Charles Sanchez believes a cure for HIV would change the world, and he's dedicating his artistic and comedic gifts to this cause.
Sanchez has been living with HIV for 14 years. In 2003 when he found out, he was told that the disease had already progressed to an AIDS diagnosis. "I got very sick," he says. "I almost died." Then living in Little Rock, Arkansas, he decided to move back to New York City after getting out of the hospital and stabilizing.
Always an artist, musician, and writer, Sanchez started doing solo shows, talking on stage, in part, about "crazy things that happened with HIV." His friend Tyne Firmin brought in a flipcam and eventually the two created something special: a modern HIV musical comedy show.
Five years later, Merce, which Sanchez calls a miracle, has just finished shooting season two. As with the original solo shows, he wants to talk about HIV in a way that he feels others don't. He created Merce as an original campy web series about a middle-aged HIV-positive single man living in New York City. The protagonist Merce (played by Sanchez), his Mama (played by Firmin), and a colorful cast of characters regularly deal with issues such as family, friends, dating, slutshaming, PrEP, and gay marriage, with joyous musical sequences that echo his background in theater.
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"Merce is a reflection of me," he said. "I wanted to show a character with HIV who is not sad, sick, or dying. I wanted a character who has a full life with friends, family, and problems that don't have to do with HIV."
Even with contemporary medication, however, which Sanchez says consists today of a single pill, he acknowledges living with HIV can still be a heavy burden both physically and emotionally.
In season two, Merce enters into a relationship with an HIV-negative partner, all while the show expands to a greater conversation about the future of HIV: a cure. "It all started because I had never thought what it would be like to be cured," says Sanchez. "It became a conversation in talking to other people. There's always stuff you find on the internet about some faraway cure, but we never really hear that much about actual scientific research. It got my brain buzzing."
The buzz led Sanchez to write one particular episode that follows Merce after a hip replacement surgery. Inspired from his own experience of having two replacements, the show deals with Merce's struggle with avascular necrosis, a condition that occurs when there is blood loss to the bone. "It's a secondary condition to HIV that we don't talk about much either," says Sanchez. "In the script, Merce is trying to recover and is doing it all by himself. He can't and he realizes he needs help, so he calls his boyfriend and breaks down. He says, 'I wish you didn't see me like this. I wish I didn't need your help.'"
During an emotionally-charged song, Merce's boyfriend replies, "I wish you didn't have this. I wish there was a cure ... but until there is a cure, I will be your cure. Love is your cure."
Sanchez says, "It's important to keep that hope alive. You may think you're alone, but you're not."
Watch Merce at mercetheseries.com. Season two will be released in the Summer of 2018. You can find season one on the website, Vimeo, and YouTube, as well as streaming on REVRY.