"Write what you know, but be able to observe the world around you and use that as a catalyst to tell whatever story needs to be told."
That's the mission of Donja R. Love, the visionary HIV-positive, award-winning playwright who burst onto the New York City theatre scene a year ago with a set of plays committed to exploring queer love in communities of color. The first two plays of this "Love Trilogy" -- Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies, which premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Atlantic Theatre Company, respectively -- sent audiences and critics into rapture (myself included), hailing the arrival of a new theatrical voice worthy of August Wilson or Tennessee Williams.
It's no wonder he has been awarded so many honors, including the 2018 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, the 2017 Princess Grace Playwriting Award, The Lark's 2016 Van Lier New Voices Playwriting Fellowship, and the Playwrights Realm's 2016-2017 Writing Fellowship.
This past week, Love stepped away from overseeing rehearsals on his latest dive into untold stories of Afro-Queer communities to speak with me about his most personal play yet. one in two, which begins previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Nov. 19, derives its title from the horrific statistic that haunts black queer men of this generation: If trends continue, 50% of all black same-gender-loving men will contract HIV during their lifetime.
Far from a doom-and-gloom piece, one in two transforms the facts of its titular inspiration into a topsy-turvy exploration of, "Who am I now that I have HIV?"
"I wrote this play when I was approaching the 10-year marker of being HIV positive, and … it was so odd," said Love. "I thought it would be a victorious time, because at that point, I had been public with my status for two years, and I had done incredible work ridding myself of the shame I felt and the stigma that had been placed on me. So I thought it was going to be, 'You've got this, Donja. You're good. It'll be a celebration of not just surviving but thriving.'"
But as the date approached, Love found himself depressed and unable to get out of bed, not even to grab his laptop. So, for the first time ever, he wrote an entire play on his phone instead.
"I started to think about not just opening, but re-imagining certain moments in my life," said Love. "And again, like writing always does for me, I felt lighter. I felt myself being healed from what I was going through. But when I looked back at the play, I said, 'Absolutely not! I will not let anyone see this thing!'" Because I shared way too much. So, I left it alone. Flash forward to a few weeks later; someone reached out to me and said, 'Hey, do you mind talking to a friend of mine?'"
This friend had recently been diagnosed with HIV and was not handling the news well. Instead of taking his meds, he was drinking heavily and "throwing himself into bodies to numb the pain of the diagnosis." Love said that after spending three hours with the young man listening to his story, his hopes and fears, he had received a mission to do something for other black gay men living with HIV.
"I don't know if it was sitting across from someone who had been positive for 10 years or if it was just him being able to share his story, but he was filled with so much hope," recalled Love. "After we parted ways, I was like, 'Remember that play you wrote in the notes section of your phone? That is not just for you. It is for a community just like that young man.'"
It always comes back to community for Love -- and creating a dialogue that speaks of our day-to-day existence. one in two is a new form of theatre that pops in and out of the surreal madness one experiences after learning that they have HIV. The play follows the protagonist from the point of diagnosis and runs through the messy engagement that comes out while determining what is the new normal. Do you go to the bar or onto a hook-up app? To a group meeting or a random stranger's bed? In this play, you go to all of those places before figuring out how to go back home. For this play, Love is trying to get across the point that there's no one way HIV looks, or one way a person contracts HIV.
"HIV does not look like one person," says Love. "It is not a monolith. Right? Anyone and everyone can be in a space of having to navigate this. Right? [In my own navigation], what was so incredibly helpful was community: being able to hold space with not just yourself but with other folks who actually have your best interest at heart. People who will remove judgment and ignorance to see you and be there for you.
Love went on to say that it was important for black queer men living with HIV to "[See] possibility models -- individuals who are not just surviving but thriving, who may be having a hard time, but are still sharing, and doing it, and being honest. Just knowing that there are other individuals out there navigating what you're navigating, whatever that looks like for you, is so important."
These insights did not come easily to Love. Indeed, he is quite open about the difficulty he faced while processing his diagnosis. In addition to a strong support system, what helped him tap into healing was embracing the call to speak on behalf of others.
"I've always considered myself to be a writer about marginalized people who exist within already marginalized identities," said Love. "This play started with me navigating through my status and got to a place of, 'I have a community of people and I want to celebrate us.' I want to say that I see you; you are not alone; we are in this thing together. It is incredibly important for me to tell this story, because it's hardly ever told."
It's a personal mission for Love: representing the HIV-positive Afro-Queer community. If no one else is telling these tales, perhaps that is because it takes love to chronicle the experience as it must be told. one in two gives voice to generations of men who continue to live and die through the epidemic and creates a sanctuary where possibility models can show us that the dial for living with HIV has moved beyond survive, to thrive. If you're curious about how thriving might look, Donja R. Love is here to show you.
"We need to use our own voices to change things, because, whether we want to admit it or not, we have that power," he said. "I think about something that the playwright Paula Vogel once said about theatre: Writing plays is a political act. Me putting a black body onstage is a political act. Me putting a black queer body onstage is a political act. Me putting a black, queer, HIV-positive body onstage is a very political act, and I don't take that lightly. I want to make sure that I do justice by whatever bodies and stories are onstage. That is important to me."
one in two is being produced by The New Group, which won a 2004 Tony Award for Avenue Q, and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, who won an Obie Award earlier this year for his work on black gay playwright Jordan Cooper's play, Ain't No Mo'. one in two begins previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Nov. 19. The show officially opens on Dec. 10, with performances running through Jan. 12, 2020. For tickets and additional information, visit The New Group.