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Acting Up for Palestine: HIV+ Playwright on Medstrike for Gaza

by | January 30, 2024

Victor I. Cazares understands spectacle. The Mexican playwright, who is also queer, Indigenous, non-binary, and poz, has taken a page from the Act Up playbook and is refusing life-sustaining medication to draw attention to the Israeli siege on Gaza, a campaign which Raz Segal, a Holocaust scholar, has called a “textbook case of genocide.” I spoke with Cazares about their med strike, its inspiration, their demands, and the importance of joyful resistance. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Myriam Gurba: You are HIV+ and on a medicine strike for Palestine. What is the genesis of this action?

Victor I. Cazares: I was the playwright in residence at New York Theater Workshop for two and a half years. I was produced twice, once during the pandemic, and then most recently in 2022, where we did american (tele)visions, my play about a family of undocumented Mexicans living in the shadow of the first Walmart in the United States. It was the first time that New York Theater Workshop had ever produced a Mexican playwright in their thirty years of existence. And they hadn’t produced a Latinx playwright since Nilo Cruz. 

MG: What other roles did you have at NYTW? 

VIC: As the Playwright in Residence, I made myself very at home. I was artistically and personally embedded into the workshop. I gave a lot of myself to it, and the workshop gave a lot to me, too. Everything was great. While there, I was also on the search committee for a new artistic director and wrote two galas. What I’m most proud of is having been the inaugural teacher of their Dreaming Out Loud class, which is a collaboration with PEN America and National Queer Theater, in which I taught a group of mostly undocumented queer playwrights and emerging playwrights in New York. 

MG: For how long did you do that? 

VIC: I did that for three years. Teaching is the most holy thing to me. It’s the one thing that I can control. I can’t control who reads my work. I can’t control who performs it, but I can control who I teach, and that’s something I value. Teaching was amazing. My students developed their own voices and aesthetics. [Last Fall] NYTW was gearing up for the fourth iteration of this workshop and on October 11, I received an email, asking if I would return to teach.  

MG: How did you respond? 

VIC: I answered that, yes, I would, but that I couldn’t discuss the logistics right then because all my work was, and continues to be, devoted to Palestine. 

MG: What happened next?  

VIC: I didn’t reply for a week. Then, one week became two. There was a moment at which I realized that the theater, an institution that I’ve given my life to, was going to remain silent. My faith crumbled. I also considered my responsibilities to the mostly undocumented queer students with whom I might work. I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. How could I bring them into a space, into a theater, into spaces that are not condemning genocide, when these students have literally been at the forefront of state violence? What are we asking of them? What can we provide them if we can’t provide them this basic thing? Concurrently to that, I was imagining a different and parallel world in which Broadway was standing up for Palestine. I wrote satirical Instagram posts that constructed that world. I wrote that theater that doesn’t stand up against genocide doesn’t deserve to exist and criticized Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton as a genocidal musical.

MG: When were you able to respond to NYTW? 

VIC: After about three weeks, I reply with the logistics they’d been waiting for. A few days later, I got an email saying that I’d been fired. They told me that I had taken too long to reply. I was shocked. I took a screenshot of the email and posted it to Instagram. I think it shocked NYTW, Pen America, and the National Queer Theater, that I would do that because so much of theater depends on the silence of the artist, meaning that these nonprofits and producers are able to screw over artists because what are we going to do? Speak up and then never be hired by them again?

Firing me for my speech was fascist, and it turned people that are normally not fascists into fascists. It turned the education director of New York Theater Workshop, Alexander Santiago-Jirao, who literally teaches Theater of the Oppressed, into a fascist.

MG: How did your community respond to the posts?

VIC: It became a scandal in my part of the world. Firing me for my speech was fascist, and it turned people that are normally not fascists into fascists. It turned the education director of New York Theater Workshop, Alexander Santiago-Jirao, into a fascist. Someone who literally teaches Theater of the Oppressed is the one who sent me the email.

MG: How did the notion of a med strike occur to you?

VIC: I got cut straight across my back with carpet nails. Staring at my blood caused me to consider infection, transmission, and HIV. Shortly after this happened, I flew to northern Mexico to visit my grandmother. She was very sick and not receiving adequate care due to medical apartheid. I received very short notice and packed for the trip very quickly. I was waiting for takeoff and had my medicine when I began to think about people evacuating Gaza. I asked myself, “What do refugees leave their home with? And how much time are they given?”

I can’t place myself in Gaza. I can’t place myself in Palestine. But I can place myself as someone that doesn’t have access to their medication. I have access. The pill bottles are here, but I’m not going to take my medicine. I do this as a student of Act Up.

I keep thinking of the queer activists who threw the ashes of their lovers on the White House lawn. I’m throwing my body at the theatre

MG: My laptop is resting on a pile of books. One of them is Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up, 1987-1983 by Sarah Schulman.

VIC: Act Up is an example of the queer networks that connect us. And Act Up taught me to use my body in a theatrical way. I have the power to not take my pill and I keep thinking of the queer activists who threw the ashes of their lovers on the White House lawn. I’m throwing my body at the theatre.

If I reject the medicine, the result will be death. And if we don’t work to stop the genocide of Palestinians, our bodies are worthless. We are all in the crosshairs of fascism. It will kill us all. The faster we wake up to it, the more hope we have of dismantling it.

I’m not doing this so that NYTW will rehire me. I’m asking for them to call for a ceasefire and to condemn the genocide of Palestinians.

MG: What has been the response to the strike?

VIC: Palestinian artists and Palestinian-Americans have reached out to say how much this means to them, but I don’t feel like I’m doing much. I’m doing this action joyfully because of what Palestinians have given me. And what Palestinians have given me is a window into the past, into my Indigenous ancestors’ pasts. I didn’t know how much joy is required for resistance.