This weekend, the Steinhardt Drama Therapy program will debut their original production, “Living With…” The show tells the stories of people living with HIV through four short plays, five songs and a handful of monologues.
“Living With…” is intended to shine a light on those living with HIV and reduce the stigma around it.
Brent Wakelin, one of the performers and composer of the score, talked about the importance of recognizing the impact of the current crisis.
“When we all talked about what this show should be, we realized that almost every play or movie about HIV takes place during the initial crisis and involves death,” Wakelin said. “While that is certainly part of our past, people need to know what it’s like to live with the virus now.”
Joe Salvatore, Educational Theatre professor and playwright of “Living With…,” has a long history with HIV awareness. For his thesis project for his MFA in theatre, Salvatore produced a piece titled “Quinceñera,” which addressed how the initial AIDS crisis affected the Latin American community in the 1980s.
The Drama Therapy program assembled a group of HIV+ people, both newly diagnosed and long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, who were interested in the project. Joe Salvatore was then brought in to listen to open dialogues among the group about living with HIV/AIDS. Salvatore noted themes from the conversations and from there, wrote four short plays, ranging in genre from realism to absurdism. In addition, each ensemble member shared the story of when they found out they were positive, which Salvatore then shaped into powerful monologues that each of the men performed.
One member of the ensemble, Julio Sandoval, opted not have the monologue Salvatore wrote for him included in the show. Sandoval explained that though he was not ready to share his own story, he felt his story was still told through the fictional characters in the short plays by Salvatore.
“It’s still a process,” Sandoval said. “It’s a perfect example of how everyone is on their own path in finding their own form of acceptance.”
Salvatore realizes the significance of personal experiences for such a play, even if those experiences may be difficult to rehash.
“It’s been important for me to listen to all of the participants’ experiences as a way to revisit the past, so I can understand the present and begin to see a way through to the future,” Salvatore said.
Wakelin became involved in the show after a friend alerted him to it when the project was still in development. The topic of HIV awareness sparked his interest, so he emailed director and NYU Drama Therapy Research Associate Nick Brunner to say he wanted to be a part of the show and could write the score. Wakelin started by writing a poem called “Living With…,” which he eventually adapted into the opening number of the show.
The objective of this show became clear throughout the performance and the following talk back: to spread awareness, build community and inspire action. As Wakelin explains in his individual monologue, the AIDS epidemic is still ongoing. Wakelin talks about how The White House is currently cutting funding to the Ryan White Program, which pays for HIV treatment and preventive care. The money is instead being allocated to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is the government organization currently detaining over 12,000 children of undocumented immigrants.
While the money being taken was not in use by the Ryan White Fund, this particular reallocation of funds was painful for Wakelin. Earlier this year, a fellow member of the HIV+ and LGBTQ communities, Roxana Hernández Rodriguez, died earlier this year in the custody of ICE. Wakelin included Rodriguez’s story in his monologue.
“We’ve come a long way since those early days, but the epidemic is far from over and we must be vigilant,” Wakelin said.
Having been invited to a dress rehearsal, most of the audience was connected to someone in the show. As everyone took their seats, they were all smiling at each other, greeting each other and introducing themselves to those they didn’t know. In the pause between the show and the talk back, there was a full-on dance party to “Dancing Queen.”
During the talk back itself, the main theme expressed was gratitude.
“If I can reflect on anything, it’s the gratitude for the courage you all showed,” an audience member said.
“Living With…” is not only a story about HIV+ survivors. As Wakelin said, it is a story of “falling down, getting back up again and learning to love yourself along the way.”
“Living With…” is running from Nov. 29th-Dec 2nd in the Steinhardt Black Box theatre. Tickets can be found here.
Email Liv Rocklin at [email protected]