Donja R. Love, the award-winning Afro-Queer, HIV-positive playwright, has devoted his life to celebrating the glory of Black lives through work that documents the community’s experiences with love and joy. His latest work, What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, continues that mission by reviving the stories of Black queer people who loved, died, and banded together to survive the horrors of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.
To create the play, Love listened to numerous Black queer elders and survivors so that he could honor their stories with truth and dignity. The result has been described as “an unflinching, sprawling epic” by Paige Price, the artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, which recently awarded Love the newly revived Terrence McNally Award—created to honor the Tony award–winning playwright and plays that “widen the gaze of traditionally accepted norms”—as well as a $5,000 cash award and developmental guidance and dramaturgical support for his effort.
But Love’s advocacy does not stop with his own artistry. He has also recently joined forces with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Pride Plays, and National Queer Theater to create a free virtual playwrighting workshop called Youth Write Now that is geared towards LGBTQ youth between the ages of 14 and 18. During the two-week course—which runs from June 14 to 30—Love will instruct participants in a caring space that helps them locate their voices and develop their own narratives.
In that regard, Youth Write Now is similar to the Write It Out! workshop that Love facilitated for adult playwrights this past fall. The main difference is that this workshop has an eye on developing the often-ignored voices of queer youth.
According to The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which surveyed 40,000 people aged 13 to 24, 40% of respondents had seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months. One in three reported being physically threatened or harmed during their lifetime due to their LGBTQ identity. By developing programs like Youth Write Now, Love is doing his part to empower the very people who are best placed to reach this community: other queer teens who know that hearing “It Gets Better” is not enough.
Love’s commitment to representing the community with truth and love comes from his own exhaustion at being pathologized as a Black queer man living with a chronic virus. But more than the stigma, what bothers him most is the messaging that medical agencies put out there about “the horrors of HIV.”
In an interview with TheBody, Love spoke with me about what he’d rather see from many of these misguided HIV prevention campaigns.
Juan Michael Porter II: So many of the messages about HIV adherence and prevention are created from a place of disgust and pain. Instead of saying, “Do this so that you can live a wonderful life,” they put out, “You’ll be miserable if you don’t do this.” How do you want those messages to look?
Donja R. Love: I want them to look like joy. I’m interested in, “What does joy look like?” It would be so radical for these campaigns to focus on that because they always have this doom and gloom kind of undertone; that if this happens to you, your life will essentially be over. It won’t be a death sentence, but it will be miserable.
But what if we focus on the joy of life instead? Because I will quickly go towards the joy and walk away from the trauma. And I want to see folks who are living with HIV in conversation with each other and maybe not even talking about HIV, but talking about all of the things that bring us joy.
Porter II: That’s a brilliant point, actually. Because having HIV is the least interesting thing about us.
Back to messaging, I think it’s funny that even when one sees commercials for products that are straight up bad for you, like cigarettes, their messages are full of happiness and looking sexy. But HIV campaigns are full of trauma and shame, when the point should be helping and pulling in as many people as possible.
Love: Yeah, this makes me think about the amazing HIV specialist, Dr. David Malebranche, and a tweet of his that said one of the first things we should ask newly diagnosed people is, “How are you doing?”
But that rarely happens. Instead, it’s questions that are rooted in trauma and harm, like, “How did you contract it?” or “Who did you have sex with, so we can track it?” without thinking about what that does to someone who has just received such heavy news.
Now imagine a radical shift in HIV, starting with language. So instead of asking, “How did you contract it?” the question becomes, “How can I help you right now in this moment?” Little things like that make such a huge difference.
Porter II: Right. Focusing on someone’s needs instead of their trauma.
Love: Absolutely. What is most important is that person’s well-being. We don’t need you to do what you think is important at that moment. We need you to have a conversation as a human being with another human being who is in a very particular moment in their life right now. How [doctors] handle that moment can really dictate how someone navigates this new identity.
For me, that comes down to being seen as fully sexualized beings who are HIV positive and joyful. Not as someone who is downtrodden, but someone who has total joy and is living with HIV. Because that does exist.
Porter II: That makes me think about how much I hate the musical Rent, which is having its 25th anniversary this year. People love to go on about how that show was so diverse, but I see it as tokenism pretending to be inclusive, which is once again all about focusing on whiteness.
Even the show’s most compelling character, Angel, ends up having this tragic and magical death that is more about other people and their survival than her own fulfillment.
Porter II: That goes back to something that you’ve spoken about previously; that whenever there is a narrative about being gay or having HIV—aside from Pose—it doesn’t involve Black people. Or if it does, it does so in ways that erase us.
Love: Yes. We aren’t seen as fully realized human beings. We are the villains, or it’s pathetic “cough, cough, cough,” every time we talk. But who is writing these narratives? Oftentimes, it’s not us.
Porter II: Black people?
Love: Yes. It’s not Black people writing these stories, though I’m sure [the people who are] are good-intended individuals.
Porter II: Like with It’s a Sin on HBO.
Love: Yes, but I don’t want to see whiteness being centered in these stories anymore. In the future, before I watch these shows, I want to ask folks of color, specifically Black people, “How does this relate to being a Black person? Do you find yourself being centered in the story, or are you on the periphery?” as we often are if we are even in the story.
This is why I can’t take it to heart when people send me comments telling me to write about something else.
Porter II: People tell you to stop writing about HIV?
Love: Yes. But I actually have to write it. Because I firmly believe that on top of redlining, lack of education, poverty, and medical racism, Black people have higher rates of HIV because we don’t see ourselves reflected in the media.
Those who are adequately reflected with care, onstage and onscreen, understand that they matter. But we [Black people] aren’t seeing ourselves reflected in this way, so the messaging is that we don’t matter. And this is in 20 fucking 21. Now, I cannot speak truly to this because I haven’t seen any data yet, but I can imagine that seeing these white faces everywhere makes whiteness take the forefront.
Porter II: You’re completely right. It’s like the idea that Black people are susceptible to certain conditions—like breast cancer and HIV in Black women—so they don’t get screened or given information about preventative care and end up dying from these conditions at higher rates than white women; even though white women make up at least 31% of the United States’ population compared to Black women who make up 7%.
If Black people were centered in these conversations, then you wouldn’t see us dying from these easily preventable illnesses and conditions at such alarming rates. But we are not prioritized, so our deaths are considered acceptable outcomes. What bothers me is that when I talk about these decades-old facts with many white people, they play this game of saying, “Surely you’re not suggesting that racism is the reason why Black people keep dying.”
Love: I think I’ve gotten to the point where folks know not to come to me with that voice at all. Because it lets me know that they are completely oblivious to my true existence.
Porter II: The beautiful thing about you is that even if someone wanted to, they couldn’t possibly ignore you or the amazing work and opportunities that you continue to create for the community.
If you know any LGBTQ teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 who are interested in writing, please let them know that Youth Write Now is accepting applications through Sunday, May 30, 2021. The two-week program meets every Monday and Wednesday, June 14 to 30, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. EDT in a secure virtual space on Zoom. Application and participation are free and confidential, though a parent or guardian signature is required upon acceptance. For more information, visit Youth Write Now.