Love in Time of HIV

by John Stoltenberg

Admission was free. It was billed as a production of an original play starring young people from DC’s SMYAL (Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League). They were going to perform it one night only, Saturday, May 26.  I couldn’t resist.

And wow, what an extraordinary experience it turned out to be.

The set was three rundown sofas. The lighting could not be drearier: on-off church-basement florescents. The uncomfortable seating: metal folding chairs.

But once the powerful storytelling took off, I was as emotionally hooked as I have ever been in the theater.

The center sofa is home to Dre, a brother who has sex with men, and Lily, his unsuspecting and very pregnant wife.

The sofa stage right is the apartment in which Dre has set up Brandon, his 17-year-old lover, who is HIV-positive and devil-may-care about using protection.

The sofa stage left is where Jason, Lily’s brother, lives with his lover, Liam, who is HIV positive and desperately afraid of infecting Jason.

The central unbilled character in this drama is, of course, the HIV virus. By the end of this giftedly written two-act passion play, we have witnessed—as if attending a Greek tragedy—the preventable pathos of that protagonist’s rampage.

Author and director KD Monroe has crafted a funny, sad, street-smart, and cinematically succinct parable that the audience connected to as if it was the saga of their lives. I found myself reflecting that the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe must have vocalized their evaluation of characters’ words and actions just as fervently as did the outlier crowd that night. I felt privileged to be present at something like theater’s primal, communal origins.

This play must go on. It is a hauntingly honest cautionary tale. It is a tribal anthem for a generation.