Playwright Donja R. Love wins Terrence McNally Award

Donja R. Love

Philadelphia native Donja R. Love has made a name for himself on the national theater scene in recent years. In New York, where the queer playwright is now based, his work has been produced or commissioned by several leading theater companies, including Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic Theatre Company and The New Group. A graduate of the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program, Love’s work has been nominated for the Outer Critics’ Circle’s John Gassner Playwriting Award, and he has won the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award.

Love’s latest triumph occurred closer to home, when he won the 2021 Terrence McNally Award for “What Will Happen to All That Beauty?” The award — named for the late queer playwright, who died of COVID-19, and bestowed by Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) — recognizes an outstanding work by an artist born, raised or currently residing in Philadelphia. Love, who is HIV-positive, frequently centers characters who are Black, queer and living with HIV in his work; “What Will Happen to All This Beauty?” explores life at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s as well as in the present day. In a press release, PTC’s producing artistic director Paige Price described it as “an unflinching, sprawling epic featuring intricately detailed characters that are so hungry, you find yourself trying to breathe for them.”

Love spoke with PGN about his upbringing in Philadelphia, finding his voice as a playwright and his experiences living as a Black man with HIV. Some responses have been condensed and lightly edited.

Congratulations on the McNally Award! Can you talk a little bit about the play and what inspired you to write it?

I’ll start by saying that I don’t like calling it a play. I prefer calling it an offering, and I call it an offering because, for me, the piece feels as if it is holding space for individuals — particularly Black people who live with HIV or who have passed from AIDS-related complications. I also call it an offering because the piece is structured in two parts. The first part, which I call a play within itself, is set in 1986, and the second part is set in 2016. So we have two parts that make up the offering. It’s two stories that make up a whole. The first part takes place in New York City, and we follow a couple who are expecting a child. They navigate what it means to have a child at a time of so much uncertainty, particularly around HIV and AIDS, and how that impacts their family that they are creating. The second part takes place in Jackson, Miss., which was once looked at as the epicenter of new HIV diagnoses, and we follow their child. We see this child who is now in Jackson and what it means to navigate HIV and AIDS in the present day, and what it looks like overall for the 30-year time frame in this family: what they learned, what they didn’t know and how history has repeated itself in this familiar sense.

Did you always know that you wanted to write something that would look back on that earlier time period? I know some of your previous works have also been set in different historical periods beyond the present day.

Absolutely. I love history, and I feel as if there is so much to learn from it — specifically from the history that hasn’t been taught, the history that has been erased from the narrative or ignored. That’s what I’m always lasering in on. What are the stories from history that haven’t been told? What are the stories that have been forgotten? When I think of a story like “What Will Happen to All That Beauty?”, I was really interested in centering a group of people that seldom have their stories told as it relates to HIV and AIDS, in a historical sense and a contemporary sense. We truly are living history, and we need to look at what we have gained, what we have learned and what we have forgotten. It’s important to look at HIV/AIDS through a historical lens and to center Black people in that narrative. In 2016, the CDC released a study saying that one in every two Black gay or bisexual men are projected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. This didn’t just come to be. There was a path that led us to that statistic. For me, looking at Black peoples’ relationship to HIV and AIDS felt really important to uncover and figure out how we got to such a startling statistic.

You have been very open personally about living with HIV. I don’t want to ask a naive-sounding question, but why has it been important for you to be out and visible when many still are not?

What comes to mind is my well-being, my sanity, my joy. My journey of living with HIV is very much mine, and that journey looked like getting to a place of being public with my status, first and foremost. It also involved showing other individuals that we can not only live, not only survive, but we can thrive with HIV. I find myself thinking about Joseph Bean, an amazing writer and an ancestor of mine, who once said that visibility is survival. So in order to survive — and particularly for those who exist within historically oppressed identities, within the margins of the margins of the margins — visibility is a way to survive. For me, to be the fullest version of myself, I need to be visible with all aspects of myself, and that includes being HIV-positive. Again, like I said, first and foremost for me so that I can get to a space of my wholeness. But I can also hopefully be a light and a beacon for other individuals living with HIV. I think about the number of folks in my inbox, who tell me they are also HIV-positive, and being able to see me has helped them navigate their diagnosis, their status — whether it’s just speaking about it to themselves, which is also a victory, or being public about it.

How does it feel to be recognized by the theater community in your hometown?

It literally felt like the sky had opened up and rainbows were falling from the sky, and unicorns were just everywhere! It was amazing and spectacular. Especially when I think about Philadelphia Theatre Company, because before moving to New York, for the last few years of my being an official Philly resident, I was a teaching artist at PTC. So to be awarded this amazing prize at PTC feels like such a full-circle moment. That was such the icing on the cake, why the skies opened up and the rainbows were shooting out. To receive this award for a piece that means so much and holds so much space for me and my community, and to be awarded by my Philadelphia community, it’s spectacular. I still feel like I’m floating right now.

What was your experience like growing up in Philadelphia?

It was beautiful! I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, right off of 60th and Springfield by Cobbs Creek Parkway, and I just remember so many days going down to the park with my family. One of the highlights for me was throwing little basement parties with my brothers and sister, and having all the neighborhood kids come and we would just party together. What I loved so much about it is that the majority of my family, on both my maternal and paternal sides, also lived in Southwest Philadelphia. I could walk to my grandma, my great-grandma, my aunts — we were all in this hub together, and that was really the first sense of community, being able to have a neighborhood community and a familial community that was so close. I didn’t realize it, and it’s literally hitting me in this conversation that that for me was the roots of my understanding of community. Being able to experience it at such a young age, having people so close to me in a familial and geographical sense, is one of the things that made me who I am today in terms of the importance of community. To have people who believe in you, really root for you, and who you feel the same way about.

You’ve achieved a lot so far, but you’re still young. What do you envision for the next 5-10 years of your career?

I will say that I am really interested in continuing to hold space for my community. Last year, I launched Write It Out, which is a playwrights’ program for individuals living with HIV. To date, it’s been one of the most fulfilling and humbling experiences not just within my career, but within my life. To be able, for 12 weeks, to be in a space — this was virtual — but to be in a space with other writers living with HIV, creating stories together and just being together, it was something I didn’t realize how much I needed. I’m excited to continue to grow and cultivate Write It Out, so that we can continue to build up a roster of phenomenal playwrights living with HIV. I’m excited to continue telling stories for and about my people, not just onstage but on screen as well. To be able to finally, in such a full and rich way, to show the stories of Black people living with HIV on the screen. So often these narratives center white-identified folks, and stories that center people dying from AIDS have infiltrated the narrative. In my future, I’m excited to create stories for the screen to show not just Black folks who have died from AIDS-related complications, but people who are living, surviving and thriving with HIV.