On a sunny November day, more summer than winter, Charles Sanchez and I had agreed to meet at a neighborhood diner in New York City for the magazine interview. Having arrived first, I had stationed myself in a corner two-top for the quiet. The booths filled with lunchtime patrons were far down the way and out of earshot. And neither did the percussive mechanics of the cash register intrude. Yes, a flatscreen was suspended over my head but the sound was off. Maybe if the TV’s volume had been on I would have remembered it was there. For when Charles arrived and I bounded up to greet him, I conked my head on the edge of its unforgiving frame. After Charles made sure I was okay, we seated ourselves and opened the glossy menus that were bigger than the tabletop.
My head pounded but I soldiered on, knowing that the pain would subside. I felt a bit like Merce, the titular character that Charles Sanchez created and plays in the web series from Skipping Boyz Productions (Season Two premieres January 21). If Merce hits a bump in the road, he may be temporarily shaken (and need an infusion of ice cream), but he always finds a way to bounce back——and bounce back higher. He is unsinkable. He is fabulous.
Recent recipient of the Audience Award at the Kaleidoscope Film Festival and Best HIV/AIDS Content at America’s Rainbow Film Festival in 2016, among other awards, Merce follows a winsome gay man living with HIV and his circle of friends and family. It’s a stylized world that mixes drama and comedy, and there’s always time for a musical number. The show normalizes the virus by presenting various topics related to living with HIV (doctor-patient communication, dating, sexual health, mental health) in the stream of someone’s everyday life. It’s fearlessly zany, fearlessy heartfelt, and it hits its HIV points not with a sledgehammer but with a xylophone mallet. Merce marries the ebullience of Hairspray to the drollness of Sordid Lives.
Ultimately, though, it is able to define itself on its own terms, something Sanchez has learned how to do for himself over the years, from his youth in Phoenix, Arizona, to his current status as a New York City-based writer, director, musical director, performer, and advocate. This drive toward self-definition shines through resoundingly in his journalism, which includes feature writing and personal essays for TheBody.com, an HIV information and news platform, and other publications. As a contributing editor for TheBody.com, he interviews HIV activists and other newsmakers, but he also shares openly about his travails living with HIV. For instance, last fall he penned an insightful and at times funny piece about the most recent anniversary of his HIV diagnosis as well as some recent health struggles.
“Sixteen years ago, I was living in Arkansas, Little Rock to be precise, when on Nov. 4, I was rushed to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences emergency room,” he writes. “In the weeks leading up to that day, I’d been terribly sick with what I thought was a mean case of bronchitis. Turns out, it was pneumocystis pneumonia, histoplasmosis, and thrush. I was spitting distance to dying, placed in a drug-induced coma for the better part of a month. I woke up with my family around me to be told the diagnosis: AIDS. My viral load was through the roof, and my CD4 count was 4. I hadn’t even known I was HIV positive.”
And, after he details health struggles, a recent transient ischemic attack, for one, he ends with: “The reality is that I have a whole lot to be grateful for. It sounds a little cheesy and kumbaya, but if I accentuate the positive (is that an appropriate phrase for an HIV article or what?), I see that my life is pretty freakin’ great.”
Accentuating the positive, a must for living with HIV in today’s world, still roiling with stigma and structured by disciminatory laws and healthcare inequities, is a practice that spills over into Merce, which Sanchez works on with his producing partner Tyne Firmin (who also directs and stars as Mama in the series). Accentuating the positive is also necessary, notes Sanchez, for another reason.
“The image we have of the AIDS crisis——it’s like a collective scar that we have on our society. We have these depressing, awful memories of the AIDS crisis, as we should have. That was a part of our life: people covered in Kaposi sarcoma [lesions] and skinny, like they were in World War II,” Sanchez explains, having come of age in the eighties. “One of the things we’re trying to do with Merce is counter that kind of sadness and darkness with some joy-in-life comedy.” In popular entertainment and the media, the realities of living with HIV are often portrayed as one-note (somber), and, while that may have been a common if not wholly adequate representation of a particular period of our history, we cannot hunker down in that gloom and ignore the rainbows at our doorstep right now, Sanchez suggests.
