Taking his hit musical Living with Henry to New York isn’t just an artistic accomplishment for Christopher Wilson. It’s also a measure of the progress that’s been made around HIV. Wilson, who has lived with HIV for nearly a decade, couldn’t have presented his work in the US two years ago because of its decades-long ban on HIV-positive people. Struck down by the Obama administration in 2010, the discriminatory legislation had stopped many artists and activists from travelling to the US.
“Playing a show in New York is a dream come true for any theatre artist,” Wilson says. “I was barred from doing that for a long time, but it’s an honour and a privilege to share this work with this community. New York is the mecca of musical theatre, and it’s also a place where AIDS had, and continues to have, a huge impact.”
Born at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival and remounted in January 2012 at the Next Stage Festival, the work details the complexities of living with HIV in the post-medication era. After testing positive, Michael (Ryan Kelly) must deal with the impact of the disease on his best friend (Lizzie Kurtz), his mother (Mary Kelly) and his husband (Jay Davis). Through the process, Henry (David Silvestri), the virus personified as a jealous lover, haunts his interactions.
While the show began as a means of untangling Wilson’s experiences with HIV (he describes it as a “dramatically liberated autobiography”), the work is more than just self-examination. Advances in treatment may have made HIV a manageable illness, but Wilson finds the gay community’s shifting response concerning.
“Now that people aren’t necessarily dying, the pressure is off and there is somewhat of a complacency developing,” he says. “But that all changes when the issue is thrust in your face through a diagnosis or the disclosure of a sexual partner. While fear and stigmatization are counterproductive, so is indifference.”
While some artists might be overly concerned with the tantalizing future prospects for a Big Apple hit (we Torontonians do love when our talent breaks out elsewhere), Wilson’s focus is on more immediate questions.
“Right now I’m just concentrating on getting the money together to get the show to New York,” he says. “If we sell out and a big commercial producer gets interested, that’s great. But for now I’m taking things one step at a time.