“VI DEGREES,” his award-winning play, tackles sexual taboos within the African-American community, including marital infidelity, prison life, closeted homosexuality (the ‘down low’), unprotected sex, overall promiscuous and reckless behavior; daughter-daddy issues, financial strife and ignorance about HIV/AIDS. The play has been performed in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and at some of the 20 most renowned historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) since 2008.
Walter Dallas, famed former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, dedicated to African-American drama, described “VI DEGREES” as a “very entertaining but sobering, shockingly serious play, which innovatively pries the cover off of the DL scene [a subculture of men who usually identify as heterosexual, but who have sex with men], and how it affects a close-knit family, their best friends and their wedding plans.”
PGN recently spoke with Goins about his groundbreaking play, which was performed at The Adrienne last month.
Kash Goins: I’ve known people and heard stories of others who have had devastating situations cripple their marriages. I’ve spoken with fellow artists who are openly gay and who offered not only artistic feedback for “VI DEGREES,” but insight to the DL experience to help inform and define the characters I’ve written.
Eger: The rate of new HIV infections for black men is more than six times as high as the rate among white men. To what do you attribute that disproportionately high number, given the comparatively small number of African-American males in the U.S. population?
Goins: It’s confounding, almost staggering! The other stats that point to the prevalence of African-American women who are infected through heterosexual relationships with African-American men are also astounding. My view from the inside-out is that there is still a large degree of health-related ignorance and misconceptions embraced by my demographic. For example, backing down from HIV/AIDS for a moment, I’ve recently gotten a vasectomy to ensure that my wife and I don’t have any more pregnancies. I shared this on my social networks as a means for encouraging others to do the same. I never even considered it to be “taboo.” The responses that came from my African-American male friends ranged from jokes to proclamations of my insanity for doing such a thing. What was even more surprising was that those who were moved to consider the same for the benefit of themselves and their significant others did so in secret.
Eger: This seems to suggest that a lot of stigma is still attached to sexual issues in the black community?
Goins: I feel that the stigma, especially in my demographic, is still as strong as it was when HIV/AIDS first hit the U.S. some 30-plus years ago. In addition, with the small population of “eligible” heterosexual black men in the face of a larger pool of black women, these social-sexual networks that evolve in dense metropolitan areas are prevalent. Everybody is sleeping with everybody indirectly. So, if HIV/AIDS is introduced to that circle, it has an easier opportunity to spread around. This is actually one of the points made by “VI DEGREES.” Another issue is the stigma associated with male-male sexual relationships. They are taboo, yet increasingly prevalent — hence, the DL experience.
Eger: What are the most harmful lingering misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, especially in the black community?
Goins: That it’s predominantly a gay and white disease, even though the statistics obliterate that thinking. There’s almost an undercurrent of comfort in not knowing. If you polled a population of blacks, they would probably rate knowing they were infected as a worse fate than being infected. This desire to be ignorant in this way helps the disease to grow.
Goins: Yes, while HIV/AIDS is no longer a “gay disease,” it’s still a more fertile environment in either unprotected or inadequately protected male-male intercourse. I think all of this plays a part in the disparity. Where there are secrets, there are also consequences of the secrecy. Where there is ignorance, the consequences are magnified. Whites and others are much more comfortable than blacks being in these relationships among men. Yet, blacks are still doing it in secret. I know personally of stories involving men from the “streets” who went to jail and engaged in full-on relationships with other men in jail. Then they come home and re-engage in public heterosexual relationships. Privately, however, they have developed a different taste.
Eger: How did you reconcile your religious beliefs with the reality of the African-American community, and the role of the Baptist Church, in particular, for blocking serious discussions of taboo subjects?
Goins: I’ve always considered myself a strong individual thinker without a sheep-like mentality to herd. Yet, I reckon I still subjected myself to the weekly rituals and the inherent guilt manufacturing. The Baptist Church as an institution is a staple in the black community, serving as a hospital, a social network, a place of accountability and the thing that many need to maintain their sanity. It provides so much interpersonal and spiritual value to those who embrace and need it. I’ve seen many people become better people because of it. Many black communities would be hell in a hand basket without it. However, there are “pet sins” that are viewed universally by the Baptist Church that leave many in need of help with nowhere to go. The Baptist Church, being a hub for blacks, has a responsibility to urge more social consciousness.
Eger: Talk about your experience with resistance to this vital topic within the black community when first you approached these subjects.
Goins: I don’t suffer a lot of resistance with my endeavors. Either that or maybe I’m immune to it. There is always an audience willing to consume and love what it is that I have to offer. Some of those audiences have been very small, while others have been massive.
Eger: How would you describe a possible change of heart within the community toward stigmas?
Goins: I don’t know that I see it. I see that the message is getting out there a little more. There are others like myself that have taken to grassroots efforts to be social advocates for informing the public about the perils of HIV/AIDS. One who comes to mind is a mentee and former collaborator named Shenille Melton and her organization “iChoose2live.” But I think the stigmas that keep us blacks stuck are still there.
Eger: To what do you attribute such an important, life-enhancing paradigm shift?
Goins: Blacks are becoming more liberal in 2015, and more expressive in their relationships. For example, there is a shift where gay African-Americans are more comfortable living in their truths than there may have been 10 years ago. This is commensurate with the country becoming more liberal, open and accepting. But, I still think the ignorance and the stigma mentality that is attached to HIV/AIDS among blacks is still counterproductive to curbing the epidemic.
Eger: In your play, you brought up many taboos and concerns among African-Americans. How did you handle this wide range of psychological, social and sexual problems as a writer so that audiences would not get confused, nor depressed, but become aware and perhaps even take action?
Goins: “VI DEGREES” is light when it’s supposed to be light, funny when it’s supposed to be funny and heavy when it’s supposed to be heavy. It carries a very important message without being preachy. At times, it’s very funny without being minstrel. Overall, the play offers very relatable characters. People love it, they bring others and they always refer to it.
Eger: You set out “to promote a change in these practices,” including “support of protected sex.”
Goins: I did. I think that a gentle reminder can be the best type of influence at times. Theater is disarming. If an audience sees people they can relate to or invest in making certain choices (positive and negative), I think that it at least causes an internal questioning of ourselves. We choose to either agree or disagree. “Strapping up” (condom usage), as it’s presented in the play, is something audiences have to make a decision on while watching the play. I think we “nudge” them in a particular direction. We have distributed baskets of condoms at some shows in the past as well.
Eger: How impactful is knowledge that some of the most famous black dancers, musicians, singers, sportsmen and many others — from Alvin Ailey to Magic Johnson — contracted HIV/AIDS?
Goins: I’m on the fence with that. We blacks tend to lean on the mainstream for slang and fashion trends, financial motivation and superficial things like that, but not much else. If I’m able to present neighbors from two blocks away and get them to tell their stories, that is much more impactful than celebrity influence.
All scene photos by Stephen Hudgins