As the success of the recent movie, Moonlight, a Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, proves, audiences are eager to seek out sensitive, empathetic representations of Black gay male life, and none more than audiences composed of Black gay, bisexual and same-gender-loving men themselves. Part of the success of movies and cultural texts like Moonlight lies in the fact that they were not created at a remove from the community, but from within the community. The dialogue needs to ring true. The characters need to be familiar. The realities depicted need to resonate with audiences. A new play, or, rather, “immersive theater experience,” offers just that.
As Much As I Can is set to engage audiences in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Mississippi, with a complex portrait of the struggles and triumphs of four Black gay and bisexual men, whose lives are shaped by faith, family, community, friends, and their own sense of self. All have different challenges. All have different strengths. Yet all are impacted by HIV, at risk of contracting the virus or living with the virus.
Created with and about Black gay men in the respective cities, the cast of actors, a mix of professionals and novices from New York, Baltimore, and Jackson, will break the “fourth wall,” so that audiences will feel like they are part of the action in the intimate setting and take the message to heart, and, importantly, take the message out of the theater into life. The creators of As Much As I Can hope that audiences will be transformed by the experience and feel empowered to translate knowledge into action in their personal lives and in their communities.
As Much As I Can is one of the innovative, community-driven projects supported and funded by ACCELERATE!, a four-year, $10 million, collaborative health-impact initiative from ViiV Healthcare. ACCELERATE! works to support the health and well-being of Black Americans, a community that has been heavily impacted by HIV, and, especially, Black gay and bisexual men, and men who sex with men, in two cities hardest hit by HIV, Baltimore and Jackson. The goals of ACCELERATE! include increased access to and retention in gold-standard HIV prevention, care, and treatment. Launched at the White House on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) in 2015, ACCELERATE! is aligned with the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
Currently, Black gay and bisexual men face not only a high incidence rate of HIV but also barriers to sustained engagement with care. One in three Black MSM is living with HIV in the United States, with the CDC estimating that one in two Black MSM will be diagnosed in their lifetime if current trends persist. Only twenty-four percent of Black MSM who have tested positive stay engaged in care. Thus, only sixteen percent of Black MSM have achieved viral suppression from adherence to anti-HIV medications.
“The answer to addressing the incredible and enduring disparities in HIV among Black men, as well as Latino men, is going to come from those men,” says Marc Meachem, Director of External Affairs (North America) for ViiV Healthcare, about the impetus of ACCELERATE! projects like As Much As I Can.
We can rely on the care community, healthcare providers, clinics, and ASOs, says Meachem, but we also need to address disparities in HIV incidence and engagement along the continuum of care on an individual level: “We’re not going to close that gap with science alone. Closing that gap is going to involve people. And the people who we need to involve are Black gay and bisexual men.”
As Much As I Can seeks to go beyond the science and statistics, addressing the lives of Black gay and bisexual men holistically and authentically so that the audience helps create the message they most need to hear. The theater piece emerged from the ethnographic research conducted by ACCELERATE! in both communities, and relied on sustained dialogues nurtured by organizations and individuals. It was created with the help of the Jackson State University Department of Speech and Theatre (Jackson, MS) and The Community Cares Project of LIGHT Health & Wellness Comprehensive Services, Inc. (Baltimore, MD).
The ongoing dialogues and mappings of HIV care environments from the perspectives of Black gay and bisexual men have provided grass-roots answers to public-health questions. Stigma was found to be a persistent theme in individuals’ lives—a force that stymies not only one’s ability to disclose one’s serostatus, or embrace identities of their own fashioning and nurture romantic relationships at the same time as they attend to their sexual health, but also one’s ability to seek and stay in care in settings where privacy may be lacking. Additionally, different men want different kinds of support from healthcare providers; not finding the support they seek from those initial visits often discourage them from returning.
From its research, ACCELERATE! seeks to invest in four truths, says Meachem: feelings of empowerment and support networks need to be strengthened; sex ed needs to be made relevant; testing is a critical opportunity for care engagement; and navigation services need to be made more robust.
ACCELERATE! hews to ViiV Healthcare’s mission to go beyond the development of new HIV medications and address all the needs of individuals living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS. Solutions to problems along the continuum of care, from prevention to treatment, are patient-centered but also importantly people-driven. The practice of involving those most affected is essential for creating lasting and positive transformative change—after all, it’s people who need to act. And that’s how As Much As I Can flips the script.
As Much As I Can will be performed in Baltimore, Maryland, from January 13–15, and in Jackson, Mississippi, from January 26–29. For more information, log on to: www.acceleratetickets.com.
For more information about ACCELERATE!, log on to: http://bit.ly/2iodWRE.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U