Once upon a time in 2010, during a FAM trip for writers to Fort Lauderdale, I met my friend, the Maplewood, N.J.,-based playwright Tim Pinckney.
Last winter, Tim came to San Francisco to debut his play Still at Risk at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. A bit of a period piece set post-AIDS crisis, Still at Risk explores how an activist copes with his place in a world that has seen and, even, let a lot of his friends die because of an irrational fear that didn’t initially allow room for empathy, compassion, or action. While many strides have been made since the pandemic first became part of the conversation in America and around the world back in the early 1980s, in terms of treating, preventing, and removing the stigma and mystery around HIV/AIDS, today the play resonates precisely because we haven’t yet fully won the battle against the virus or the disease, and because some of us still don’t know how to take care of our brothers and sisters (or willfully refuse to do the decent, right thing).
To celebrate the occasion, we did a quick texterview to get the word out, not only so y’all in New York can go support my friend and the arts but so that we all can continue to think about HIV/AIDS and be proactive about it. It arguably may not be a crisis right now, but it easily could turn into one again. Plus, I really believe some people have forgotten about how bad it was, while others may not even be aware of the devastation wrought by the virus. A generation of people was lost.
King of Cups: Thank for agreeing to this texterview, Tim! “Texterview”…that’s a thing now, right?
Tim Pinckney: Sure! Anything for you!!! ❤️ Thank you!
King of Cups: What…is it…like? What’s it like, being Off-Broadway with Still at Risk? What iteration of the show is this?
Tim Pinckney: It’s essentially the same script that we did in San Francisco last year, but with some cuts, edits, rewrites; all of the above. The script is in really good shape and the actors are tearing into it like fresh bread.
King of Cups: Delicious.
Tim Pinckney: The San Francisco production was the first full production of the play. Prior to that, we had done a series of readings, a 29-hour workshop, as well as a benefit reading for the LGBT center in New York City. This current production is the New York City premiere and I’m very to happy to have my play come home.
King of Cups: New York, New York! 🍎
Tim Pinckney: Yaas!
King of Cups: I read something you posted about having met some children, some young’uns out here in San Francisco, with whom you shared conversations about HIV/AIDS back then and what the pandemic was like, and about the genesis of the play. I guess the first part of this question is, what kind of feedback are you getting from today’s New York City kids regarding this once-hot-and-quite-pressing topic?
Tim Pinckney: The group of kids in San Francisco was a school group. They saw the show shortly after the Parkland massacre. They were struck by the parallels of a group of individuals being allowed to die while the government did nothing. This is what they were feeling as students now; these massacres keep happening and our government is silent and does nothing. This is exactly what we experienced during the AIDS crisis, when people were dying and our government was also silent. [Those kids] understood the play in a very profound, heartfelt way.
King of Cups: Right. Nothing changes for the better in America. Not fast, anyway. Unless there’s money in it for a few.
Tim Pinckney: We haven’t had any school groups at this point in our Off-Broadway run, but we’ve had a lot of young people in their 20s that essentially knew nothing about the AIDS crisis. It’s not their fault; it’s apparently a part of history that is not taught. We have also had a large contingent of longtime survivors from various HIV/AIDS organizations in town. The fact that they are moved by the play means the world to me.
King of Cups: I guess the other part of the question relates to the title of the play. I presume you called it Still at Risk because HIV/AIDS is something that’s been managed in America and around the world, but it hasn’t been conquered.
Tim Pinckney: Yes but it’s more than that. The titular risk is about more than just HIV/AIDS. It has to do with the lead character’s journey.
King of Cups: This week I read about a young man who, in spite of taking PrEP, still contracted the virus. Is a disservice being done to a new generation by not educating them on a very real threat that’s still lurking out there?
Tim Pinckney: There is very little prevention information available these days. During the height of the crisis, prevention information was very common and available – at least in my NYC experience. I haven’t read enough about that particular incident you mention to comment on it, but living through what I lived through, the drug would have never been enough for me. I would’ve taken additional precautions as well. At that time, it was very hard to trust anything new, it was hard to believe in the efficacy of any new drug; there were so many disappointments.
King of Cups: The guy seems to be, I dunno, at peace with it in the sense that he’s not blaming PrEP but championing that for every case like his that may exist, 99 percent of the people taking PrEP are safeguarded from the virus because of PrEP. To your point, though, precaution marketing isn’t as prevalent. It’s more narrowly focused to this one preventive measure, yet, thankfully, it has taken a more broad view of matters beyond gay. The red ribbon, though, seemingly has fallen out of style, out of favor.
Tim Pinckney: I think most activists would tell you that the red ribbon was never particularly popular with them. It seem to be a reminder for people, which is a lovely gesture, but I think those of us that were working on the front lines didn’t need a reminder. It was sort of like when they announced there was a World AIDS Day. It was a nice thought, but from where I sat, every day was World AIDS day.
King of Cups: That’s a richer (unfortunately richer) perspective. Yes, every day is World AIDS Day. Alas, now, for some crazy reasons, we worry more about National Pizza Day or National Rosé Day. What I liked about the play most, aside from seeing fully realized characters, was the reminder. We’re not out of the woods yet. HIV/AIDS prevention is not done, neither here nor anywhere else.
Tim Pinckney: That’s very well said.
King of Cups: You’re part of the culture now. Still at Risk, I mean. Has this process of mounting the play, now in New York, been cathartic?
Tim Pinckney: Extremely! This is where I have always wanted it. I think it will play well in all kinds of theaters, but it’s a New York story and I wanted it here.
King of Cups: Next up the Great White Way!
Tim Pinckney: Ha! We’ll see.
King of Cups: Broadway, baby! Start lining up at TKTS, kids.
Tim Pinckney: I just want people to see it!
King of Cups: I noticed your casting is fairly fluid. You had a black actress in San Francisco playing Susan in San Francisco, and now a white actress is in the same role Off-Broadway. While your story is very much about a past moment in time, is the casting something that’s less strict on purpose? It’s something that is very much in the air now, you know, who gets to play which role. End of the day, it’s only a play, right? I like seeing the universality of the topic reflected in the casting. That’s what I’m getting at.
Tim Pinckney: It’s just how it played out here. It’s always based on who’s available and interested, and, of course you always want the best actor you can find.
King of Cups: In terms of what still needs to be accomplished to eradicate HIV/AIDS, what is your hope for the play’s contribution to this crucial endeavor? What would you like to see and hear more of, or less of, in terms of the where the conversation is now and where it needs to be?
Tim Pinckney: I think it’s important for people to remember and to know what happened. It’s important that people know how bad it was even if it didn’t touch them directly (which quite frankly I find hard to believe). This epidemic was completely out of control until the work of activists demanding that attention be paid. We are living in a time right now with a mad man in the White House, who is demonizing groups of people. It’s very easy to see how something like this could happen again. We have to remain vigilant. And informed.
King of Cups: And involved. Nothing changes unless you participate, unless you take the time to get involved.
Tim Pinckney: 100%.
King of Cups: And now, plug it: How much longer is Still at Risk running for and where?
Tim Pinckney: We run through March 31. We are at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue in New York City. We’re right in the sweet spot of the East Village; lots of fun, cool places to eat and drink!