“‘I decided to put HIV in the forefront [of Merce] because whenever I saw HIV in a movie or on a television show it always was sad. It was either a history lesson about the AIDS crisis, or still a ‘very special episiode of Law & Order.’ And there would be a violin playing in the background, even if the person was fine!
“We decided to show somebody living with HIV who isn’t sad, sick, or dying. Or isn’t a tragedy. [But where HIV is] just part of his life, where no one treats him differently because of his HIV status—which is revolutionary, even still!”
Some critics have opined that the show is too flamboyant, or that it does not treat living with HIV with enough respect, or that it is not “educational” enough, that is, too subtle about sexual-health messaging. Sanchez begs to differ. Merce is unapologetic about who he is—as a sexual being (bottom pride, y’all) and starry-eyed romantic; as a devoted son who is unabashedly a mama’s boy; and as an individual living with HIV who takes care of himself as well as any patient advocate.
On Youtube and Vimeo, Merce has found plenty of fans. “There were some people who loved it, and got it, right away. Mark S. King [A&U, March 2019] was an early supporter; that’s how we became friends—he started stalking me on social media! And other people who really….when they got it, they got it. They found it refreshing and fun,” says Sanchez, adding that King plays Aunt Bless in Season Two.
It helps that Sanchez is so confident about what Merce is trying to do. “I thought, as long as we’re not making fun of HIV, or fun of people living with HIV, or fun of people struggling with not knowing what PrEP is, or whatever, as long as we’re not making fun of the issues, we’re making fun of the reaction, [and] we’re making fun of the fears and things like that, [we’re on the right track]. [Knowing that] made it sort of easy. And I know Merce really well, so, when I write him, I know him. He’s in me, so it’s not real difficult to figure out what he would say or how he would react.”
Merce’s target audience is everybody, says Sanchez. But the show does not explain living with HIV as if the viewer is a naive outsider. “We’re not talking down to anybody, about HIV…we assume people know [some of the basics of HIV],” Sanchez notes.
“I think women, gay men, and anybody who embraces the LGBTQ community would appreciate Merce,” he says, mentioning that they plant Easter eggs in each episode that only die-hard fans of Hello, Dolly!, Elaine Stritch, and Steel Magnolias would spot.
“And we’re hoping that people who may not know how HIV is in the modern world might start watching Merce and go like, ‘Hey, really? HIV is like this now?’” Living with HIV has evolved, and so should the public’s consciousness. It’s a simple ask, made sweeter by Merce and its sometimes brassy, sometimes anthemic songs (by Ken Kruper, Adam J. Rineer, Rob Hartmann); footloose and fancy-free choreography by Garret Caillouet (Sanchez helps with the musical staging); vibrant photography by Johnny Coughlin; and a solidly funny cast that includes Randy Taylor (Remington), Bess Eckstein (Corvette), Sean Griffin, Alex Lawrence and Alex Tomas as a chorus of fairies, and Brooke Alexandra (Jo), among others, with new cast members Amanda Bruton and Sam Given joining Season Two.
About Merce’s potential viewers, Sanches adds: “There’s probably a small, Republican, Trump-loving audience that probably wouldn’t like Merce, I imagine, because he is unapologetic, because he is out there and does not hide who he is, and he is gay as gay can be.” As one of Sanchez’s friends put it: Merce is gayer than the gay mayor of Gayville.
The extra emphasis on gay in political terms is akin to a glitter bomb. In the 1980s, many of those in power and mainstream society promoted the conflation of “gay” with “AIDS” as a way to leech resources and compassion away from a community made vulnerable to disease through simple acts of desire. In this sense, it is important that Merce’s gayness be at the forefront along with his positive serostatus, intertwined like the spiraling horn of a unicorn (dusted with sparkles).
