The HIV epidemic continues to ravage Black and brown communities across the nation. In 2022, there were 36,704 new HIV diagnoses, with 39 percent occurring in Black individuals and 29 percent in Latinx individuals. Among Black men, the impact is even more pronounced, constituting 42 percent of new diagnoses in 2021.
In a time marked by heightened violence against the queer community, it becomes increasingly crucial to explore innovative avenues for educating and advocating on behalf of these marginalized groups. ViiV Healthcare has emerged as a guiding force during these challenging times, offering a multi-sensory theatrical production, As Much As I Can, as a beacon of hope and awareness.
Launched in 2020 with a clear mission, As Much As I Can was intentionally crafted as an intervention to address the HIV epidemic. An evaluation led by Johns Hopkins University following the initial 2020 performance revealed that the play left an imprint on viewers. Audience members demonstrated a heightened commitment to standing up for those living with HIV and supporting LGBTQ communities, with 90 percent of attendees expressing a willingness to discuss the play with friends. Furthermore, 72 percent pledged to address any stigmatizing language aimed at people living with HIV. This play’s unique capacity to foster empathy and advocacy within its audience promises to be a powerful force in shifting the needle on the battle against HIV stigma.
The play, onstage in Chicago, hold significant weight due to the rising number of HIV cases that appear in the city. Cities like Chicago and Atlanta have emerged as focal points of the escalating HIV problem. In Chicago, the number of Black women living with HIV is 14.6 times higher than that of white women, and 74 percent of HIV cases in Atlanta are within the Black community.
For Actor and Entertainer Lawrence “Miss Lawrence” Washington, as seen in shows like Star, and Empire, he believes that the messages around HIV have become too commercial, and we have to get raw and honest about the realities of living with HIV. “ViiV Healthcare, creating this type of moment, the play As Much As I Can, gives an in depth story and journey of what it’s like to become diagnosed positive, and the fears you have after becoming positive and it also shows the hope. We’ve never really gotten that type of lens on this epidemic. I think it’s a genius piece of art,” Lawrence says.
At its core, the play seeks to raise awareness about HIV prevention, particularly among Black and brown communities that continue to bear a disproportionate burden of this epidemic. As Much As I Can strives to dismantle the lingering stigma surrounding HIV, a barrier preventing millions, especially from marginalized backgrounds, from accessing essential prevention and treatment services.
Directed by Logan Vaughn, the play is a moving body of work that actively seeks to humanize the realities of living with HIV, taking the audience on an immersive journey through the lives of its characters. “It’s been a gift to direct this beautiful, powerful, brilliant and fearless company of actors. Every night I witness them I am in awe,” Vaughn said in a statement.
Lawrence says that participation in As Much As I Can was a no brainer. “For me personally, anytime there is art being produced and created with a message, and particularly a message about Black LGBTQ people and Black queerness, I automatically feel obligated,” says Lawrence. “So when the opportunity is extended to me, I take it as my duty to participate.”
Lawrence is a gender nonconforming artist and has been doing advocacy work and being a mentor in the Black LGBTQ space for years, so it wasn’t hard to channel their character, “Larry,” who holds a similar role in the play. “When I was growing up, I didn’t fully discover all of me until I was met with chosen mothers and mentors in the Black queer space,” recalls Lawrence. “Very often our biological parents don’t really have the answers and don’t have the manual to know how to raise a child that is LGBTQ. So, me having been raised by some of the girls that were outside, we just innately had kindred spirits. I took that on. I can’t help but be able to share what my experience has been as a Black, gender nonconforming gay man from the deep south in Atlanta, Georgia,” he adds.
The immersive play delves into the intertwined lives of four men. As they traverse the realms of love, unveil hidden truths, fiercely champion their families, and embark on the profound journey of self-discovery, As Much As I Can serves as a poignant reflection of the diverse lived experiences of bisexual, gay, and queer men. The play eloquently emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual’s journey, inviting audience members to recognize their own stories within these characters while challenging their own biases and preconceptions that may perpetuate the stigma still deeply affecting our communities.
Growing up in the Deep South, some of the same stereotypes and stigmas queer individuals face are mirrored in the play, especially the realities of growing up in church. “When I was young, I used to go to church every Sunday. One thing my mother taught me was ‘don’t you ever tell a lie. It ain’t nothing more that God hates more than a liar.’ Now, the caveat to that is that means I want you to lie about who I was,” Lawrence explains. “I stood in my truth because the word says, to thine own self be true. It’s a joy and a privilege to be able to help people that are like me, and you can only do that if you know exactly who you are. Because experience is our greatest teacher. I can’t be a teacher if I don’t have experience to share,” he adds.
The moving production was created by the talented and award-winning storytelling team, Harley & Co, a female-led and people of color (POC) company, in collaboration with ViiV Healthcare. Together, they moved audiences that included the likes of Karrueche Tran and Ts Madison, both of which who are advocates for HIV. Madison has long been a friend of ViiV Healthcare, attending the U.S. Conference on HIV and AIDS earlier this year in D.C.
Both ViiV Healthcare and Harley & Co. have been steadfastly working for years to develop cultural programs to combat HIV, and their collective efforts have now culminated in this impactful production.
As Much As I Can is onstage in Chicago through October 21.