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View the document One of our sons is missing: using theatre to confront sensitive issues

One of our sons is missing: using theatre to confront sensitive issues

Michael Helquist and Godfrey Sealy

In August 1988, actor Clifford Learmond first played the role of Miguel, a young bisexual man who contracts HIV infection, develops AIDS, and dies, leaving behind distraught parents, a frightened girlfriend, and AIDS-weary friends. The compelling story of how Miguel's family and community cope with the threat and reality of AIDS is the theme of One of our sons is missing, the first play about AIDS written and produced in the Caribbean area.

This successful dramatic presentation ran for three weeks in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, after which the writer and producer, Godfrey Sealy, developed a plan to take the production to a number of villages in the country. This "village outreach" proposal gained the support of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society and the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre, and the Norwegian Red Cross Society provided major funding. As a result, the play was staged in 28 villages throughout Trinidad and in two towns on the island of Tobago. More than 3700 people saw an abbreviated version of the play during the autumn and winter of 1988. This international collaboration demonstrated how major donor organizations could work together with local groups to advance both AIDS prevention and community development.

AIDS education through drama

At the conclusion of each performance of the play, the actors were joined on stage by Godfrey Sealy and Ronald John, an AIDS educator and psychologist, who invited questions from the audience. They probed the audience's level of awareness of AIDS and spoke with emphasis about how people can protect themselves from this frightening disease.

One question that audience members frequently asked Clifford Learmond after the performance was "How does it feel to play the part of someone with AIDS?"

"At first it was difficult for me", said Learmond. "I was sceptical about portraying a young man who gets sick from a disease everyone wants to shun. I worried a little about what friends and the public would think about my playing a bisexual man. But I have come to terms with it. Now I feel very proud to be associated with this effort. I feel that I am doing something important for my country."

Through the dramatic presentation and the follow-up discussion, the actors and educators were able to gauge the public's knowledge of and feelings about AIDS. One of the most striking findings was the significant public confusion about the difference between someone with AIDS and someone who is HIV-infected. While people expected someone with AIDS to be ill, they were less sure about the status of someone who appears to be healthy. This is an important point in a nation where most members of the population do not know their HIV antibody status.

The various audiences also expressed a strong interest in the meaning of the HIV antibody test results. Many wanted to know where they could be tested. Several were worried about being ostracized if they were found to be HIV-infected.

The actors and educators also found that members of the audience, whether urban or rural, posed questions that clearly demonstrated their misconceptions about the transmission of HIV, believing for instance that mosquito bites or kissing would put them at risk of infection. People also wanted to know where they could get more information about AIDS.

Educational material-some prepared specially for the theatrical production-was offered to the audience along with free condoms. People in the villages responded enthusiastically to written material that relied heavily on graphics and picture stories to complement the text.

Specific issues

The production was well received in the villages, partly because it provided live entertainment of a type rarely seen in them, but also because it addressed an issue that had been prominent in the national media in the previous year. Sealy found that people in the villages were eager to discuss AIDS. Members of the audience were most concerned about the relationships among the characters in the play. Most were sympathetic towards the mother's anguish over her son's illness, and they understood the harsh response of the father to his son. Some said that their attitude towards the son became more sympathetic as the story progressed. Generally audiences were receptive to the idea of support and compassion for people infected with HIV, including those with AIDS, but fear of the disease clearly remains a primary obstacle to personal contact with people with AIDS.

Audiences were generally comfortable with the discussions on sexuality in the play. No one seemed offended by the bisexuality of the main character. The actors found this to be especially true in the villages. John noted that village people seemed more at ease than urban people in talking about sexual issues, the use of condoms, and other safer sex practices. All the men in the village audiences reported on the evaluation forms that were distributed that they were familiar with condom use; the men were also quite pleased to receive free condoms at the end of the play. Women in the audience were more reluctant to take the condoms provided.

John considered that the play provided a way for people to view AIDS in more human terms; AIDS often puts people off or frightens them. One middle-aged woman from the village of Moruga told the actors that when she first heard that the play was about AIDS, she did not want to see it. However, she did see the production, and afterwards commented, "I'm glad I came, I feel much better having seen the play and heard people talk about AIDS. It makes it less scary for me."

Further developments

The actors and production team have joined forces for other dramatic endeavours. They developed a carnival AIDS project and presented a pantomime about AIDS for the free-wheeling carnival in Port-of-Spain in early February 1989. One of the performances of the stage play was videotaped, with support from AIDSCOM, for possible use in training programmes. Other groups have expressed interest in filming the play for distribution in North America and Europe, especially in cities with large West Indian populations.