Harrison David Rivers and David Mendizábal are a collaborative force in New York's theater scene. With Rivers as playwright and Mendizábal as director, the pair have created dynamic theatrical experiences together for years. Their latest production, "And She Would Stand Like This," uses the conventions of ‘drag’ and ‘ball culture’ to dramaturgically re-contextualize Euripides’ epic play, "The Trojan Women," to tell the story of a family fighting for survival. As a modern day examination of HIV/AIDS, the play explores the complicated issues of gender, sexuality, health, and family within and among the LGBTQ community of color. See below for Visual AIDS' interview with both Rivers and Mendizábal about the production and their work.

Visual AIDS: And She Would Stand Like This fuses house ball culture / vogue scenes with the dramaturgical tradition of Greek tragedy through storyline and structure. What motivated this provocative pairing and how do you feel each of these traditions reflects upon the other?

Harrison David Rivers: And She Would Stand Like This began as a ten-minute play back in 2011. David commissioned me to write the piece, while he was a Directing Intern at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I wasn’t able to see the performance live, but even the home-video quality recording online is pretty fierce.

We always believed that there was more to the piece—that it had more life—we just weren’t sure what direction or form that life would take.

Last summer, I was re-reading the Greek tragedies (For fun? For inspiration?) and was struck (as I had never been before) by the story of The Trojan Women—of Queen Hecuba and the women of Troy waiting (seeming indeterminately) to learn their fates at the hands of their captors, the Achaeans.

David had wanted to find a way to address HIV/AIDS and I was obsessed (after reading The Trojan Women) with the idea of waiting—especially with the idea of waiting for bad news—and so And She Would Stand Like This moved from “the runway” to a waiting room in a hospital. Hecuba became the mother of a “house”; the three young men featured in the original ten-minute version of the play became The Chorus, Hecuba’s “children”; Tiresias became the doctor elected to deliver the unfortunate diagnosis; and Helen became Honesto, the one who started it all.

The initial adaptation was written very quickly—in less than a week. It has continued to evolve with the help of P73, the Drama League and PRELUDE 2014.

Visual AIDS: HIV/AIDS is not named explicitly in the play, but themes of disclosure, diagnosis, and complex symptoms are explored throughout, and the play’s synopsis describes And She Would Stand Like This as a modern day “examination of HIV/AIDS.” What motivated your exploration of these charged topics through theater, and how have contemporary audiences responded?

David Mendizábal: When we started working on the play we knew that we really wanted to explore issues of family, motherhood and health within the LGBTQ community of color. Harrison proposed adapting The Trojan Women as a narrative structure to address these themes and then we were posed with the challenge of dramaturgically re-contextualizing the story of The Trojan Women within this new world. Instead of the Trojan War as the central battle that has wreaked havoc on the family, we decided to make it a mysterious deadly plague and set the play in a hospital waiting room.

We made the conscious effort to not name the plague HIV/AIDS in the play so as to not set it in a specific generation that would allow distance from the topics. By not naming it, we set it in a timeless world of its own heightened by the nature of the myth, which allows us to examine the history of the Black and Latino experience and address its relationship to today. The story is immediate, it’s right now and we use it to discuss broader issues of health—mental, emotional, and physical—within the community.

Through theatre we are hoping to create a forum to engage in conversation and address a number of challenges that contribute to the growing rates of the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the Black and Latino LGBTQ communities, including poverty, lack of access to health care, higher rates of community viral loads, growing populations of homeless youth, cultural and religious prejudices, lack of education, stigma, and violence within the community. Contemporary audiences have responded positively to the story because it speaks to multiple generations and challenges a range of societal norms surrounding themes of being queer and of color. As an examination of HIV/AIDS, the play speaks to the need within the LGBTQ community of color for education, outreach, awareness, and as a call to action in the fight against the virus.

Visual AIDS: The cast of primarily actors from LGBTQ communities of color featured a welcome ensemble, and details a particularly at-risk demographic for HIV/AIDS. What reflections on the complex issues of gender, sexuality, health, and family that are raised by And She Would Stand Like This are most important to you with this project?

