by Wanda Sabir
I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not an evening exploring the concept of loving oneself and releasing stigma attached to HIV and AIDS diagnosis, but I wasn’t surprised. Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women tackles the tough issues around incarceration, so why not HIV, another sort of prison, perhaps the worst kind, where escape is virtually impossible.
Multi-layered with healing at its center, the large cast, some infected, everyone affected, shared stories written over the past two years at the Women’s HIV Program at the University of California San Francisco, under the direction of Edward Machtinger, M.D. The program opened with a short film directed by Jenny Chu which documented Medea Project at the Women’s HIV Program.
What I thought really remarkable and special was how in the talkback with the audience, people who were HIV positive in the audience self disclosed, many for the first time. It was amazing! I mean really.
Rhodessa Jones, in red silk pajamas with a black fedora, a fat cigar and a bottle of rum, blessed the stage. Gede incarnated the spirit of the graveyard, sprayed the four corners and some audience members on the first rows, as the chorus sang.
Next came the three Fates. For those who know Medea or Macbeth’s encounter with the witches stirring, Medea is character who has a messy divorce and, rather than give her children up or cooperate with her estranged lover, she kills them – a crime of passion. This is different from the madman who drops his children from the window in Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” I don’t remember if men complained like they did when “The Color Purple” hit the big screen, but he and Mister were certainly brothers.
In beautiful costumes, the Fates orchestrate the light and dark in the characters’ lives, dancing in and off the stage at strategic moments. Using the entire theatre as its stage, “Dancing with the Clown of Love” encouraged the audience to be a part of the production as we were invited to dance with the women, get tested and ultimately refuse the stigma associated with this HIV disease, an illness, to choose life and health and love.
Several children participated in the theatre production. For the youngest two, whom we meet in program notes, if not on stage, the actresses in costume were a bit too frightening.
With superb lighting by longtime collaborator Stephanie Johnson, dramaturgy by Fe Bongolan, choreography by Lisa Frias, Angela Wilson and Gina Dawson, and costumes designed by Rene Walker, “Dancing” is as luscious as it is sad. These women have a life threatening disease, some of them clearly ill, others – you’d never know. We wouldn’t know if they didn’t tell us in the end.
In one piece a slightly built actress dances, her fragility an aspect of the play she embodies. She is the reality check, the reminder that this is theatre and life.
After my safe sex talk with a cast member during one of the shattered fourth wall moments, I got a red condom – my favorite color. I thought about my first cousin Roland, a chef, who was refused admittance at the hospital in Mississippi when my Auntie Henrietta took him there one evening. They told her to take him to New Orleans, an hour away. He died upon arrival.
I thought about all the Black women over 50 with HIV disease, the new face of AIDS, and the youngsters becoming infected every day.
This 30th anniversary of Cultural Odyssey – Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor’s baby – and the 20th anniversary of the Medea Project is superb and shouldn’t be missed. In conjunction with the theatrical celebration, there is a wonderful exhibit in the Sargent Johnson Gallery, multimedia and interactive, which visitors should see before the show or afterwards, as there is no intermission.
“Telling truth creates beauty,” Rhodessa says. The director believes that even when it is hard truth, is a necessary ingredient for wellness. Like a coach, we hear Rhodessa’s voice telling the women, most of them not professional actresses, to “push it” as they do a ring shout and dance, as they tell their stories, like one women from Austria who speaks of the gift her status has facilitated in her life. Another woman speaks of how she has learned that intimacy is sacred, while another actress dances us through the sensuality of physical love which doesn’t go away just because one has an HIV diagnosis, that there is life after HIV.
Visit www.culturalodyssey.org. Closing weekend shows are Friday-Saturday, March 12-13, 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco. Check the times. The intimate theatre was almost full Thursday evening.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com for Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m. and archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network. An interview with Rhodessa Jones is featured on the March 12, 2010, show.