'As Much As I Can' Immersive Theater Show Shines Light on HIV Among Gay Black Men

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Courtesy of Harley & Co.

The statistics are staggering: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black men who have sex with men are more affected by HIV than any other group in the United States. ViiV Healthcare and Native Son founder Emil Wilbekin have teamed up to amplify ACCELERATE!, an initiative that supports national HIV/AIDs awareness among gay black men. A key component of this project is As Much As I Can, an immersive theater experience debuting in New York on Tuesday (May 8). The show shines a light on the need for supportive networks in response to an epidemic that continues to disproportionately impact black communities.

Ahead of opening night, Billboard spoke to Marc Meachem, ViiV Healthcare's head of external affairs, about the ACCELERATE! Initiative and their venture into immersive theater.

ACCELERATE! is an initiative that supports HIV/AIDS awareness among gay black men. Why is this demographic specifically important when it comes to this topic?

Black gay men experience some of the worst disparities in HIV in the U.S. and frankly, throughout the world. If current trends continue, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men will acquire HIV. With current advances in treatment, the advent of treatment as prevention data, and the availability of PrEP, we have the biomedical tools necessary to reduce these disparities. However, people need know about these advances, and that means having access to care. We need to focus on increased awareness and usage of biomedical interventions in the most affected populations.

What does "As Much As I Can" mean?

The name of the play came from the ethnographic research and subsequent outreach to over 400 black men between Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi, as part of ViiV Healthcare's ACCELERATE! initiative. It's a reflection of the resilience, faith, love and hope black gay men need to carry on against the odds and stigma.

As Much As I Can is an immersive theater experience. What inspired that direction?

As the only company focused solely on HIV, ViiV Healthcare recognizes that we need to go beyond developing medicines to reach those most affected by HIV. Theater people describe immersive theater as removing the "fourth wall" -- a barrier between the performance and the audience. Removing this barrier creates the opportunity to bring about a deeper connection with the subject. The audience engages at a different level, and we believe this can help people look at their own biases, as well as those of society, more objectively.

What do you hope audiences take from this show?

To address the enduring HIV disparities that people of color face in the U.S., we must take a holistic approach that addresses stigma, and hence the silence around HIV that exists in our communities. Working in collaboration with many organizations, including Harley & Co. who co-created and produced As Much As I Can, ViiV Healthcare is looking to raise the voices of those populations most affected by HIV through this unique work and other innovative, community-facing initiatives.

As Much As I Can begins its run at Harlem Parish on Tuesday (May 8) and continues through May 24. Free tickets are available at amaicny.com.


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