Harrison: When you look at HIV/AIDS in the American theater several landmark plays come to mind—Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”, Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

These works, with a few singular exceptions (Ramon and Belize), largely focus on the experience of white gay men with HIV/AIDS.

Part of the motivation for writing And She Would Stand Like This has always been to tell an often untold side of HIV/AIDS—in this case, the experiences of gay men and straight women of color—populations that are still being ravaged by the disease today.

As a black gay playwright I am interested in two things:

1) In representation. I am interested in the LEGITIMACY and thus the ATTENTION that comes with increased representation. People of color (gay and straight) can no longer afford to reside on the margins, ESPECIALLY where HIV/AIDS is concerned. THE HELP WE NEED—access to quality treatment, financial assistance, etc.—TO THE EXTENT THAT WE NEED IT CANNOT BE FOUND ON THE MARGINS!

Please know that I say this NOT to discount the efforts of the countless “crusaders” out there—men and women who have dedicated their lives to providing care and aid and all manner of support to those in need OUTSIDE of the larger medical establishment. I salute you!

2) In action. I hope that And She Would Stand Like This, serves as a kind of wake-up call—specifically to communities of color—but, really, to ALL communities. There is still work to be done! AND WE ARE THE ONE’S TO DO IT!

Visual AIDS: Harrison, as with And She Would Stand Like This, your writing often weaves historical legacies with contemporary narratives. When does an ongoing consideration of the past and present in plays work best for you?

Harrison: Nothing comes from nothing. Every story started somewhere. I believe that one of my responsibilities as a playwright is to write with an awareness of this fact, with an awareness of the role that the past plays in any contemporary narrative.

Again, specifically with communities of color, the more historical context that you can provide, the more legitimate the story becomes. Our stories may not have been told on the same scale as those of our white counterparts, but we have been here all along, in the trenches, just the same.

David, what directorial cues do you plan to bring from both ballroom culture and Greek theater into future productions of And She Would Stand Like This? How will these production details allow you to fill out the style and storyline of the play?

David: And She Would Stand Like This was conceived as more of an immersive theatrical event that merges the traditional theatre-going experience with elements of a drag ball. A drag ball is a competition, survival of the fittest and the fiercest. This is echoed in Queen Hecuba’s fight for survival and to save her family. I’ve always imagined that the performance takes place on a runway stage that juts into the audience and, as in a drag ball the audience surrounds the runway and is addressed to and performed for, adding to the energy and narrative of the full experience. The runway would be designed to look like the inside of a hospital waiting room, cold and sterile. However, at any moment, whether through the imagination of a character trying to escape or the spark of a memory from one’s past we can shift into the world of a ball where everything is glamorous and nobody or nothing can put a stop to it. When that story ends and the lights come back on, we remain in the hospital with the family awaiting their fate.

Blending the narrative of the Greek myth with issues from the LGBTQ community of color establishes a world of epic stakes. To enhance the style of the performance I want to draw from the performative visual and aural vocabulary of ball culture i.e. the movement and music. Structurally in the play there is an inherent musicality in the language of the Greek chorus, which melds beautifully with vogue beats and house music. The music heightens the message of a “call to arms” and adds urgency and a driving force to the text. The ball scene in Harlem emerged out of the need to create a space to express ones truth and rise above societal limitations and setbacks surrounding gender and sexuality. Using a physical vocabulary of socially engendered gestures, voguing and runway walks I want this piece to examine and break apart the heteronormative constructs that are central to African American and Latino culture as well as examine the complicated relationship to gender and sexuality that exists within the community of the ball scene.

Visual AIDS: Harrison, are you able to provide any details on another upcoming project, which reflects on poet and activist Essex Hemphill?

Harrison: The new piece, tentatively entitled “Take Care Of Yr Blessings” (Essex Hemphill often closed his letters with this phrase), seems to WANT to be a kind of commentary on blackness. Or more specifically on what it is like to be a black male of a certain age in America at this particular moment in history.

