As a creative artist, Donja R. Love is definitely having a moment. After co-founding The Each-Other Project with husband Brandon Nick, [A&U, April 2015], Love has written and directed a series of video and film projects that uplifts and fosters community among Black queer and trans people. Three of his plays have already been produced off-Broadway, including the critically acclaimed production of one in two, a raw and impassioned exploration of one man’s journey to reimagine his life after an HIV diagnosis. In 2022, soft, one of the first plays he ever wrote, is slated for its world premiere off-Broadway. “I create stories specifically about and for Black people living with HIV,” Love tells A&U. “That’s what I will continue to do, because I know our lives and our stories matter.”
Now, he is sharing his gift and giving back to his community as a mentor and teacher with the second cohort of Write It Out!, a one-of-a-kind playwriting workshop for people living with HIV. Following the resounding success of year one, Love, along with fellow playwright Timothy DuWhite, is taking Write It Out! to the next level with a new Playwright’s Prize [Editor’s note: Since this interview was printed, the inaugural winner was announced: Dominic Colón]. The winner will receive $5,000 cash, plus a year of dramaturgical support to create a new work of their own. The prize is funded by GLAAD and none other than Pose star and Emmy winner Billy Porter. “For me, the common thread with my work is community,” says Love. “To have GLAAD and someone like Billy Porter put their stamp of approval on this shows how important our community is.”
In our very candid conversation, Love reveals that after years of self-discovery, he has come to a place where he feels comfortable with who he is and open to letting the world in on even the most intimate details of his life. As this story unfolds, he shares how all the pain, the struggles, and the setbacks he faced helped him become the man and the writer he is today. “As odd as it may sound, it took me being diagnosed HIV positive to actually get a full sense of my purpose, and what it means to write and to use writing as healing.”
As a child growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, Love says writing was the only way he would communicate with people. “I had a severe stutter, and I was embarrassed to talk. When someone asked me a question, I would write my answer down in a notepad as my response,” he explains. “I used writing as a way of being able to navigate my emotions, my thoughts, all of those things. I never really put two and two together then, but that was a part of a larger purpose, in terms of being a writer.” Struggling to understand or acknowledge his queer identity, Love stayed inside a lot and channeled his creativity with his siblings. At his great-grandmother’s house, all the kids and their young cousins would go into the basement, and Love would have them create stories. “I would direct, and I would give them the words to say. Then, we had our parents come down to watch.” It seems like playwriting was always in the cards for young Donja. He just needed to learn how to play the hand he was dealt.
After high school, Love enrolled at Philadelphia’s Temple University, double majoring in Theater and African American Studies. After two years, he dropped out because he couldn’t afford it, but he stuck around campus and worked his contacts there to figure out who he was as an artist. In November of 2008, he was trying his hand as a stylist for a modeling troupe. “I was running myself ragged getting ready for a competition, and I wasn’t feeling well.” He headed to a clinic in North Philly to get checked out, where he agreed to take a rapid HIV test. During what he describes as an excruciating twenty-minute wait for the results, Love recalls praying and bargaining with God, if only that nurse would come back with good news. When the test results came back positive, Love says he just went numb. “I told myself, ‘Donja, you have to smile, because if you don’t, when you leave here everybody will know what was just shared in this room.” When he got out of the clinic, he felt like he was suddenly thrust in the middle of a Lifetime movie. “It started to pour down rain and I didn’t have an umbrella. I’m walking home in the rain, thinking about I’m HIV positive, thinking my life will now be over. I remember when I got home, I hopped into the shower and I just started bawling.” After that, he only shared his status with those closest to him, and he didn’t talk about it for years.
Love says that not talking about it turned him into a version of himself he didn’t like. “Depression kicked in big time, and so did the alcoholism, dependence on sex, and suicidal ideations.” The one thing that helped him get his life back on track was throwing himself back into theater. A few months after his diagnosis, he wrote his first play. Although he describes it now as “a hot ass mess” that he never shared with anyone, he says “it was therapeutic to be able to write down what I was thinking and what was going on with me.” He continued to write more and more, but it became clear he was hitting a brick wall in Philadelphia. In 2014, he packed up his things and relocated to New York to pursue his dreams. There he received several playwriting awards and fellowships to continue to refine his craft, including the coveted Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at The Juilliard School. Then, he began to establish himself as one of the New York theater scene’s bold new voices.
In 2018, two of the plays he penned as part of his “Love Plays” had their world premieres off-Broadway. The “Love Plays” explore Black queer love stories at seminal moments in American history. Sugar in our Wounds, which is set on a plantation during the Civil War, opened in June. Fireflies, which takes place in the Jim Crow South, opened in September. TheaterMania called it, “A powerful tale of love flashing its light in the dark. Fireflies is a drama of extraordinary depth and complexity.” With this production, Love became the first Black male playwright to have work produced on the mainstage of New York’s Atlantic Theater. But it was one in two, the play that Love never intended to be seen by anyone, that is his biggest success to date.
