HIV/AIDS stigma “Still Here”

Last Monday and Tuesday, Bob’s Underground Cafe was transformed into an old-timey Louisiana bar for the play “Still Here,” written and directed by Nik Jameson ’11. The play was inspired by Jameson’s research for her senior thesis, for which Jameson travelled to New Orleans to work with the HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment organization NoAids. Although fictional, the play is largely based on interviews and conversations with diagnosed New Orleans residents. “Still Here” is an intimate, revealing and exceptionally designed production.

Audience members and Nik Jameson '11, the writer and director (far right), watch "Still Here." Jameson created the play as part of a senior thesis. Photograph taken by Sophie Fajardo.

Audience members filed through Bob’s backdoor to find an almost unrecognizable space. The cafe’s counters were concealed by a faux-brick wall, authentically dressed with neon signs and beer promotions lent from Lonnski’s Pub. A sliver of green graffiti-covered wall appeared behind a woodgrained bar, which was adorned with gleaming bottles of liquors. To give integrity to the set, the crew painted Bob’s west wall burnt orange, and the ceiling duct a tarnished brick red.

Tables and chairs filled the room such that the audience members were part of the stage, acting as extras for the play. Kate Baumgartner, the play’s set and light designer, had installed a grid of hanging floodlamps taped across the ceiling, which cast moody spots over each table.

The set built off of tropes of bar culture in order to present an oft over-dramatized topic from the perspective of everyday people. Blocking the actors in the middle of the audience highlighted how the characters were no different than the people around them.

In true New Orleansian fashion, live music is played throughout the performance by Evan Hunsley ’11 (fiddle), Michael Blankenship ’10 (bass) and Mark Mercier ’11 (guitar). They strummed blues classics, quoting “Red House” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

The play began with Joel (played by Que Newbill ’11.5) and Richard (played by Braden Brown ’14) arriving at the bar in order to see a performance by a renowned fiddle player. Over the course of their conversation the audience learns that Richard is Joel’s sponsor in Crystal Meth Anonymous, and that both are homosexual and HIV positive.
These facts are interspersed between Richard’s excitement about his job and Joel’s appreciation of the band, such that the dialogue is not forced, even though it is slanted towards each individual’s relationship with their disease.

In the Q&A, after the show Jameson commented that Jameson was surprised by the prevalence of methamphetamine in the HIV positive community—Richard and Joel express how they turned to drugs after learning of their diagnosis. Richard used as an attempt to forget his condition while Joel alludes that his relationship with meth is tied to his fear of death.

Christine Grummon '11 and Mona Ghadiri '11 act out a scene from "Still Here" last Monday in a remodeled Bob's underground cafe. Photograph taken by Sophie Fajardo.

Next, the bartender Bobby (played by Christine Grummon ’11) invites an old friend Lisa (played by Mona Ghadiri ’11) to sit, and pours a strong drink. The two catch up and the audience learns that Lisa contracted HIV while working as a nurse and is now retired. Over the course of the play, Lisa delivers a number of chilling monologues, which uncovered some of the psychological difficulties of living the disease.

In one of the most striking scenes, Lisa narrates the story of an HIV positive friend of hers, while Joel enacts her depiction—he was invited to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner only to be served from a separate table which was set entirely with plastic-ware.

The last characters to be introduced in “Still Here” are Cadence (Najma Osman ’12) and Andre (played by Greg Armstrong ’14), who are on a date. Cadence has not yet told Andre that she is HIV positive and she is nervous as to how Andre will receive the news.

In order to provoke the confession, Jameson masterfully wove facts about HIV/AIDS into the narrative of the play. At one point, after the band had played a set, crew members dispersed informational pamphlets to the audience and characters, a device which prompted Andre to ask Cadence whether she had been tested; despite her fears, Andre’s response was cool.

“Still Here” was a beautiful depiction of the lives of HIV positive individuals.

“I wanted to write a play that wasn’t sad,” Jameson said.

Jameson succeeded. Furthermore, the play addressed the social stigmas surrounding the disease, and also demonstrated how ill conceived those stigmas are by refusing to “other” the characters from the audience. “Still Here” shows that a person with HIV/AIDS should not have to live as a marked individual. In the end, the characters overcome their fears of death, invalidity and rejection in order to enjoy a good blues show.