In other ways, too, Merce does take a different approach than earlier representattions of living with HIV. Take Sanchez’s first introduction to working on an HIV-themed show in the pre-HAART era, which happened to be his first professional gig after drama school in the Big Apple. The show was for kids and Sanchez was cast as the “sensitive” guy (or as Vito Russo would point out, the “gay” guy). “We looked like the United Colors of Benetton. There was a Latin girl, a black girl, a white guy…we played these kids that were going to a movie,” explains Sanchez. “And then we also played [the characters] in the movie, and the movie was called Attack of the Killer Virus. The Latin girl played AIDS, and I played her henchman, ARC [AIDS-related complex]. And we sang a song about taking over the world…by ‘traveling in the blood.’ It was really a well-written show for the time. We also had a scene where we had Dr. Ruth talking about condoms and how to put a condom on. It was an incredibly advanced [message] even for now.”
But the messaging, framed by the negative (viral villains, world domination), pitched fear as the starting point for prevention and sexual health. More than twenty-five years later, Merce limns living with HIV with clear-headed optimism and a healthy dose of free-spiritedness. Merce the character is resilience made real.
Sanchez pauses, as he reflects on the HIV-centricity of the show. “I’m really proud of that, that we’re able to show somebody living with HIV where it’s not the only thing in their life. And they have a crazy love life, and crazy friends and roommates, and his mother who he talks to every day via Skype. HIV affects him, but isn’t his only [concern].”
From the start, Merce has been evolving. After two seasons on a shoestring budget and filming with a flip-cam, Sanchez and Firmin upped the production values with some help from crowdfunding. The new iteration of Season One featured six episodes. Season Two promises eight episodes, slightly longer running times, and improved production valies. In addition, the content has shifted direction a bit.
“The point of Season One was to show someone living with HIV who wasn’t sad, sick or dying. So we weren’t really issue-heavy in Season One. But in Season Two, we’re having a lot more issues: Merce is in a serodiscordant relationship, so we talk about PrEP, we talk about U=U; he develops avascular necrosis, which is HIV-related, which I had, so we wrote about that (he gets a hip replacement); we talk about slut shaming and gay marriage.
“But it is still crazy and funny and a lot bawdier [than Season One]. If a trip is funny, we like a fall. We are pushing the boundaries of comedy as well as pushing the boundaries of the issues,” says Sanchez, citing comics like Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman as inspirations for his comedic fence jumping, “and even Randy Rainbow to a degree,” he adds. He also admires Harvey Fierstein [A&U, June 1996], particularly in the film version of Torch Song Trilogy, for the playwright and actor’s bravery and the way he demanded respect for the character. Sanchez has also been influenced by David Sedaris, and his ability to be funny and offensive simultaneously in order to show us the truth of ourselves.
“That’s kind of what I try to do, I try not to be offensive but to not be afraid. For example, we have already released the first song from Episode One, Season Two, and it’s called ‘Just F***ed Feeling.’ Actually the composer [Rob Hartmann] named it ‘JFF’ because he wanted to the joke to be hidden, and I understand that, but I wanted people to look at it because of the title, so I changed it. But I had friends who said, ‘Has your mother seen it?’ Yes, she has. She saw the censored version and she said, ‘Very nice,’ in an email.” He laughs.
He worried while working on it if he was pushing the envelope too far, but then he thought, “I’m fifty-one years old. How much longer do I need to worry about what my mommy thinks? I mean, I love my mother and we’re a very close family, but I’m a grown man, and I’m an artist and I need to be able to say what I need to say and believe in what I’m trying to create.”
And who doesn’t want to sing the praises of that just fucked feeling? It is as glorious as a Busby Berkeley number, camera overhead aimed down at dancers pulsating in a vision of circular symmetry, legs kicked out and retracting again and again. How wonderful that, after decades of sex fraught with worry, people living with HIV can reclaim their sexuality from the grasp of social animus and celebrate themselves instead of censoring their pleasure.
