Typically when attending a play, you are prepared to sit in an audience filled room to enjoy live performers on a stage. Sounds like a fun night until you experience immersive theater. Immersive theater is when the audience is brought into the same playing space as the performers, creating a live experience where you become co-actors in the storytelling process. ACCELERATE!’s, As Much as I Can is a play centered around a group of four Black men who are affected by HIV in several ways: receiving positive and negative HIV results, enduring slander and betrayal from loved ones, backlash from their religious community and more. This form of theater was used to heighten the audience’s senses in evoking pure emotion and lucid memory for not just understanding the narrative being presented but to also trigger a cognitive response to inspire action.
The thought-provoking production debuted in January 2017 and it takes the audience on emotional roller-coaster ride. Specific wristbands are handed out at the beginning of the show to split the audience into groups. The groups are asynchronously led through several colorful and lit rooms where the actors allow you to participate in their scene. The journey takes you into a club, family living room, a clinic, and even a church. Every room that the actors lead you to are designed to provoke a certain response by showing you triumphs and challenges up-close and personal. Some people end up participating and involving themselves in the scene without realizing it.
ACCELERATE! is ViiV Heathcare’s four-year, $10M commitment to fund innovative and educational programs that are built on improving access to quality care to support the health and well-being of Black gay men living with HIV in two of the hardest hit cities — Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi. ACCELERATE!’s As Much as I Can is the cornerstone of the program reaching to amplify positive voices about Black gay issues. It shows the challenges of stigma and the universality of love, family, faith and self-acceptance.
The play is a collaborative effort and was co-created with local individuals and organizations as a mechanism to inform social change. ACCELERATE! birthed the idea and teamed up with Harley & Co, an NYC creative agency hired by ViiV Heathcare to come up with the concept. Kali Lindsey, senior manager at ViiV Healthcare breaks down how As Much as I Can was created through ethnographic research, “We have a lot of statistics and a lot of numbers but what we don’t have is individual stories and experiences. It’s really hard to convey numbers but it’s really easy to tell stories. We gave [Harley & Co] the ethnography and told them that we needed a creative and innovative way to express it. … We did a host of interviews with men in the communities and developed the script. This was definitely a community-driven project. It was a collaborative effort to get to As Much as I Can. And this is the end result.”
There are a total of 14 men and women in the cast. Five are from NY and the others were cast locally in the cities where the play was featured — Baltimore and Jackson. This casting technique was chosen to give the play an authentic voice, to give job opportunities to people in the communities, and to bring spirit and integrity to the project. “I want people that come to experience something as close to reality as possible. By that I mean, the people, the situations, the circumstances. But I want them to do it in a way that’s elevated with humor, magic and theatrical devices. It’s not true realism, it’s theatrical realism,” says director James Andrew Walsh. Walsh expressed that he wanted the audience “to have an authentic but entertaining experience. I want people to walk away moved, dazzled and inspired.”
According to ViiV Heathcare, Baltimore had the 10th highest HIV diagnosis rate in the nation in 2014 and Jackson was the fourth highest. Thirteen percent of MSM (men who have sex with men — an abbreviation used to identify men who engage in homosexual intercourse, but do not identify as being gay) in Baltimore were living with HIV in 2012 and it had the 19th highest death rate among men living with HIV in 2013. Jackson had the seventh highest death rate the same year.
One of the biggest hindrances to reducing those numbers in the Black community is silence. Cory Gibson, a heterosexual actor whose role was played in drag as Miss Hope Chest, says that he was up for the challenge of using his voice as an actor to speak up on this topic. “I gravitated to this role. It’s probably one of the furthest roles from who I really am as Cory. It affirmed what I’ve been my whole life, which is an advocate for people to be themselves. Let themselves be discovered, by themselves first. If you don’t see the real you, no one else will ever see you.”
For more information on HIV treatment and quality care, visit ViiV Healthcare at www.viivhealthcare.com.