"Most of us know that too many of our men are still getting diagnosed positive every day. And sometimes we act like there ain't nothin' we can do about that. Well let me tell you somethin' -- it's not true." These words are spoken by Miss Hope Chest (portrayed by actor Cory Gibson) in a climactic scene in the immersive theatre production, As Much as I Can. The award-winning, immersive play, which addresses HIV issues in the black community, is coming to Joe's Pub at New York's legendary Public Theatre, Sept. 12 to 16.
Black/African-American gay and bisexual men are more affected by HIV than any other group in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017, 43% of new HIV diagnoses were among people in the black community, and 73% of black adolescent and adult new diagnoses were in men. Sixty percent identified as gay or bisexual men, and a startling 41% of those were young men aged 25 to 34. These statistics are made more striking when you add in the challenges that face the community, including homophobia, HIV stigma, socioeconomic issues, and racial discrimination, all of which affect access to testing, health care, stability, and support.
As Much as I Can seeks to fight these statistics and address these issues through passionate, truthful, and at times heartbreaking and intimate theatrical storytelling. Funded by the pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare and its ACCELERATE! program, the production was developed in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Mississippi, as a response to the CDC finding that if infection rates continue, one in two black men will have HIV by the year 2020.
Directed by James Andrew Walsh, the play includes scenes in a clinic, a church, a nightclub, and even the intimacy of a bedroom to allow the audience to experience along with the performers the barriers that come up surrounding HIV, and the effects that stigma can have on an individual and a community.
As Much as I Can began its journey in 2016 by having workshops and conversations with hundreds of men in the black communities in Baltimore and Jackson. By discovering these men's hopes, fears, and dreams, things that hold them back, and how they feel and are treated in various social situations in their lives, the show was developed using genuine voices. Playwright Sarah Hall took the research and created fictional characters to amplify the voices in the community and show how changes in perspectives and attitudes make a real difference when it comes to HIV.
"The show is designed so that you forget it is a fiction," Hall said. "We want you to feel so much a part of it that it becomes impossible to separate yourself in the way we do when we observe narratives."
The show premiered in Baltimore in 2017, where it had tremendous success. As Much as I Can also had performances in Jackson; San Diego; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Harlem, New York, before the upcoming limited run at the landmark New York City stage, Joe's Pub. In every iteration, the production casts members from the community. In the New York production, actors from all over the country who live in New York will be taking part, both from the Broadway community and the local HIV advocate community.
For more information and tickets, visit the Joe's Pub website.