Like this, and in other ways, Merce contributes to the activist conversation. Sanchez started his activism as a representative of Arkansas at AIDSWatch, sent by Arkansas AIDS Foundation, where he was a client. He was nervous then to get it right (throwing up in a bathroom before his first meeting on the Hill), and is still nervous to get it right (but much more self-composed).
And I’m surprised about how many people still don’t know about U=U, even urban homosexual men who are educated. I start talking about it and they have no idea what I’m talking about. How is that possible?
As an activist, he is concerned about raising awareness. “I’m always amazed at how HIV has kind of gotten lost in the shadows. I always say, HIV is not sexy anymore. It’s not in the news. And we don’t hear a lot of stories about it. When we do, it’s parenthetical, or it’s some sort of criminal case where somebody got accused of something. So I think my biggest [concern] is to keep it in conversation. And I’m surprised about how many people still don’t know about U=U, even urban homosexual men who are educated. I start talking about it and they have no idea what I’m talking about. How is that possible? You live in New York City and you don’t know about U=U? Like, what? I’m not doing my job.
“Even the other night, late when I am usually asleep, someone on Facebook contacted me asking me questions about what undetectable means and that he had a friend who had been exposed (though he wasn’t really exposed). And I was like, ‘Wow I’m glad I’m awake to be able to respond to this in real time and tell you.’
“I feel I have to use the big mouth that God gave me! I don’t have one issue—it’s all of them!”
Asked about the future of Merce, Sanchez said he didn’t know what is in store. “The hardest part about Merce is raising money. We’re non-profit but it’s been very difficult for us to raise all the money.,” he says, bemoaning that crowdfunding becomes basically begging your friends. “For Season Two, we were lucky. We got a little bit of corporate support. AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Napo Pharmaceuticals.”
He and his producing partner decided they would not to do more crowdfunding if they move forward. They would figure out a different stream of funding. And they have floated the idea that perhaps Season Three would not be a series, but rather a film.
His idea for the next chapter—”and it’s only an idea, folks, it may not happen”—centers on HIV criminalization and the criminalization laws, which, he notes, “are so outdated and don’t have any basis in reality or [in contemporary science]. HIV was the only health condition that was ever criminalized in this way, so it’s unbelievable.”
“In Season One and Season Two we don’t ever talk about what Merce does for a living, so I thought, what if Merce is a lawyer…,” Sanchez says, trailing off as a way to offer up his idea to the cosmos. “And he has to go somewhere down South to defend somebody who is in a criminal case. Because I thought it would be really funny and fun to see Merce in a courtroom. What would that be like?! And if we’re down South, what kind of other characters could be there, what else could be encountered, what kind of homophobia and racism and all those other kinds of things could we have in the storyline?
Merce recently received a grant from HealtheVoices Impact Fund to create short educational videos with straightforward HIV messaging. Sanchez has started to work on scripts. Much shorter than the episodes, the videos will still have jokes and songs as bright as colored marshmallows. Sanchez hopes people will find them hilarious enough to share on social media.
Sanchez is excited about a partnership between Merce and OUTtv, which will help bring the show to a greater number of international audiences. OUTv had been supporters of Season One and returned for Season Two, with OUTtv in Eurpoe broadcasting the series in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Sweden, Israel, and Spain, and translating the show via subtitles into different languages.
The universal themes travel well. Merce is popular at film festivals home and abroad; recently it was an official selection at America’s Rainbow Film Festival and won at the Druk International Film Festival in Bhutan.
In Season One, Merce’s roommate Corvette describes him as a “living disco ball,” and Merce says he aims to reflect his twinkle far and wide. It’s a great analogy for the series, too, which reflects in its small mirrors the realities of living with HIV at their brightest.
For more information and to watch Merce, visit: MerceTheSeries.com.
An HIV journalist for twenty years and counting, Chael Needle, A&U’s Managing Editor, writes poetry and short fiction, which have been published in Chelsea Station, Callisto, T.R.O.U., The Owen Wister Review, and bottle rockets, among other publications. Along with Diane Goettel, he co-edited the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U. Follow him on Twitter: @ChaelNeedle.