A New Show Uses Drama Therapy to Explore the Reality of Living with HIV in 2018
by Alina Oswald
Photos by Lap Yan Cheung
“Do you resent people with AIDS?
Do you trust HIV negatives?
Have you given up hope for a cure?
When was the last time you cried?”
[Four Questions, Gran Fury poster, 1993]
The four questions, projected on the walls inside Black Box Theatre, at New York University, glare at the audience. It’s almost the eve of this year’s World AIDS Day (1988–2018) and I find myself part of that audience, staring back at those four questions, as I’m about to attend the dress rehearsal performance of Living With….
As part of the New York University Steinhardt Program in Drama Therapy’s As Performance series, Living With… is a new kind of show that uses drama therapy to explore the meaning of living with HIV in this day and age. The idea for Living With… emerged months ago, in April, in group therapy sessions facilitated by Nick Brunner, clinical drama therapist and an alumnus of NYU’s drama therapy program. He has been involved in NYU’s As Performance series both as a performer as well as a director. Directed by Brunner, the production of Living With… includes four short plays written by Joe Salvatore, Clinical Associate Professor of Educational Theatre at NYU Steinhardt; music and lyrics by Brent Wakelin; and personal narratives captured in monologues written and performed by members of the company—long-term survivors as well as young, recently diagnosed individuals—including ACT UP activist Ed Barron, actor and HIV/AIDS spokesperson Enrique Menendez (named HIV Hero of the Month for January 2018 by HIVHero.org), and Kevin Rehrer, known for his one-man show, Purpose, which emphasizes the importance of HIV awareness.
“The title of our show, Living With… comes from a poem I wrote after our company’s first meeting together,” musical theatre performer, singer-songwriter, drag artist and activist Brent Wakelin/Capital B comments. “I set that poem to music and it became our opening number. From there, the music just kept flowing. Writing music is therapeutic for me, and something that’s been missing in my life lately. I am so grateful to director Nick Brunner for organizing this project as it has given me the opportunity to channel my pain into art; art, which, I hope is cathartic for our cast and our audiences. Living With… might be about living with HIV, but it touches on themes which are universal: falling down, getting back up, and learning to love yourself along the way.”
Living With… offers an in your face, raw, and also heartfelt, brave and hopeful look at what it really means to live with HIV and with everything that that entails. Along the way, alternating fiction inspired by the reality of HIV/AIDS (the short four plays) and real-life narratives (monologues), movement and singing performances, Living With… takes us along on a memorable journey through the history of the pandemic—from an abstract interpretation of GRID to a frank chat about what it takes to maintain an undetectable status; from then-and-now activism to pill burden; from the symbolism of Silence = Death to that of It’s Not Over, and to the ongoing quest for a cure. Living With… takes into account every aspect that feeds and fuels the epidemic, including mother-to-child transmission then and now (or as the actors in that particular short play describe it, “things we give to our kids, some of it sticks, and some of it doesn’t”). In the process, Living With… captures a multi-dimensional image of living with the virus. What stands out is the way the show takes on issues like HIV stigma, as well as the generational divide. Most importantly, the production brings into focus the courage it takes a person to come out, not only about one’s HIV status, but about one’s truth, and to share that truth with others, in the safe space provided by the production and beyond.
That kind of courage comes through in Living With… in the short plays, songs, and in particular in monologues that offer not only intimate experiences of living with HIV, but also shine a light on taboo, yet all too important topics such as sexual abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“My monologue is very poignant,” ACT UP activist Ed Barron says when I catch up with him before the performance. “I tested positive in 1986,” at the age of thirty. There were no meds at the time—AZT came out only in 1987 and many refused to get on the medication because of its severe side effects. “The truth of the matter is,” he offers, “we grew so sick that nothing could have helped us at that point.” There were no real coping mechanisms at the time, and so he fell into substance abuse. Barron uses his monologue to share his experience of living with HIV—from being diagnosed to his struggle with substance abuse, to becoming an ACT UP activist.
“They call me a long-term survivor,” he tells me. “All I did was survive,” while ACT UP activists were fighting for better treatments. “I realized I wasn’t a part of the solution, and I wanted to become part of the solution. And so I got involved.”
What made him change his mind was his cancer diagnosis some ten years ago. “I went through the chemo and radiation, and I came out on the other side. But I was damaged physically. I was lost, because I lost my identity as a sexually active gay man. A friend of mine recommended me to go to this group called Body Electric, which was all about healing your spirit. And so I went and I came back a changed man.”
Then several events happened that resonated with Barron—such as a screening of United in Anger [A&U, July 2012] and Visual AIDS’ Not Over campaign—and that helped him develop his own voice as an HIV/AIDS activist. He got involved with ACT UP and met other activists. “I felt like I belonged,” he says, “and that, in turn, encouraged me to get even more involved.”
ACT UP activists and long-term survivors like Barron understand that their reality is different than the reality of today’s younger generation. Young individuals are not interested in hearing about CMV and KS, but would rather talk about PrEP and U=U. “The younger generation, they don’t need to constantly be reminded of it,” Barron comments. “But also, we don’t want to be ignored, because we’re still here.”
The divide between those realities comes through loud and clear in Living With…. What also comes through is the idea that the two realities can coexist, and, with that, possibilities and opportunities to bridge the divide.
As it happens in real life, symbols of ACT UP activism in Living With… become symbols of today’s HIV activism. Such happens in a riveting performance through which Brent Wakelin/Capital B encourages everybody to stand up and fight because “silence still equals death.”
In his own monologue, actor and HIV/AIDS spokesperson Enrique Menendez tells the history of AIDS through his own life in the spotlight. “I love the camera and the camera loves me,” he says. But while a picture is worth a thousand words, it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because, the scars that he’s gotten while trying to survive AIDS don’t always show.
“I found it meaningful to delve into the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” he then tells me, commenting on Living With…. “It was wonderful to share my experience, strength, and hope with the group. I also learned from the young members and could inform them. My wish is that the audience will learn to never forget and that the war on AIDS is not over.”
As the Living With… stories unfold in front of our very eyes, as the audience, we join performers on what seems to be a rollercoaster of emotions—from despair to finding strength and hope, even laughter at times. As the stories unfold, images defining the AIDS crisis and history of AIDS are being projected on the walls—the unmistakable artwork of Keith Haring and the Silence = Death poster, for example.
As the show comes to an end, on a hopeful note that is, the four questions from the beginning of the show reappear, but they are not quite the same Gran Fury Four Questions. Perhaps Living With… captures a living history of HIV and AIDS during which new (four) questions appear. Maybe the show is not only about asking or attempting to answer the Gran Fury questions, but, in the process of seeking answers to those questions, to allow for a new set of (four) questions, about today’s HIV epidemic:
“Do you take care of yourself?
Do you rely on your community?
Have you found hope?
When was the last time you loved?”
Living With… will be performed at the Black Box Theatre from November 29 to December 2, with two performances on Saturday, December 1, World AIDS Day.
Find out more about Living With… by visiting online at https://events.nyu.edu/#!view/event/date/20181129/event_id/215764.
Black Box Theatre is located at 82 Washington Square East. For tickets visit tickets.nyu.edu, call 212-998-4941, or visit the NYU Box Office in person at 566 LaGuardia Place.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.