“As Much As I Can,” a show that illustrates the continuing AIDS crisis among African-American men, exists on two different planes, which are not in complete alignment with one another.
It is a work of theater, running for just five days at Joe’s Pub (two final performances this evening.) The 14-member cast is largely comprised of professional New York stage actors.
But it is also an effort at outreach. The script, credited to Sarah Hall, is based on interviews with hundreds of men in two communities hard hit by HIV — Baltimore, Maryland and Jackson, Mississippi — and commissioned by ViiV Healthcare, a pharmaceutical company focused on HIV. Productions of “As Much As I Can,” with local casts, have toured the country for the past three years.
The show, according to the playbill, is “a piece of collaborative, activist theatre designed to encourage a shift in attitudes, beliefs, and understanding of black men living with or vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.”
It makes sense, then, that the show has a vaguely instructional aura, with a schematic structure that focuses on four characters – a young man who learns at the start of the play that he’s HIV negative, another young man who learns that he’s HIV positive, a third who (we discover) is keeping his status secret from everybody, and an older, wiser man who has been HIV positive for twenty years. We see them interact with one another, with their family and with their community, as the three young men learn some painful lessons, and the wiser man – Larry, who as a drag performer goes by the name Miss Hope Chest – delivers the message of the play clearly and at length: “See, twenty years ago we was in the midst of a crisis. An HIV/AIDS crisis and our beautiful young men were dying and there was nothing we could do. And when some of the medication started working, well, we was thinking that it was over, that we could live and maybe things could change for us.
“Well it has and it hasn’t. Most of us know that too many of our men are still getting diagnosed positive every day. And sometimes we act like there ain’t nothin we can do about that. Well let me tell you somethin’, it’s not true. There is something we can do, and when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean just the doctors and the scientists. I mean we, this community…”
Given the importance of the message and to whom it seemed addressed, it struck me as odd that the producers chose to mount the show in New York in a cabaret in the East Village, with a two drink minimum, and a menu whose cheapest main entrée is a chicken sandwich costing $21.
Yes, there was a health educator from a local hospital staffing a table in the lobby (and, I’ve recently learned, some of the tickets were distributed for free to members of such community groups as Treatment Action Group, and the Henrick Martin Institute.) Nevertheless, such a venue encourages me to view “As Much As I Can” using a lens with a different focus than had the show been presented at, say, a community center. Considered purely as a work of theater, the production yields mixed results, literally. There is a mix of tones and acting styles. The drama receives periodic injections of over-the-top humor that too often feel forced, as if the creative team were afraid that the audience would get bored if there was a greater commitment to playing the reality of the situation.
Fortunately, there are several riveting moments and stand-out performances that go a long way towards smoothing over the flaws in the writing and the direction. Dawn L. Troupe delivers a monologue as a mother hoping her son will get old and fat – in other words, not die – that in less accomplished hands, might have come off as melodramatic rather than poignant. Jason Veasey makes the unenlightened pastor credible, not cartoonish. There’s a gorgeous “sex scene,” choreographed by Yeman Brown featuring the spectacular dancer James Watson in duet with Marquis Johnson. Dimitri Moise and especially Brandon Gill are believable and moving as two young men confronting one another….and themselves….as they grapple in various ways with their emotions and the reality of HIV.
And then there is Cory Gibson, as the wiser man Larry and his drag queen persona Miss Hope Chest. He is the only performer who successfully navigates both sides of “As Much As I Can,” the sassy comedy and the serious drama — and lets loose with some gospel and soul singing that gives us a reason to celebrate.
Remaining performances of “As Much As I Can” at Joe’s Pub – tonight at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.