The inspiration for one in two came after the 2016 CDC prediction that one in two black men who have sex with other men will receive a diagnosis of HIV. In November of 2018, Love was approaching the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis. “I thought I would be in this victorious space, but that wasn’t the case. I found myself not being able to get out of bed.” He grabbed his phone off the nightstand and in the Notes section he started to write. Love says it was cathartic to document the ten years of what living with HIV was like for him. “I just threw all the dark thoughts into what I was writing. And there at the top I just wanted to be desired, I wanted to be loved. And as writing has often done for me, I felt myself becoming lighter again.”
When he looked at the play on his phone, he decided it was for his eyes only because he had revealed too much about himself. A few weeks later, after helping someone who had been recently diagnosed with HIV, Love realized the play wasn’t just about him anymore. He knew he had to allow this play exist in the world. In December of 2019, one in two opened off-Broadway. The New York Times wrote, “Donja R. Love’s powerful play balances tenderness and fury…one in two has entered the world in a state of quiet glory, equal parts laughter and pain… Defiantly life-embracing, it’s a call to action over what Love describes as ‘a hidden state of emergency’ in his own community.” Love was nominated for Best Play for this work at the inaugural Antonyo Awards in 2020, which celebrates Black Theater on and off Broadway.
Chip Alfred: Before each performance of one in two, the audience is asked to choose which actor plays which role. How did this work and why did you write this into the script?
Donja R. Love: For every performance, the three actors come forward one at a time and the actor who gets the loudest applause will play Number One, the protagonist in the play. The other two actors play Rock Paper Scissors to see who plays Number Two and Number Three. The reason that the audience chooses which character goes on the journey of learning that he’s HIV-positive and what that journey is like for him is that society plays a heavy factor in HIV rates. I wanted the audience to represent society without them even knowing it, because at this point when they’re clapping for who will be Number One, they just think it’s fun and games. Then, they realize this person is now going through this very personal and intense journey of living with HIV and in their complicity they wonder, “Am I a factor in this happening?”
You were also somewhat hands-on with the marketing and the casting for this production, right? Casting must have been a bit more complicated if each of the actors in the play had to audition for all three roles.
Yes it was, because at any given moment, any of the actors had to play any of the roles. I was always interested in casting folks who aligned with the material, and I wanted top priority to be individuals who had a somewhat similar lived experience as the folks in the play. I also wanted to make sure that the theater producing the play knew how important it was for my community to not only know that the play was happening but to be able to have access to the play and for them to feel welcomed into the space. Thanks to a partnership with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, people living with HIV and the demographic that was represented in the play were able to see it for free.
Based on the response, it seems like one in two was a turning point in your career.
Oh, absolutely. It was one of those things where I understood what art can do. But that wasn’t until literally sitting in a fancy off-Broadway theater with complete strangers and having them watch my life on stage, and having critics from renowned publications write about and critique my life. Sitting in a theater watching my relationship to HIV and art in this grand way was one of those divine moments that built such a clarity and strength within me to utilize my resources and access to create artistic space for other folks living with HIV.
You’ve said that those resources have been instrumental in getting projects like Write It Out! off the ground. What sparked the idea for this playwriting workshop in the first place?
What sparked Write It Out! was living with HIV and using writing as a way to navigate through my diagnosis. I remember what it felt like being so afraid to share this part of myself with people, afraid to even talk about HIV. Writing was a way for me to have that conversation. Everyone in Write It Out! has the freedom to share about their experience of living with HIV or not. I just let every writer know that they are the only one who can write the things that they write.
Do you feel like your work is having the impact you want it to have?
To be honest with you Chip, I don’t. I want my work to exist on a larger scale. From my vantage point, we as a society do not care about Black people living with HIV, so already my work is considered “niche” and it doesn’t get the kind of space and breath I believe it should have. Our stories deserve a larger, mightier space.
You came to New York to fulfill your dreams. What dreams would you still like to see become a reality?
Theater is my life. It helped affirm me and helped me navigate through many dark moments of my life. I also understand the power of the screen. When I think about all the stories on stage and screen about people living with HIV, seldom are Black and Brown people reflected in the work. It’s almost always white cis queer affluent men. What I would love to create is a miniseries that holds space for the history of Black people living with HIV over the years in a really beautiful way. I realize now that my story and my life and my purpose is directly linked to service. I want to create spaces for individuals in my community who don’t get to see themselves reflected so that they can share their authentic selves.
One last question. How did Write It Out! catch Billy Porter’s attention?
I put out some personal feelers specifically about the Playwright’s Prize. A week later, my agent reached out and told me Billy Porter found out about Write It Out! and he wanted to support the prize. A few weeks after that, Billy officially disclosed his status publicly, which was such a beautiful moment and such a testament that people living with HIV can exist anywhere and everywhere and do phenomenal things.
Yes, and I have to say that Donja R. Love is one of those people doing phenomenal things as well. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
For more information about Write It Out! log onto https://www.letswriteitout.com.
For more information about The Each-Other Project, visit https://www.theeachotherproject.com.
Follow Donja R. Love on Twitter or Instagram @donjarlove.
For more information about photographer Francis Hills, visit: francishills.com.
Chip Alfred is A&U’s Editor at Large, a public speaker, and a media and public relations consultant based in Philadelphia. Follow Chip on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/chip.alfred.5