In My Day uses community storytelling to remember the HIV epidemic in Vancouver

Just off Commercial Drive, The Cultch’s Historic Theatre is nestled in the heart of East Vancouver, an area with rich history, culture and a thriving arts scene. Zee Zee Theatre’s In My Day dramatizes that history with a production about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Vancouver.

In My Day is born of an oral history research project from the University of Victoria, called HIV In My Day. The project brought together 117 interviews from both survivors and caregivers of the AIDS epidemic in Vancouver. It represents a real and well-rounded exploration of community stories that slingshot between survival and memorial, joy and grief, hope and fear.

What made the oral history project translate so well to the theatre was In My Day’s use of an ensemble cast who told dozens of anecdotes between them all. Actor Alen Dominguez played the central narrator, a character based on the lead researcher and interviewer of the original project.

Alen describes the play as “a verbatim theatre piece,” and mentioned the care that playwright Rick Waines took to honour these interviews, as “the story that he was telling was the actual story that had been said out loud to him.”

The result is a piece in which nearly everything the audience hears is a direct quote from a real person — including oral history project participants, newspaper clippings and even a Bonnie Henry quote about practicing safe sex (which blended in strikingly well).

“I think that's what's so beautiful about this piece is that it's a love letter to the people who are no longer here,” said Dominguez. “It's a love letter to Vancouver and the history of the city.”

This production uses its oral history source material to explore the crisis on a micro level. It is a cultural mosaic of identities and experiences, with a particular focus on frequently suppressed perspectives surrounding the AIDS epidemic, including Indigenous, female and Transgender experiences.

“I grew up with a bit of an education of what HIV and AIDS was, but in a very urban, New York, San Francisco, LA kind of centric lens … a pretty cis, white, gay experience around AIDS,” said Dominguez.

Working on In My Day helped him learn more about the local specifics of the AIDS crisis in Vancouver — including inner conflicts within HIV positive communities —and about its enduring impacts on the city.

Dominguez’s character begins a journey of learning and takes the audience along with him. He both observes and participates in the action, in a beautiful demonstration of healing through multi-generational storytelling.

The audience was a mixed crowd in terms of age, many of them old enough to remember the events on stage, as well as the deep emotions behind them. There were whoops and cheers at the name of Vancouver ACT UP activist John Kozachenko, and groans of recognition at the politicians who turned their backs on the community. And from the younger audience members, gasps of shock at events we could barely believe actually happened.

The play spoke to audiences differently depending on their age and experience, giving the audience a more active role. We could either follow the narrarator, listening and learning through him, or watch the ensemble deliver the stories we recognized, reminiscing and teaching alongside them. The community storytelling extended beyond the stage and into the crowd as well; as the characters teach and learn, we follow suit. As they remember, we remember.

In reflecting on the past, this piece also asks us what Queer futures looks like. Dominguez's response incorporates the understanding of community care he developed through this production.

“Whatever the Queer future looks like, it involves a lot of care. It involves understanding that that experience is really varied, and that there is strength in that diversity. "

In My Day runs until December 11th at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre.