You could be forgiven for thinking that the AIDS crisis was over. We no longer read about the high numbers of people dying from the disease. There are no longer any annual displays of the AIDS quilt to demonstrate the ongoing AIDS crisis. HIV infection has become “manageable”; its effects, invisible. So it comes as a shock to see this CDC statistic: One in every two Black gay or bisexual men — 50 percent — will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
Ten years into his HIV+ diagnosis, playwright Donja R. Love was so depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed. He wrote one in two to work through what he was personally experiencing, never intending to publish or produce it. But then he looked at it again and decided that it was something that many other people might profit from seeing. Mosaic Theater Company is presenting one in two during Pride Month at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The cast of the Mosaic production — Ryan Jamaal Swain, Justin Weaks, and Michael Kevin Darnall — agreed to have a conversation with DC Theater Arts writer Gregory Ford about one in two. All three actors have substantial Washington, DC, connections. Weaks and Darnall recently completed their run in Arena Stage’s production of Angels in America. And Swain, a graduate of the prestigious Howard University, is the well-known star of the series Pose.
Weaks and Swain met with Ford on Zoom. Darnall submitted his responses to the interview questions later, and his answers have been incorporated into the edited conversation that follows.
Gregory Ford: Why is the play one in two important to you?
Michael Kevin Darnall: I was absolutely terrified of AIDS growing up. My stomach would sink whenever it was mentioned in a TV show or talked about in a commercial. I have come a long way from that, and it is all thanks to education.
That one in two gay Black men will be diagnosed with HIV is a staggering statistic. In the play one in two, this situation has been dramatized in a brilliant, poignant, often hilarious way, and it needs to be experienced.
Justin Weaks: This play is important to me because it is a story that centers Black queer men living with HIV. We don’t see that as often as we should.
It’s important to me because so much of this is my story as an artist, as someone reckoning with what a diagnosis means; what it means to live with the virus: how to take charge of your own story. How to envision a space and a story for yourself when you don’t have one out there to see. And seeing three Black queer men take control of the story, it’s affirming. It is deeply affirming and impactful and powerful.
Ryan Jamaal Swain: Yeah. This play allows the artists, the viewer, and the people who will experience it to surrender. It allows them to ask questions that can open up this space of raw, honest truth among us. But also this space of hopefulness, this space of a kind of magical-realism, six-inches-off-the-ground moment that art always exists in. I think we have to be clear that a play is a play. And we “play” in a play. But art also can change the molecular structure of hearts and minds.
This play is an exploration of how to deepen one’s connection to Self.
In this piece, we get to share someone’s truth — a whole bunch of folks’ truth — and allow it to be seen it in all of its humanity. That is why it is important to me.
And I find with this project I am feeling equal parts nervous, equal parts excited, equal parts surrender. And equal parts “What the fuck did I just get into?”
Where does the surrender come into it?
Ryan: Surrender is, for me, the most powerful thing that you can do because it’s connected to your vulnerability. And it challenges you to respond in that space of not-knowing by saying: “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” Or “In spite of this fear, I’m going to press forward.” And I think as Black men, as Black gay men, Black queer men, Black folk in general, oftentimes don’t we have to do that? We have to go on in spite of. We have to surrender to what’s happening around us in spite of fear. The way we have to overcome as everybody stigmatizes us or taps in on us or talks at us! I think that this is the true act of surrender. And it’s a brave and courageous act. And I think that this piece allows the actors to curate brave space for not only ourselves but the audience.
Knowing that you’re telling a really deep, personal, and pivotal story is already the act of surrendering to whatever capacity that you need to give to the work. But then also every night —
Justin: Every night.
Ryan: — when you show up to the theater, you don’t know whom you’re playing. We actors — myself, Justin, and Michael Kevin Darnall — will be playing different characters based off of the audience’s vote. So you have to be fully ready and fully activated and engaged and dropped in. That also just allows a deeper sense of surrender.
Justin: I need to add, Donja has crafted something where everyone involved — the person calling the piece, us doing the piece, the audience witnessing and engaging in the piece — he’s crafted something where you have no choice but to walk in faith. We have to walk in and through the not-knowing.
This play ends maybe with more question marks than it begins with. Within the first 10, 15 lines, the audience is acknowledged as being part of an ongoing conversation with the actors and the text. And both are tasked to be part of this conversation. It’s a process that requires us to “lean not on our own understanding” but to trust each other and hold onto each other for dear life through it.
Is there anything you want the audience to know when they enter the theater?
