Donja R. Love, the prolific, award-winning Afro-Queer playwright, continues to advocate for marginalized voices through a new writing workshop for people living with HIV. The program, Write It Out!, runs for 10 weeks of online virtual sessions from Sept. 24 to Nov. 19. Participants will meet twice a week—5 to 6 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesdays and Thursdays—as they work on creating new plays with Love as their lead instructor and acclaimed poet-playwright Timothy DuWhite as program manager. The free program includes eight one-hour workshops that will challenge participants to discover and write in their true voice.
Love told TheBody that people living with HIV of all ages, from all over the world, are encouraged to apply, whether this is their first time writing, or their 500th. “We are excited for writers of all levels to apply,” he says. “I don't want people to think they have to have a degree or a certain amount of productions; none of those things matter. If you’ve never written a monologue or even a poem, you can still submit.”
Applications for Write It Out! are currently open and being accepted through Aug. 31. Love and DuWhite spoke with TheBody in exclusive interviews, revealing anything that anyone interested in this inaugural program might want to know.
Writing Is for Everyone
Encouraging writers of all levels to apply is especially important to DuWhite, who premiered his first play at Dixon Place in 2018. For him, credentials matter less than having something to say. “I’ve never had a program like this,” he shared. “When I wrote Neptune, I just kind of scraped it together as I was going along.” That experience has proved transformational and set him up to continue creating new works, including his second play, which had its first reading on Zoom last week.
Though playwriting was new to him in 2018, DuWhite felt well supported by Dixon Place. The organization provided him with ample resources and taught him the basics, like “what a stage manager was.” That makes DuWhite the perfect program manager for Write It Out!, as he will be able to anticipate the needs of participants and help them articulate what it is they may not even know that they need to know.
When asked about what he wants the applicants to write about, DuWhite says, “Whatever they want. I’m interested in people who are curious about themselves and the world around them, who want to find ways to articulate their curiosity.”
He continues, “The intent of this program isn’t for HIV-positive writers to write plays solely based around HIV. We’re not trying to get all of these folks to give the world better HIV narratives.” The goal is to provide a safe space for people living with HIV to explore and write. Period.
Inspired to Help People Living With HIV Write It Out
The concept for Write It Out! was born last fall at the Signature Theater in New York while Love watched performances of one in two, his semi-autobiographical play about a Black man navigating his HIV diagnosis.
Love wrote his very first play after receiving his diagnosis nearly 10 years ago. He says that the process left him feeling “lighter and softer, but also stronger as I began the journey of living as a person with HIV.” The privilege of putting his life down on page is something Love has frequently expressed a desire to give other people. This reflection brought him to an “aha moment” around what it would mean to create and hold space for other individuals living with HIV, so that they could tap into writing their feelings out.
Turning to his professional connections, Love reached out to the Lark Theater, Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI), the Each-Other Project, and Adam Odsess-Rubin, founding artistic director of National Queer Theater, for assistance in bringing this vision to life.
During the run of one in two, Odsess-Rubin and his team helped support Love’s vision of ensuring that the play’s intended audience—Black folks living with HIV—actually got to see the show. This included developing outreach and engagement programs, acquiring grants from Gilead to subsidize—and in some cases give away—tickets to the show, and securing speakers to lead post-show talk backs.
Odsess-Rubin says that Write It Out! was particularly attractive to him because “writing can be incredibly healing for the mental health aspect of living with HIV. It’s a powerful way to work through stigma and internalized shame.” Inspired by Love’s vision, Odsess-Rubin reached out to Tom Viola of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, who helped secure funding for the program.
But then COVID-19 shut everything down.
Getting Back on Track
Love says that Odsess-Rubin sent him an email in late April, asking about the prospect of making the program virtual. While initially resistant to the idea of not being able to share the same physical space together, Love says that after two weeks his ego spoke to him and said, “Donja. Donja! Remove me from the equation and think about what it would mean to reach people beyond New York City—across the country—by going virtual. You can even reach people in other countries.”
Indeed, he did precisely that in June, during Playbill.com’s Pride Plays virtual presentation of one in two, which allowed people all over the world to experience the show, without having to travel to New York.
The Lark Theater, MOBI Initiative, and Each-Other Project are all helping to spread word about the program to ensure that as many people as possible are aware that this opportunity is open to them.
DuWhite says that “being able to locate HIV-positive writers is important to me.” Too frequently, people living with the virus are left on the margins and deprived from experiencing programs like Write It Out!
Odsess-Rubin shares that he is excited to reach out to the database of organizations that serve people living with HIV across the country. “There are certainly people who are on the margins in New York City,” he says, “but I think there’s an even bigger opportunity to engage with people living with HIV in the South, the Midwest, and small towns where there might not be a lot of services like this for people living with HIV.”
Since announcing the program two weeks ago, Love says that people from all over the country have reached out to share their excitement about being able to participate. Some people have even told him, “If I get accepted, this will be my first time sharing my status with people.” Love says, “That is why this workshop exists.” To help people living with HIV break through shame and the social isolation of COVID-19.
HIV Privacy and Community Matter
Though the power of disclosure can be healing, Love says that the application process is “completely confidential. Every applicant’s identity will remain private throughout the application process.” Love shares that he knew privacy around status was necessary, especially because he was already “asking people to take that imaginative leap” of confronting a blank page and having “to navigate within themselves.”
“I'm making it so that applicants know that wherever you are in your journey of being HIV positive, it is sacred to us, and we will do everything we can to protect you. If you want to disclose your status, you will disclose your status.” And if an applicant does not want to, she, he, or they do not have to.
Love admits that this will also impact the presentation of final pieces, which are scheduled to receive readings from professional actors and directors on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. This plan has been paused, in consideration for the privacy and need of a safe space for Write It Out!’s participants.
Love says, “If they decide, ‘You know what, we just want to keep it amongst ourselves,’ the reading will just be for all of the participants to hear each other’s work. If they say, ‘We actually want this to be public,’ then we will be sharing it with the world.” As with everything about this program, planning for the final event is devoted to the comfort of its HIV-positive participants.
The possibilities of the programming are endless. Perhaps the next Netflix deal will come out of it. Or maybe the launch of next season’s hit Broadway play. None of that matters to Love. As always, his priority is the community. “Yes, there is an added bonus of the work being created to be shared, but being able to hold space with individuals within a community of similar lived experiences; as much as one is the sugar, the honey, the ice, and the tea, we will not be any of that without our community.”
Applications for Write It Out! are open until Aug. 31. Ten to 12 people will be selected to participate in the 10-week-long writing program, with Donja R. Love as lead instructor and Timothy DuWhite as program manager. Applications are 100% confidential. The virtual program begins on Sept. 24 and runs through Nov. 19. To apply, visit The National Queer Theatre.