‘Loneliness Is A Terminal Disease’ uses poetry and dance to explore life with HIV

interview by Noor Hindi

In partnership with Akron AIDS Collaborative, Ma’Sue Productions will stage the original play Loneliness Is A Terminal Disease from Nov. 29 until World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. 

Ma’Sue Productions is an African American-based theater company in Akron. The play is a choreopoem, which includes poems and monologues that feature music and dance about what it’s like to live with HIV. 

The following is an interview with director and playwright John Dayo-Aliya. 

Noor Hindi: Why did you choose a choreopoem as the format for the play? 

John Dayo-Aliya: The tradition of the choreopoem as a theatrical vehicle to explore the conditions of Black life goes back to at least Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf. The genre remains popular, specifically in African American theater, largely because it allows multiple narratives to tell a collective, unifying story.

I chose this form because I wanted to give that sense of E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). It is important for us to realize that there is no monolithic Black experience, any more than there is a monolithic experience of being Black with HIV. Acknowledging these differences is critical to seeing how the nature of the oppression of people of color and people with HIV face tends to generalize, equivocate, reduce, stigmatize and marginalize. But at the same time, there are commonalities that unite people across that spectrum of experiences. 

I want this play to highlight both of those realities. Choreopoem is the style of writing that best suits that. 

NH: What type of narrative does the play weave together? 

JDA: How does one navigate and negotiate the question of love while living with HIV? The play is more interested in exploring that question than weaving a narrative per se. I am interested in love in all its forms: romantic love, familial love, communal love, self-love. The experience of living in a world that struggles to see you is the experience of living in a world that struggles to love you. How can you love what you cannot see? And what does the experience of being out of sight and shade of love do to an individual’s sense of self-love? I think these are important questions. And I also hope it serves as a reminder that, at the end of the day, what we are all fighting for is to love and to be loved. Love is the ultimate humanizing element. 

READ MORE: ‘I’m outliving everybody:’ Steve Arrington reflects on 30 years of advocacy for men with HIV

READ MORE: What do you do after an HIV diagnosis? Black men call the Akron AIDS Collaborative

NH: Tell me about Ma’Sue Productions and its relationship with Akron AIDS Collaborative.

JDA: Ma’Sue Productions is a theater company that was created by my sister, India Burton, and myself in 2011. We created the theater company out of a desire to see more Black theater where people spoke the language that we spoke. And we didn’t see that work around here. So we created it. This is really a dope experiment.

The first time we did [a] show [with Akron AIDS Collaborative, they] were there doing on-site testing in 2013. Steve is the bomb diggity. I love him. I love working with him. It was important for me the first time to have the Akron AIDS Collaborative work with us because I want the work that we do to have maximum impact. I think it’s wonderful when people can sit down in a room and watch a show and let that show allow us to reflect upon our lives outside that theater. That’s cool, but I’m always looking for ways in which we can actually empower people. And sometimes we do that through talkbacks, but sometimes that doesn’t feel sufficient.

NH: What does it mean to be a Black gay man in America right now?

JDA: You look at the news and you see all these people emboldened by Trump. Walking down the street, you never know who it is that might see you and decide that you’re a person who isn’t worth living, and what that can mean for your life. And I think that puts a certain exigency on needing to make the circumstances of my own life, and what I understand of other people who live at the particular intersection I live in more visible to people who don’t necessarily have that experience. 

And I hope that is empowering in that sense. And I hope it inspires people to keep telling stories like this.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Email her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.

Loneliness Is A Terminal Disease
Balch Street Theatre 
Nov. 29 — Dec. 1

Keep up with Ma’Sue Productions by following them on Facebook facebook.com/masueproductions