The HIV/AIDS epidemic struck hard and fast in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the United States, it hit the Gay community the hardest of all, and it was deadly. Contracting HIV meant death was inevitable. If one was part of certain communities, the theatre world for example, friends and loved ones died in appalling numbers. And the grieving was continuous and intense. Eventually research led, not to a cure, but to a system of drugs and behavior called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which provided a way to extend the lives of those infected. The virus continues to spread. At this time an estimated 36.7 million people worldwide are living with HIV. Of those, 18.2 million are receiving antiretroviral therapy. It is no longer a sure death sentence, but the impact on the sufferers and those who love them is still severe.
Although there are methods for living with HIV, there is still a stigma that affects the everyday lives and loves of those infected. Shades of Disclosure is a theatre piece created by QueerWise, “a Los Angeles based group of LGBTQ writers and spoken word artists, creating performance pieces.” The cast of sixteen tells the individual stories of their experiences with HIV/AIDS. With one exception, cast members portray themselves. At the outset, they call out their character names – The Deserter, Clayton-The Hottie, The Immigrant, The Best Friend, The Fuckbuddy, for example — and then declare themselves to be either HIV positive or negative.
Sophie Kim, The Archivist, provides the overarching conceit for this show. Sophie, a high school sophomore and videographer, inspired and guided by her teacher and cast member, The Artist, makes a documentary, unobtrusively recording the unfolding stories of the other cast members. In her shy endearing way, she bookends the piece introducing it at the beginning and capping it at the end.
The individuals tell their stories bit by bit with artless authenticity. Keen to tell their stories, they are mostly at ease in front of an audience, which is not to say they are all experienced actors. Almost all the performers have scripts in hand, although some don’t need them. What makes this performance successful is the passion with which all the players tell their stories. The experience is affecting. It doesn’t take long before the eyes water in emotional sympathy.
These are the story tellers: Albert Auben, Gil Feroli, Cheri Gaulke, Randy (Joe) Gravelle, John Glenn Harding, Jessie Jacobson, Sophie Kim, Darrell Larson, Timothy Mack, Mason Mahoney, Jen O’Connor, Roland Palencia, Christine Papalexis, Jim Pentecost, Ken Pienkos and David Trudell.
Directed by Michael Kearns and produced by Gary Grossman, the show’s scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, lit by Derrick McDaniel, has a homey feeling with many floor and table lamps, chairs, stools, rugs, and a trunk down center. Sound is designed Christopher Moscatiello, and Nicholas Santiago is the projection designer.
Shades of Disclosure runs at 8:00pm Saturdays, and 3:00pm on Sundays through February 25 at Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.