Friday, April 17, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Waking Up

by Alina Oswald

Although gay characters populate American television-see Queer As Folk or Will & Grace-the black gay character is something of a rarity. Although a few gay characters of color appear in shows like Showtime's The L Word or HBO's The Wire, what makes Noah's Arc unique is that it raises two kinds of awareness-black gay awareness and AIDS awareness.

"Noah's Arc is a vehicle through which to break down the stigmas and phobias in our country around black sexuality while at the same time educating the community around the importance of HIV/AIDS," says Phil Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute, the only national policy and research organization in the United States focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS. The Black AIDS Institute sponsored Noah's Arc together with the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest gay and lesbian organization providing a national voice on gay and lesbian issues.

For those who are not yet familiar with it, Noah's Arc is "America's First Black Gay Series," as its press materials proclaim. Created and independently produced by Patrik-Ian Polk (with Jasmyne Cannick and Carol Ann Shine), the series will air this June on LOGO, a new cable television network targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers. LOGO will be launched by MTV Networks then, too, and will initially broadcast in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 
Using humor, in-your-face yet not offensive sexuality, and hands-on advice about HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, Noah's Arc is a daring, tell-it-like-it-is lesson in love, friendship, and commitment. The story introduces its audience to the lives of four black gay Angeleno friends-Noah (Darryl Stephens), a struggling twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter, who is convinced that his new and newly out boyfriend, Wade (Jensen Atwood), is the one for him; Alex (Rodney Chester), an HIV/AIDS counselor who "suffers from insane jealousy" because his boyfriend, Trey, is too good-looking; Ricky (Christian Vincent; pictured opposite page right), the owner of a trendy and hip clothing store on Melrose who's afraid of commitment and knows the rules of safer sex; and Chance (Doug Spearman), a college professor who has recently married Eddie (Jonathan Julian) and adopted his partner's three-year-old daughter, Kenya. In the first episode, newcomer and successful screenwriter, Wade, struggles for acceptance from Noah's friends who have yet to trust him because he is "a down low brother [they] don't want to mess with."

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
"If it takes a show like Noah's Arc to open people's minds that black gay people...are respectable people, that it is possible to be healthy and gay, I hope [people] see the show," Darryl Stephens comments, knowing that the entertainment industry can do much to change the misconceptions the general public has about AIDS and black gay realities. The actor, who has appeared on a season of MTV's Undressed, warns that with gay awareness also comes responsibility toward family, friends, and lovers. He emphasizes the importance of staying informed about AIDS by making it a part of a conversation that people are not afraid to have in public. His message? "Stop making [AIDS] a secret; start making it a fact of life and, no matter what, keep a condom on!"

To deliver the right message-be it regarding AIDS or any other topic for that matter-actors need to be informed first and foremost, in order to inform their audience. This is what Stephens calls "an actors' mission;" it is part of the important role that the arts, and entertainment in particular, play in raising AIDS awareness, and, thus, fighting the pandemic.

Darryl Stephens calls AIDS "the eighties' ugly disease," something the general public could dismiss because it was a primarily gay disease. "If [people] were not gay, they felt not at risk to be infected. That mindset sorta stuck." The general public did start to listen, he says, when well-known figures like Magic Johnson came out about being HIV-positive and started to give AIDS a voice.

Besides creating a real-life scenario in which friends and lovers share opinions about life and true love, writer and producer Patrik-Ian Polk sees Noah's Arc-its story and message of HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and prevention among African Americans-as a means to reach people, especially the young population, who may be at risk of getting infected with HIV. Polk, who made his feature film debut with Punks, says: "I think there's a whole new generation that didn't grow up fearing [HIV/AIDS] and watching people die, a whole new generation that's grown up hearing that AIDS is a manageable disease now. So, they are not getting the [same] safe-sex message and all these kids are having unprotected sex like it's no big deal [and] are getting the disease in record numbers now."

To emphasize the importance of this issue, he identifies with today's parents while talking about the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs imposed on kids: "If I had a kid and there's any possibility that the kid might be sexually active, I'd like them to know what to do; I'd like them to have condoms-I mean, it's not just pregnancy anymore." He is a true believer in the benefits of more innovative ways-versus many of the abstinence-based ones the federal government uses to reach communities where AIDS numbers are rising.

Polk also believes that the traditional methods the government uses typically exclude African-Americans and hopes that his work is a non-traditional way that can reach out to the community with safer-sex messages. I want to know why he talks about exclusion and I get an honest, straightforward answer, full of excitement: "We're the last on the totem pole; they don't think of us, really. We might have to employ other methods to reach these other groups." Patrik-Ian Polk explains that Big Business understood how to market products to specifically target African-Americans and others; yet, for some reason, when it comes to government and issues like health, "they don't seem to get it."

Now that AIDS is starting to affect people they can identify with (read: not gay), Polk says many are starting to pay attention. "Unfortunately this is what it takes for people to wake up." This has often been a rude awakening to today's AIDS reality in the United States, especially in black communities. Says Polk: "It is sad that it comes to this-to AIDS starting to affect our sisters and nieces, the middle-aged black woman who's going to church every Sunday and her husband is leading a secret life and sleeping with men on the side, bringing AIDS home-for people to finally wake up." 

Talking about AIDS issues in the black community, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Vice Presidential debate of last year's election campaign for both Polk and Stephens. "[Cheney] is just completely unaware and [doesn't] even know that the numbers, the infection rates, are so high among black women. This shows lack of interest," Polk comments. "[AIDS] is an issue not high on the list." Darryl Stephens adds his opinion about the lack of AIDS information prevalent in America: "It has to be fixed [and] entertainment is the best thing to send the message, so that Dick Cheney can see it also."

To get "it" fixed, Polk encourages everybody to get involved and confront the AIDS pandemic, mentioning the influence the church can have now, especially in the black communities. He also encourages people to educate themselves about how not to contract HIV. On a personal level, he went to work with the Black AIDS Institute and with AIDS patients because he believes this is the only responsible thing to do to fight the increasing AIDS numbers in the black community. "I do whatever I can do," Polk notes, whether that means participating in fundraising events or award shows recognizing people who've done good work in the field, "because the numbers speak for themselves." The infection rates are increasing: Based on 2002 figures, close to sixty percent of HIV-positive children are black; among women, more than seventy percent of those newly infected by HIV are black. "Obviously it is an issue," he concludes. "In the black community, the numbers continue to rise."

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