Award-winning Afro-queer playwright Donja R. Love wanted to create a writing program for people living with HIV. Hoping to demolish barriers and educational requirements that exclude less privileged people from participating in a program of this nature, Love decided that Write It Out! would be open to anyone who was living with the virus, regardless of their professional experience.
After 10 weeks of online virtual sessions, the inaugural cohort of Write It Out! is premiering its work on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. These online, staged readings are being produced by the National Queer Theater—which partnered with Love in creating the program—and will feature professional actors who worked in close collaboration with each writer to bring their vision to life.
In anticipation of the debut, Love spoke with TheBody about how Write It Out! went beyond anything he could have expected.
Juan Michael Porter II: What has it been like working with this group of writers?
Donja R. Love: It’s been amazing. Every single one of these writers is fierce and is writing down in such a way where I’m like, “Damn! I wish I thought of that first! I wish I thought of that idea first, baby!” And I am so humbled to call myself a writer alongside each of these 12 playwrights.
Porter: I love that you created a safe space to be in fellowship with them.
Love: Absolutely. But with that being said, while I love having a safe space to create for people living with HIV, what honestly hurts is living in a society where folks with HIV have to navigate stigma and shame. It’s hurtful that we live in a society where these writers have to literally play mental gymnastics of, “OK, I’m going to share my work, but I won’t have my name attached to it, because that means disclosure is attached to it.”
I am looking forward to a time when that decision doesn’t have to exist; where these artists don’t have to think about disclosure in that way.
Porter: Yes. The blowback is real. There’s always a real concern that having one’s name out there can make people targets for no other reason than they exist.
Love: Exactly. So this is a small step in centering HIV-positive storytellers in the theater community so that they can be the fullest version of themselves.
Porter: Was there anything that you learned throughout this experience that really surprised you?
Love: I was incredibly surprised at how quickly and deeply we became a family. Classes are 90 minutes long, but there was one class where at the very end, one of the individuals in the class asked if we could stay a bit longer.
They were like, “I know the class is over, but I’m just going through this thing. And as somebody living with HIV, being in a space with other people with HIV, I know that y’all will understand.” We all stayed on for an additional 30 minutes, and it was like talking to our family member; making sure that they were OK.
This was the first time in most of our entire lives where we didn’t have to explain our experiences as they relate to HIV—because everybody in the room had that same experience. I’ve never had something like that, where I could be my whole self because everyone else understands the fullness of me.
Porter: It’s like, you don’t have to defend your right to exist because the people around you understand what you’re going through. And that frees you up to talk about the things that really matter.
Love: Yes! A few months ago, I realized that I was exhausted because I was thinking about having to defend myself. How much mental peace would I have if I did not have to think about defending myself against white, straight, or people who are HIV negative? That is directly linked to Write It Out!; creating a space where these writers don’t have to worry about being HIV positive or intrusive and ignorant questions. All they have to worry about is writing—because writing is hard as it is already.
More than that, they could write whatever they wanted. If someone wanted to write about HIV and AIDS, they could. But if you wanted to write about unicorns flying over rainbows, you could do that too.
Porter: So that you’re not defining people by their pathologies?
Love: Yes. The idea that people who exist within historically oppressed identities can only write about their trauma is the furthest thing from the truth. Having my personal experience means that I can talk about it, but I know other things and can talk about them as well. We can write about our experiences, but it doesn’t have to be rooted in trauma. We can write about the joy that we found instead. That work is just as valid as anything else.
Porter: Kind of like rebuking that idea in Hollywood that the only “worthwhile” story about Black people is a slave narrative?
Love: Right. There are so many things that go into being Black or gay or living with HIV. But producing those stories is boiled down to who is in control. Who has the power to put out these stories? With Write It Out!, someone who is living with HIV holds that power and is creating the stories. Because this is a space that was created for us, by us.
Porter: You’ve put power in the hands where it can be respected and where it belongs. The best part is that after Thanksgiving, we have something to look forward to for World AIDS Day. It’s not going to be a narrative of unhappiness; it’s going to be a celebration.
Love: Yes! Let’s celebrate our stories even if the stories aren’t even talking about being HIV positive; because we can be HIV positive and write about things that center ourselves even if they don’t relate to the virus.
Write It Out! premieres the work of its 12 playwrights online on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., EST. This World AIDS Day celebration is being presented by the National Queer Theater. Attendance is free. To register, visit nationalqueertheater.org/writeitoutsharing.