Michael: I want them to know that while the subject matter is certainly serious and intense, I want the audience to feel excited about the romp they are about to embark upon. This is a unique theatrical experience, the random nature of the performances from night to night, and we who are creating come first and foremost from a spirit of joy, not sorrow.
Justin: I want the audience coming to see this show to know: “You’re involved.”
Taking in this story is not a passive act. You must involve yourself in the story that you decided to come and see today. Stay present and stay engaged with us. Because what we do is dependent on y’all every night.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a true conversation that’s really happening. We can’t do the show without the energy that you bring into the room. And by the end of it, you will be changed or you will have something that is activated or ignited inside of you. Child, there’s gonna be something like you never seen before, I can tell you that.
Ryan, you’re back in Washington, DC, after having graduated from Howard and gone on to star in the FX series Pose. When someone asks you: “Where are you from?” what is your answer?
Ryan: I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, but I think that Ryan Jamaal Swain, the artist and the man, was made here in DC. I find that Howard was really an incubator for me to really, fully tap into who I am and ask myself the question, “Who are you?” In Birmingham, in my performing arts high school, 30 percent of the school was made up of Black people. And then the remainder was white and Asian and other folks. So coming to Howard — because everybody looks like you, right? — it was just like, “Oh, who are you really?” Everybody is their school’s token or their school’s golden child. But what actually makes you — the messiness, the brokenness — what makes you unique? So when people say, “Where are you from?” I’m like, well, I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, but DC is my second home.
Michael: When someone asks me where I’m from, my answer is Silver Spring, Maryland. I was born and raised in Silver Spring up until I left for college in New York. I’m over in North Bethesda now: which we locals know is “bougie” for Rockville.
The DMV is home. I grew up going on field trips to theaters I am now blessed to work with professionally. I feel very fortunate that we have such a large theater community in the place I will always call home.
Justin: If someone asked me where I’m from. I’ll say Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, technically I’m from Concord, North Carolina, which is the suburb outside of Charlotte. I do claim Concord, but I say Charlotte first ’cause people seem to know Charlotte. And pretty much the same as Ryan, I would say DC is my artistic home. It’s my second home. It’s the second place I’ve lived the longest — outside of my childhood.
Ryan: DC shaped me as a queer man. I did my first queer play here with Alan Sharp during my freshman year of college. He was really influential for me to accept who I am as a Black queer man as well. I definitely wanted to shout out Alan on that. For sure.
People know me most notably for being on Pose. But the first time that I actually saw anything about Ballroom or Ballroom-adjacent was when I was preparing for my thesis project at Howard. I did this fictional piece about this drag queen and the Stonewall bar and riots. I was looking at all the source material. And that’s the first time that I saw the film Paris Is Burning or any kind of deep dive into queer culture. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard was a real impact for me as well to really get in on who I was. I hate to say it like this. But sometimes when Black people who go to predominantly white institutions — or if they haven’t had an Afro-centric or African diasporic upbringing, the first thing that they do is, they go wear the most boldest kente cloth out there. You know what I mean? So they can have this space of feeling like they have some type of ownership of Self. And I found that DC was like that for me and my queerness. Here, I was able to now excavate and carve out what it means for me, Ryan Jamaal Swain. What is my queerness? DC gave me the treasure trove to explore. And then we kind of cut away at like, well, we don’t want that. We do want this.
Justin: My experience of Washington is: this is a community that grabbed me tight, grabbed me quick, held me close, and lifted me up. I still get a little emotional when I talk about my time in DC.
My mentor Timothy Douglas was directing a play here. That’s what brought me to the community. But the work is why I stayed: the stories that DC was telling! And this was in 2015, 2016. Mike Brown died in 2014. And I feel like after his death and the Black Lives Matter movement started, we started seeing the concerns about those things trickle down into the work. But the way the community just kind of rallied around and embraced me is something I’m still kind of grappling with.
I’ll share this with y’all. Three weeks into moving to DC I got an HIV diagnosis. Three weeks. And I had no community, no — you know, I had friends, colleagues — but no, like close friendships yet. No address, no — just kind of out here in the wind. And I said, well, I don’t know what this means, but I’ll figure it out and while I’m figuring it out, I’ll throw myself into my work. ‘Cause that’s what I came here to do. And DC was really vibing with me hard and was willing to see me in so many different plays: telling many different stories, stepping into many different characters. The community was really embracing of my whole humanity. I’m talking about queerness, I’m talking about my Blackness. I just felt really seen. It took a while for me to see me, you know. But my journey in the DC theater community helped. The love I got from the community was enough to like spark the self-love that I needed and didn’t know how to get.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah. Like, it just turned on the switch or ignited something.