I’m not sure exactly what form the piece will take—so far it’s largely monologue—but it will use Hemphill’s poetry, which is gorgeous and visceral and reads like it was written five minutes ago instead of twenty years ago, to articulate the fear and anger (and to some extent the hopelessness) that I have felt increasingly in recent years—and especially this summer with the shootings of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker and Michael Brown.

We’ll see how these men’s stories and the project develops in the coming months.

Visual AIDS: What do you hope people take away from the show?

Harrison: Artistically, I think we both want for audiences to be blown away—for them to note the talent and the diversity of the cast, the strength of the adaptation, the clarity of the physical storytelling and the ingenuity of the design. And then socially/politically, I think, again, it’s about IMPACT. It’s about And She Would Stand Like This serving as a SLAP, a WAKE UP CALL. This is a fictional story, yes, but the situation presented in the play, is not. Men and women are contracting and dying from HIV/AIDS TODAY. This is STILL a very real crisis. GET OUT THERE AND DO SOMETHING TO HELP!

And She Would Stand Like This was developed with support from Williamstown Theatre Festival, Page 73 Productions, The Drama League Rough Draft Residency, and The Movement Theatre Company. Excerpts from the play were recently presented at the Prelude Festival 2014 in New York City. The piece is currently being developed by The Movement Theatre Company (Deadria Harrington - Lead Producer) and will be presented as part of 20% Theatre Company's 2015 Q-STAGE: New Works Series in Minneapolis, MN. For more information about the play and future productions visit www.themovementtheatrecompany.org.

David Mendizábal is a director, designer, and one of the Producing Artistic Leaders of The Movement Theatre Company [TMTC] in Harlem. At TMTC he conceived and directed Look Upon Our Lowliness by Harrison David Rivers. He also directed the North-American premiere of Bintou by Koffi Kwahulé, translated by Chantal Bilodeau, which was nominated for three AUDELCO Awards. Other directing credits include: AT BUFFALO by Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, Joshua Williams and Khalil Sullivan (NYMF), Evensong by Christina Quintana (INTAR), Ashé by Ricardo Pérez-González (UP Theater) Minotaur by Harrison David Rivers (Drama League), and REVEAL by Bebe Zahara Benet. Currently he is one of the Mellon Artistic Leader Fellows at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the 2014 Encuentro National Festival of Latina/o works. Drama League Directing Fellow Alum, The Civilian’s R&D Group, 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, LAByrinth Theatre Company Intensive Ensemble. B.F.A. New York University/Tisch School of the Arts at Playwrights Horizons Theatre School.

Harrison David Rivers’ plays include, When Last We Flew (2011 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Off Off Broadway Play), AND SHE WOULD STAND LIKE THIS, Look Upon Our Lowliness, sweet, The Bandaged Place, lydie, or (s)he who looks inside, awakes, We Are Misquoted Texts, THE SEA & THE STARS, The Salvagers, WHERE STORMS ARE BORN and Jack Perry is Alive (And Dating) (co-written by Daniella Shoshan with music by Julia Meinwald). Harrison’s work has been developed and produced by The Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Lincoln Center, Atlantic Theatre, Atlantic Stage 2, Second Stage, Sundance Institute, P73, Ars Nova, Joe’s Pub, New Dramatists, The Drama League, Dixon Place, The Movement Theatre Company, The National Black Theatre, Classical Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Stage, Freedom Train, Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York Musical Theatre Festival, PRELUDE 2014, About Face Theater (Chicago), Aurora Theatre (Berkeley), Diversionary Theatre (San Diego), Headlong Theatre (London) and the American Airlines Theater on Broadway. Harrison is a 2014-15 Jerome Many Voices Fellowship at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. He has also received a 2010-11 Van Lier Fellowship at New Dramatists and a 2009-10 Emerging Artist of Color Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop. Harrison is an alumnus of the 2011-13 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. He holds an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.