Miami-Dade County has the highest number of new HIV infections in the country, according the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus wants to inspire change through song and dance.
Since men most affected by HIV are between the ages of 18 and 25, chorus artistic director Anthony Cabrera decided the main character should be someone that demographic could relate to.
The chorus’ upcoming concert, Alex in Discoland takes a twist on the classic children's story, Alice in Wonderland.
“Alex is 20 something years old, came out, and he lives in Miami. He’s gonna be out there to have a good time and everything is telling him no matter what happens you’re gonna be okay ... if you get sick fine you’ll be able to live with that, but the Rabbit takes him [and says] this is what happened to everybody else and this is how people disappeared, one by one on a daily basis,” Cabrera said.
Alex in travels back in time (through a bathroom stall, no less) to 1980s San Francisco, right in the heart of the AIDS epidemic. For those who lived through that time, the memories still sting as Alex’s journey brings up a topic that hits close to home. Chorus member Sandy Allen has been HIV positive for nearly 30 years. He was diagnosed in 1984, during the height of the crisis.
“The thing that’s gets me is that there’s kids today that think they can go out and have unprotected sex and they can take a pill and the next morning and everything’s OK,” he said. “It’s like the morning-after pill.”
The pill Allen makes reference to is called PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. Taken daily, it can prevent users from contracting HIV. Still a relatively new prevention method, Allen fears medicines like PrEP will make people take HIV less seriously and treat it like a chronic illness instead of a possible death sentence, an experience far different than what he endured.
“These kids know about the virus and still they are seroconverting. When we were young and the virus first happened ... we didn’t know what caused it or how it was transmitted,” he said. “Take 20 of your friends and kill 15 of them and that’s what it was like. Your friends would go into the hospital and the nurse would be afraid to go in there and take care of them … Coming out of the sexual revolution, we were like kids in a candy store, it was OK to be free and it was OK to be gay but then the virus hit us like brick wall.”
The show takes the audience through Discoland with ‘80s anthems like I Know What Boys Like, Let’s Get Physical and Another One Bites the Dust — a nod to those who lost their lives to the illness.
Cabrera said the pop songs were purposely chosen to cast a light on a dark story and that it’s one song, in particular, that brings the message home: I Know Where I’ve Been, which Alex sings upon his return to Miami.
“There's a light in the darkness ... showing me the way ... It's a voice that comes from deep within,” are some of the lyrics.
During rehearsal, chorus member and lead Justin Perry breaks down at the end of the song, crying into the shoulders of a fellow castmate. Rehearsal comes to a stop. The chorus members erupt into applause and reach out to comfort him. For Perry, the lyrics represent his own struggles. At one time, he was homeless.
“Like the song says I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going,” he said. “I’ve got a job, I’m in school and now I’m married. ... At first, I was worried the song was too big for me, but when I sing it, I feel it in every piece of me. I understand the song, I really do.”
Perry is now studying audio production at the Art Institutes of Miami. He hopes to open a studio and someday produce his own music.
The story of Alex in Discoland connects to Allen and Perry on a personal level. Cabrera hopes the audience will leave feeling the same.
“[It’s] a cautionary tale for a new generation. Yeah, there’s a lot of fun out there ... but this is what happened to us and you’re exhibiting the same behaviors. You can have just as much fun and still be cautious...and not put yourself in a situation to be exposed to a disease.”
Reporter Ebony Joseph can be reached at ejoseph@MiamiHerald.com.