At the beginning of “As Much As I Can,” Miss Hope Chest welcomes the audience, which stands in as denizens of Charmed, a Southern drag bar. On most nights, she is the queen of revels in a place filled with young Black men on “a beg” to drink, dance, flirt and get laid. But this night is different, because Miss Hope Chest, described as “your host, your queen, your emotional doula,” has something weighing heavily on her mind: the HIV infections and deaths that are ravaging her community. Instead of a call to party, she’s inviting all to a come-to-Jesus moment of truth and self-evaluation.
The immersive theatrical experience, created by Sarah Hall and directed by James Andrew Walsh, begins a run at Joe’s Pub on Sept. 12 after development productions in Jackson, Mississippi; Baltimore, Maryland; and Harlem. The show was seeded by a 2015 ethnographic study of 30 Black men from Baltimore and Jackson, who identified as gay, bisexual or “men who have sex with men.” The goal of the project, involving lower-income individuals ranging in age from 19 to 53, was to determine why the Black community is disproportionately represented in the alarming rates of HIV infections.
The results of the study, funded by ViiV Healthcare, were then turned over to Harley and Company, a creative agency, to devise a theatrical experience that could capture the human stories behind the statistics. The mandate was to bring attention to the crisis and act as a wake-up call to the most vulnerable populations. It’s one thing to hear about HIV prevention from a flyer, quite another when it is delivered in the settings of a drag bar, a clinic, a barber shop, a church and a bedroom by an in-your-face cast of 14.
“People are uncomfortable, and I want to make them uncomfortable,” says Cory Gibson, who plays Miss Hope Chest, aka Larry. “People literally walk out of the show, crying ‘I just can’t handle this.’ And I have given hugs to people drenched in tears who looked like they were being too judge-y about the characters in the show.”
These sorts of strong reactions are nothing new to the cast, two members of which — Gibson and James Watson — recently gathered in a midtown office to discuss the production. They are a study in contrast. Gibson, who moved to New York from Dallas, looks like the linebacker everybody expected him to be when he instead chose a career in theater as a sanctuary from a “tumultuous” upbringing. Watson has the lithe body and calm mien of a dancer, a gift that was nurtured in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. He plays Shydel, the lover of Marcus, one of the characters we get to know best in the play. Another character followed is George, who early on finds out he is HIV-positive, “collateral damage” of a one-night stand.
Growing up in a small town outside of Jackson, Watson is familiar with several of the characters of “As Much As I Can,” composites of the men who participated in the ethnographic study. “In my personal experience, I am Shydel,” says the actor-dancer who worked for My Brother’s Keeper, a non-profit organization with a mission to promote prevention and health in Black and marginalized communities in Mississippi. “The stories resonated with me, and the reactions I’ve gotten is that I represented well; I let their worries be seen.”
Those worries were generated by what Miss Hope Chest identifies as “a crazy kind of shame” that afflicts a number of minorities but is especially pronounced in the conservative Black enclaves of the South, which can be homophobic. “I grew up experiencing that kind of shame, yes,” says Watson, who is out and HIV-negative. Oppression came, in part, from societal strictures led by the church. Watson says that he is grateful to the church as the place where his artistic gifts first started to flourish — augmented by staying up to the wee hours to study videos of Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison and Martha Graham. But when the sermons started “to point arrows” at certain lifestyles, both he and his mother moved to his uncle’s more embracing congregation. Says Watson, “He preached love and truly believed in it, no matter who you are, what you are, where you are.”
Gibson says that there is an element of church in “As Much As I Can,” which has generated a fervor that has led some audiences, especially in Baltimore and Jackson, to participate vocally during the performance. “Sometimes they’re coming straight from church to the play, and they are in their Sunday clothes and fine hats,” he says of the free performances given to inner-city communities most in need of hearing the message. “Right in the middle of my monologues, I’ve heard, ‘Oh, yes!’ and ‘I understand!’ and ‘Tell it! I’ve had this moment myself.’”
Watson gets a decidedly different reaction from his scene. It is a pas de deux of physical intimacy between Shydel and Marcus, which he choreographed himself.
“Because the dance is so intense, two souls being in sync, I get a lot of shocked noises and gasps,” he recalls. “You never know how people are going to take it. Sometimes people look at me with this mean and evil glare; sometimes they clap continuously; and sometimes people get very emotional.”
This frankness, say the men, is meant to shake a complacency that is straining the bonds of family and the resources of the community. The South is ground zero for infection rates and getting those at risk into clinics to be tested is the first hurdle. To be gay and Black is enough of a burden, says Watson, without adding the stigma of an HIV-positive diagnosis.
“Low self-esteem and denial stop a lot of us from being tested and getting the care and help that we need,” he says. “In small towns, everybody knows everybody, and you don’t want to be looking over your shoulder, thinking, ‘Are they talking about me?’ because somebody told them. It’s a tough decision to make.”
Gibson adds that a show like “As Much As I Can” can penetrate those barriers more immediately than typical outreach programs. “We can reach people a lot better by entertaining them,” he says. “It’s healing and it carries a message. That’s what theater has been doing since the Greeks invented it.”
Watson says that there is the equivalent of the play’s bar, Charmed, in his hometown of Jackson. “It’s called Wanderlust, and it is a spot!,” he says with a laugh. “It’s crazy. Per my outreach, I know a lot of people there run from a conversation about HIV; they’re not truthful. But we try to encourage them to talk with each other. Straight, no chaser. ‘I’m negative, what’s up with you?’ No judgment. Just trying to spread love to the community. Love yourself first and love each other and everything will fall in place.”
Top Image: Brandon Gill rehearsing "As Much As I Can." Photo: Harley & Co.