In a world where artificial intelligence is encroaching on reality every day and the pandemic is always in the background, in-person experiences are much more interactive and engaging.
Case in point: Haunted house experience Terror Roulette A place in South Barrington where the fourth wall doesn’t exist and players can lend a hand to provide you with a spookier environment. The “As Long As I Can” theater experience offers audiences at the Morgan Arts Complex in Bridgeport a similar choose-your-own-adventure feel, with colorful wristbands identifying which path you take before the performance.
Everyone begins their immersive theater experience in the same place: inside the four pink walls that form the stage of a bar/nightclub called “Charmed.” There we meet the characters Marcus, Delius, Voya, George, Tai, Larry and Shydel. Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience gets a glimpse into the lives and relationships of these men and women, while we see integral scenes of their lives leading up to Miss Hope Chest’s (played by Lawrence Washington, a.k.a. Miss Lawrence) performance.
I followed George (Christopher Livingston), who was given an orange bracelet, as he met Delius (Alphonso Walker Jr.) at the bar, only to later go to a clinic and find out he was HIV positive. My group also witnessed the relationship between Marcus (Ulric Alfred Taylor) and Shydel (Kamarick Mackey). When Marcus goes to the clinic, it comes back negative. The rest of the plot unfolds on two tangents: Marcus and George, who has fallen in love with Shydel, comes to terms with his new status and what it means moving forward.
The audience moves through rooms created in a warehouse space within the Morgan Arts Complex. Once a scene is finished, actors and theater staff accompany us to and from each scene. The audience visits the living room of Marcus’s mother (Carolyn Michelle Smith) and Delius’s mother (Saadiqa Kamillah Muhammad), where they tell the audience what they want and don’t want for their children, who are already young men – a struggle for normalcy. A world where lifespans are routinely shortened by violence, police, stigma and fear.
We get a front seat seat to seeing how George and Marcus react to the news of their condition. We sit off to the side in Marcus’ room as he lets his guard down to talk about his feelings and express them with Shydel (there’s a dance scene that will make you cry). We go to the church, equipped with hymns and hand fans; We stand off to the side in the locker room as Larry rages at the rate at which black men are dying from AIDS. Along the way, the delightful voices of Voya (Meredith Noel) and Washington inject the entire space with a gravitas about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how it affects the Black community, which makes up a large portion of the new population. HIV diagnoses compared to other races and ethnicities Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lighting of each environment, the colors of each room, the actors interacting with an audience here and there, all give the feeling of being in a production as part of the team, showing and feeling the need for more education and support for Black people. Bisexual, gay and queer men often have to live with the fear of their sexuality being revealed. Each of the characters offers the audience the opportunity to connect with a personal lived experience, while also confronting how their own experiences and biases may contribute to the stigma that affects communities.
At the end of the experience, director Logan Vaughn and presenting sponsor ViiV Healthcare hosted a conversation with the audience about which scene from the immersive experience spoke to them the most.
When an audience member asked how the group with a different wristband experienced the work, Vaughn said, “No two experiences in the game are the same.” He encourages people to talk about “As Long As I Can” and share it with people so they can come and experience it.
The production is produced by New York-based Harley & Co., which creates entertainment pieces for clients such as ViiV Healthcare, a pharmaceutical company specializing in drugs to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS. belongs to the company. (Information about medications is provided as part of the post-show chat.)
Company manager Darius Brown of Harley & Co. said the pandemic halted touring efforts in 2020, but things are getting back on track.
Brown said the evaluation, conducted at Johns Hopkins University, showed that after seeing the study, viewers showed a greater commitment to advocating for people living with HIV and LGBTQ+ communities. Brown believes the way “As Long As I Can” is presented breaks down barriers that a regular play about HIV and AIDS cannot. He said he believed so much in the project that he left his career in broadcast journalism to do what he could to help with the production. It’s “an intriguing journey that I couldn’t resist being a part of,” he said.
“As Long as I Can” runs through Oct. 21 at the Morgan Arts Complex, 3622 S. Morgan St.; free (ages 18+) www.eventbrite.com