Taye Diggs brings star power to Oct. 1 AIDS Walk

Actor/singer Taye Diggs is familiar to fans of stage, film and television. But his appearance at AIDS Walk Wisconsin & 5K Run on Oct. 1 will mark his first time headlining a fundraiser to help people living with the disease.

Still, “The fight against HIV/AIDS is something that’s been close to my heart for quite some time,” he says.

“I was exposed (to the epidemic) at an early age,” explains Diggs. “My mother was very active in our community theater (in Rochester, New York) and, unfortunately, she lost a few of her really, really good friends.”

Those childhood losses had an impact on Diggs, and as his own career in the performing arts developed, he experienced firsthand the devastation the pandemic wreaked on his close-knit professional community.

Diggs’ career includes performances in some iconic queer musicals, and he’s joked with interviewers about channeling his “inner homosexual.” His playfulness around sexuality, combined with his roles and good looks, have gained him iconic status in the gay male community — a community that he loves back, he says.

Bolstering Diggs’ gay iconic status is his former marriage to Idina Menzel, one of gaydom’s most beloved divas. The two share custody of their 6-year-old son. They met after both were cast in Jonathan Larson’s seminal musical Rent, which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony.

‘Life-changing experience’

AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin president and CEO Michael Gifford said Diggs’ affiliation with Rent makes him a perfect leader for the state’s premier HIV/AIDS fundraiser.

“So many people have come to know the fight against AIDS through the musical Rent (that in) the 20th year after its debut on Broadway, we are excited and proud to be working with Taye Diggs as our honorary chair,” Gifford said in a prepared statement. Over the past 26 years, the event has raised more than $12 million and attracted more than 125,000 registrants. All of the funds raised by the event benefit people living with HIV/AIDS in Wisconsin.

Among the general public, Diggs is best known for his film and television work, including his breakout performance as the young stud who seduces Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. But he never left the stage for long. Diggs appeared in the Broadway productions of Wicked and Chicago. He was also cast in the Academy Award-winning film version of Chicago, for which he shared the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by the Cast of a Theatrical Motion Picture.

Diggs has been nominated for and won multiple other awards as well.

In 2015, he took on the physically challenging role of Hedwig, the genderqueer East German rocker who tells her harrowing life story in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

“Hedwig was a life-changing experience,” Diggs says. “It changed who I was as an actor, it changed my perspective on theater — and on acting and life in general. It was the most difficult and challenging role I’ve ever (played).”

While publicizing the show, he appeared in Out magazine in Hedwig’s over-the-top glam makeup.

Milwaukee Connection

While it’s the theater community that’s inspired, to a large extent, his commitment to fight AIDS, it was joining the cast of the hit FOX program Empire that connected him with Milwaukee. The massively popular series about a family music empire is set in New York, but filmed in Chicago. That put Diggs within reach of Milwaukee and ARCW, which asked him to serve as this year’s honorary chair. As an African American man with a large gay following, he reflects the demographics of the epidemic in Milwaukee.

Diggs said it was the shocking statistics surrounding HIV/AIDS that prompted him to sign up to help.

“Learning that there were more people living with HIV than ever before, that’s staggering to me,” Diggs says. “That’s not right. It’s the opposite of what people think, which is why we’re in the situation we are today.”

According to the Wisconsin HIV/AIDS Surveillance Annual Review, about 7,900 people in the state were living with HIV/AIDS in 2015. Of those, about 1,000 were unaware of their infection, making them more likely to spread it to a sexual partner.

Eighty percent of new HIV transmissions in the state last year resulted from unprotected sex among men. The situation among black gay and bisexual men in the state is particularly shocking: Thirty-six percent of such men are infected with HIV, compared to 10 percent of Hispanic and 4 percent of white men who engage in same-sex relations.

On the other hand, fewer than one in 1,000 females and strictly heterosexual men in Wisconsin are infected.

Looking at those statistics, Diggs says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m working just a couple of hours away. … I’m grateful that my schedule allowed this.”

Diggs will use his time in the bully pulpit to “make people more aware that this disease is still alive and well, even though it doesn’t seem in the forefront,” he says.

“People need to realize there are organizations (to help them). They still need to hear about protected sex. Ignorance is playing a huge role in people being infected.

“I don’t think people realize they can help, and that this is a situation that can be addressed. People don’t have to suffer the way they are.

“As an actor, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been blessed to have a really nice career. And because of that, I have a voice and people listen. I want to put that to good use.”

Raise pledges of $1000 or more, and you’ll get a free picture with Diggs.

AIDS Walk Wisconsin & 5k Run

Help put Taye Diggs’ voice to good use by participating in the event on the Summerfest Grounds on Oct. 1. You can form a team, join a team or make a pledge for a walker.

For more information about the event, go to www.AIDSWalk.org.