“I was 19 when I discovered I was HIV-positive.” Vincent Chevalier speaks these momentous words with a calm and easy tone, belying his tender years and heavy burden.
The soft-spoken writer and actor, now 23, is living testimony to the lingering threat of HIV and AIDS to our community — and to our young people in particular. He is a compelling activist determined to dispel the fears and prejudices surrounding his illness. To that end, he’s created an unapologetically personal one-man show called I Am AIDS/An Individual Dealing With Sickness, which premieres in Toronto at the International AIDS Conference. The short five-minute piece is part of the daily program of public readings, theatre, dance, music and more at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Using a style of abstract performance called “jester,” Chevalier documents and illustrates his complicated medical regime, gradually building each routine to a frenetic repetitive pace that he feels captures his constant race toward stable health.
“It started off as a theatre dance piece when I was at school,” says Montreal-based Chevalier. “I had been going through a really rough summer, on antiretrovirals for the first time.
“I was working at a grocery store and began realizing that these patterns in my day, the action of taking my pills every day and bagging groceries, were repetitive actions that enslaved me, yet both kept me alive.”
As Chevalier became more accustomed to his work and drug regimen, he began to further examine the behavioural cycles in his day-to-day routine, and this led to the idea for a performance piece illustrating the demanding nature of his survival.
“These rituals of taking the pills are symbols for life, but at the same time they actually make me feel sick. I call one of my pills ‘Nausea,’ and one of them ‘Diarrhea,'” he chuckles. “They’re my good friends.”
Many young actors in a similar position would be tempted to keep their condition on the down low, but life in the HIV closet is anathema for this activist-minded thespian.
“It’s part of my mandate as an artist to be open about it,” Chevalier says. “For me to change my tone of voice, get rid of my sibilant ‘s’ or deny my HIV status, would be denying a part of myself that needs to be seen and heard and watched.”
Moreover, his diagnosis during his first year at the National Theatre School helped Chevalier focus his priorities. “I was partying a lot and rebelling,” he says. “I was a young guy, and felt I should just be having fun. When I got tested and found out I was poz, I had to rethink a lot of things. I realized what I was doing was not sustainable, and that really propelled me through school. It was like a new lease on life.”
Working with collective theatre companies like Rabiayshna in the Summerworks productions of You Like It (see Summerworks.ca for details) has given the budding writer larger scope for his literary voice, as well as the opportunity to perform alongside other artists on the mainstream fringe.
“It was a very liberating experience for me,” he says. “It’s work that I think is valuable for myself and for the audiences that see them.”
Chevalier considers I Am AIDS to be a prologue of sorts, and plans to allow the piece to evolve in relation to his illness. But for now the focus is making an impact with his story, and hopefully opening up more discourse on a disease surrounded by fear and isolation.
“The more we can have these conversations, the less we have to fear,” Chevalier says. “And I fear fear so much.”