have got to do," Kenyon concluded, "is find strategies that involve us listening intently to black gay men; having leadership development models that support people whether they choose to work in HIV organizations or otherwise; and investing in community building and, ultimately, community organizing, in order to change the course of the epidemic."
Part of ViiV's multimillion-dollar investment is in strengthening networks. Will results such as these follow? Khafre, like several others I spoke with, expressed hope that engagements would extend beyond the kind of small, savvy audience they encountered at As Much as I Can.
"If you're going in with that kind of money, you need to be beating the bushes," he said. "If you want to make a community impact, city-wide, you have to do some work so it's a community dialogue, not an insular dialogue."
Cedric looks forward to this initiative helping institutions throughout his city -- the health department, area churches, organizations -- to collaborate toward making a difference. "There's still so much division," he said. "The common goal is to reduce the rate of infection for black gay men, but also to empower black gay men to be whoever they want to be. ... They will gain that self-love and support that is so much needed."