Two men in Maryland and Mississippi take an HIV test. The rest unfolds in “As Much As I Can,” a play from ViiV Healthcare and agency Harley & Company that follows how HIV and its stigma affects the lives of black gay men.
ViiV, which only makes HIV treatments, wanted to involve the communities it treats with this latest awareness effort. To develop “As Much As I Can,” ViiV interviewed hundreds of black gay and bisexual men in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Missisippi, to accurately depict their stories on stage.
Viiv focused on black men because, as a group, they have the highest death rate from HIV and highest new HIV infection rate, said Marc Meachem, head of external affairs at ViiV.
Black LGBTQ men in the South also face specific obstacles that other groups may not. The play explores the attitudes they face about being gay and having HIV from their community, churches and families and how this community interacts with doctors.
“If we’ve got the tools [to treat people] and we’ve got these huge disparities, where’s the breakdown?” Meachem said. “One is the complexity of the system and people’s ability to navigate that system as they move from state to state or as people move from having insurance and not. The second critical breakdown, that goes hand-in-hand with it, is the stigma around HIV.”
This is ViiV’s first theater production. Meachem said the company is trying to address HIV disparities by fostering dialogue and collaborating with the communities that are most affected by them.
Another goal of the play is to raise awareness and dispel myths about HIV. In its research, ViiV found that many people don’t understand the disease. People with the condition don’t talk about it and don’t want to be seen taking their medication, and people without HIV don’t understand how it’s transmitted.
“We’ve seen where people are still asking people with HIV to eat off the paper plate because they don’t want them to use real utensils,” Meachem said. “We’ve seen mothers living with HIV afraid to kiss their babies, so the stigma was a huge piece. The ability to break through that was one of the critical things that came up. We believe that cultural interventions allow you to access people at a deeper level on the issue and really drive change.”
The immersive theater experience of “As Much As I Can” is meant to help viewers relate to people with HIV. Meachem said the ideal audience is the community represented in the play, Southern black men, but everyone can relate to the stories.
“This is something that’s really universal and everyone can relate to stigma,” he said.
After seeing the show, Meachem said some audience members have been inspired to change how they behave. One person who mentors young people said the play spurred him to incorporate more LGBTQ support into a mentoring program. The play also offers a different look at patients’ lives for the physicians who treat them.
“Physicians said that they felt like, even though they treated patients for years and had ongoing relationships with patients for decades, [the play] gave them a behind-the-curtain look at their patients’ real experiences outside of the office,” Meachem said.
“As Much As I Can” is part of a larger ViiV effort, called the Accelerate! Initiative. That program supports innovative projects focusing on improving HIV outcomes for black gay men in Baltimore and Jackson. Other efforts from Accelerate! include community support programs and projects to help people navigate the healthcare system. The initiative began four years ago.
The play will debut in New York on September 12, running two shows nightly at the Public Theatre through September 16.
“It’s an immersive theater experience where you’re spending 1.5 hours immersed in a subject,” Meachem said. “These are really authentic stories that anyone can relate to, but they’re rarely told at this level of depth. When you spend that much time with the subject, you can really examine things in a way that people don’t on a day-to-day basis.”