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Keeping HIV/AIDS centrestage

THE stage, like any other forum, can be used to discuss issues that affect humankind, even though not all forms of theatre are interactive. Often there is a clear divide between the stage and the seats, which creates a sometimes necessary distance between audience and performer. This tends to work in favour of both actor and spectator if a topic being presented is one that might be deemed uncomfortable, or taboo, or forbidden — thanks to the powers that be.

Theatre that discusses mental issues can fall into the category of “uncomfortable”. Another topic is HIV/AIDS, despite it being the world’s most insidious and dangerous disease.

As a subject matter for the stage, HIV/AIDS isn’t new. American playwrights such as Victor Bumbalo, William Hoffman and Dan Kwong have been writing about it for years. Musical theatre aficionados would be familiar with Rent (1996). The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, written by the late Jonathan Larson, is about a group of young people in New York, some of whom are “living with / not dying from disease”. “My body provides a comfortable home / for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” one of them sings.

Life Support, a scene from Rent

Talking about HIV/AIDS on the stage allows for some light to be shed on the matter, directly or indirectly, regardless of how prominent a “player” the disease is. It could be, as in the case of Rent, mentioned several times in passing but never elaborated on or preached about. The message still comes across: of the need for societal support, understanding and acceptance. And if the audience is uncomfortable — well, then, that distance between actor and spectator serves as an invisible buffer.

Another approach used with HIV/AIDS stories is more straightforward, where audiences know from the outset that in attending the performances, they are about to be educated, not just entertained. The AIDS Theatre Project, from the US, is one such example. And in countries with a higher frequency of HIV/AIDS cases, such as South Africa, certain performing arts groups have been set up explicitly for this purpose. The African Research and Educational Puppetry Programme, and the Interactive Themba Theatre Company are just two that use performance as a means of spreading awareness on HIV and AIDS.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has compiled a downloadable manual on the use of theatre in response to HIV/AIDS, recognising that “interactive theatre, if used correctly, can be a very powerful tool for behavioural change and transmitting information”.

Bakhtiar Talhah, who is HIV-positive, telling his story (Pic courtesy of TAS)

The local scene

It is heartening that local performing arts companies such as The Actors Studio Kuala Lumpur (TAS) are making efforts to discuss HIV/AIDS and related issues in their productions. Just recently, TAS put on Life Sdn Bhd 5: I’m Positive. It was a showcase of performances featuring HIV-positive persons, as well as others who have been moved by HIV/AIDS issues. The performers told their stories about what it means to live with or to be associated with the condition.

And TAS, in collaboration with the Malaysian AIDS Council, will also present a Malaysian-made musical titled Adam that will deal with the same theme.

The press material for Adam declares, rather bluntly, how the musical will discuss HIV/AIDS: it will be “a Malaysian musical play on HIV/AIDS that [speaks] to Malaysians in a language and manner they [can] easily relate to… no propaganda / no lectures / no patronising / no bullshit.” It will be interesting to see where the story, written by playwright and director Mark Beau de Silva, takes us.

In a short e-mail interview on 31 March 2010, de Silva shares that his research for the writing of the script took him on a road trip to Pahang to visit the Drugs-intervention Community, a non-governmental organisation comprising former drug users who are now 100% drug free. “It’s amazing how they put their lives and souls into the cause; to help those affected by HIV and the people around them to understand the situation in our country better, with regards to HIV/AIDS,” de Silva says.

“The core of [Adam] is the reality of what the country’s HIV/AIDS situation is right now, but we have also worked all these around a love story. When you meet someone with HIV/AIDS, very often their will to continue living well is inspiring, and there are many touching love stories from these people that I have met,” he adds.

de Silva (Courtesy of Mark Beau de Silva)

No day but today

The approach taken on by de Silva, and many other playwrights such as Larson, is to incorporate the difficult subject of HIV/AIDS into the story rather than present the harsh facts in-your-face. One or more characters might be HIV-positive, or might have AIDS. Their families are trying to deal with it; their friends are trying to be supportive.

The message at the end of the day, as has been espoused for decades by advocates locally and abroad, is that people with HIV/AIDS should be treated with just as much respect and equality as anyone else. And hopefully productions such as Adam, like Rent, will dissolve that dreaded invisible wall that keeps such topics in the territory of uncomfortable, taboo, or forbidden. Instead, may they spread a positive message about being HIV-positive.

Nick Choo thinks that Rent is one of the best contemporary musicals written, and is sad he didn’t get to see it on Broadway before it closed in September 2008. At least there’s the DVD.

Adam: The Musical runs from 12 May to 20 June 2010. More information at

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