Ryan: This deep yearning, deep kind of excavating of truth of self. On all fronts. Yeah, same, same, same.
Thinking about this from a heart space rather than a news item space: Why is HIV/AIDS still a thing in the 21st century?
Ryan: Ah, that’s the question.
Michael: As a child in the ’80s growing up with my mother’s Black churchgoing family, I certainly witnessed the relationship members of the Black community had with AIDS. There were pastors and church members, cousins, and family friends being diagnosed. There were rumors and hushed tones, harsh judgments, and attempts to cover up the truth. Black Americans already have a complicated relationship with homosexuality, and to then be faced with this syndrome steeped in that community certainly did not lend to healing and progressive thoughts on the subject of homosexuality. As more and more folks were diagnosed, we saw a generation of young mothers and children living with AIDS. I would like to think that in some way that helped to destigmatize AIDS, that this syndrome is not “a gay disease,” which I heard all the time growing up. And even if it were “a gay disease,” why can’t we as a race of humans find empathy for our gay brothers instead of our social and religious reflex to condemn?
Justin: Anything we ask of ourselves or ask ourselves about this comes with an answer that requires some form of accountability on our part, whatever that may be.
You know, I think we as a collective are still very much grieving and don’t have the language. We are all affected and impacted by the legacy of this virus and the epidemic. If you didn’t know somebody, you know somebody who knows somebody. And we were dealing with our fear and inability to face ourselves and what we can’t understand. We lost so many and our administration turned away and we’re still in a complicated moment of grief, and are still processing our own feelings about the virus and the illness and sexuality, and what it means to be a human being walking on this big rock, floating.
Ryan: That’s one that I have to sit with. ‘Cause that’s a question that one ponders all the time. It fuels my work. It fuels the work of so many people around me. I have to sit with that.
I think it’s really connected to this idea that — as a community and beyond, I think globally — there’s a bit of shame and guilt that still exists, the stigmatization of it.
Every time that you would see it on television or film put into a story, there was always some type of scare tactic that was also connected to it. And that’s not all there is. As we continue to have more stories where HIV’s not used for shock value, scare culture, and entertainment — where we have people living full, healthy, brilliant lives and just so happen to have HIV — I think that that gives us the luxury and the courtesy to move away from the overarching fear that everyone feels.
There’s a bunch of stories and a bunch of hope that’s also part of living with HIV and being with HIV.
What is the ravaging of HIV’s place in the hierarchy of “things that happen to Black people”?
Ryan: Right. Pain and trauma is a huge part of Black and Brown folks’ stories, however that’s not the only thing. The title of the show itself already tells you what it’s doing to a community of folk. But I’m more interested in the conversation and more interested in this idea of how is dealing with this challenge liberating people instead of how is it bogging down folk.
Justin: A friend and I were talking about how fun it is being at this time in life and career where the babes — the kids — at Howard are looking at us, and it’s like, “Oh, snap! I have things to teach too. I have wisdom to pass on.” And how in rising to that occasion I think about the generation of artists we lost.
Ryan: There’s something happening. Because even back in New York, there’s this conversation happening about let’s actually, truly tell layered, nuanced, complex stories about things that have impacted the community.
I believe that theater and the arts have this spiritual component that really can invoke and conjure up the healing that a community or people need or just the vessel that’s telling the story needs.
This [play, one in two] is a love letter to those folks, those unsung heroes, those folks that made it to the end of their rainbow in some way, shape, or form. And we hope that it immortalizes them in a way that just conjures them up.
I think that with everything that we’re feeling through the last couple of years, being able to just show up for yourself, show up for your life, is important and powerful. I find that living with HIV is not an exception to that process of forward progression and showing up, taking up space. And I hope that this play allows everyone that comes see it the same opportunity and encouragement to do so.
one in two plays June 1 to 25, 2023, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets ($29–$64), call the box office at 202-399-6764, or go online. Rush, student, senior, military, and First Responder discounts are available at mosaictheatre.org.
COVID Safety: Mosaic Theater aligns its safety protocols with those of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masking is recommended, however it is no longer mandatory—masks in theaters and public spaces at the Atlas Performing Arts Center are now optional. For the latest information, visit mosaictheater.org/health-and-
Mosaic’s unabashed ‘one in two’ lifts stigma of HIV+ Black male bodies (review by Daarel Burnette II, June 5, 2023)