Cheryl West doesn't personally know anyone with AIDS.
But she knows people have to acknowledge its existence and its deadliness, have to discuss the disease openly and have to be prepared for what seems like the inevitability that it will touch their lives. Her personal inquiry -- "Would you as a family, would you as a community be ready to deal in a compassionate manner?" -- led her to write a play about the personal side of the epidemic.
"Before It Hits Home," which opened during the weekend at Arena Stage, focuses on the quandary of a black family confronting a son with AIDS. "I feel that given all the other ills black people are dealing with -- crime, homicides, drugs -- how are we going to deal with one more thing?" she muses. Her full mahogany face is torn with anger at this dreadful litany but marked by a youthful hope that information provides liberation and comfort.
"I don't know if we are going to be able to muster all the energy we are going to need to fight something as serious ... as AIDS," says West. And the fate of many blacks, she says gravely, is compounded by "economics, sexuality issues, the medical community -- because black people are largely uninsured."
West wanted her play to say all this. It does so, largely without preaching. And she wanted her play, perhaps more importantly, to capture the genuine emotions of a black family. She succeeds. The Bailey family groans, fights, laughs, yells, lies and hugs, in a manner akin to the social realism of Lorraine Hansberry, Charles Gordone and August Wilson.
The creation began nearly four years ago in Jamaica. West was attending the Jamaica School of Drama on a fellowship from the International Rotary Foundation when the statistics on AIDS began to haunt her. Since then the numbers have grown. As of November, black adult and pediatric cases total 44,506 out of 157,525, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
This play brings West, 34, to the brink of gaining a national reputation. Three months ago she signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to write a television pilot about four generations of black women, and that contract enabled her to quit her job with the Champaign County, Ill., social services department and become a full-time writer. In addition, Arena has submitted "Before It Hits Home" for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an international competition for women playwrights. It is one of 10 finalists, according to the theater; past winners include Beth Henley for "Crimes of the Heart" and Marsha Norman for " 'night Mother," who both later won Pulitzer Prizes.
Another West play, "Jar the Floor," is scheduled for a run at Seattle's Empty Space this spring. The title comes from an expression her great-grandfather used. "When we would go to Mississippi, they would get up with the roosters. We would have driven all those hours from Chicago. My mother would be tired, and my great-grandparents couldn't stand that, especially my great-grandfather. One day he said, 'I want you to get up and jar the floor.' My mother said he wants us to make the floor move. He wants us up. So I took that image, and feel if you believe in something you can make the floor move." It was this script, she says, that caught 20th Century Fox's eye.
West, born in Cook County Hospital in Chicago, is one of two children of a single mother who worked two jobs to support her family, spent a dozen years earning her bachelor's degree at night and is now working on an MBA. "She is my greatest inspiration... . Because of her example and her courage, it taught me to trust myself and my voice," says West, who has an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Southern Illinois University, a master's in rehabilitation administration from Southern Illinois and a master's in journalism from the University of Illinois.
For 15 years West worked in social services, most recently as a counselor for people who wanted an AIDS test. She bypassed journalism, she says, because "it was not exactly me. I wasn't sure what was... . I wasn't sure I was hard enough. As a human-services worker, you ask why that happened, you can have a lot more empathy. Journalism takes a harder edge. I didn't know if I could make the jump and do it well. I like to do everything well."
Seated at a conference table at Arena, West is wearing black slacks and a black sweater looped with pearls. When she talks, she switches her lilting declarations into questions in mid-sentence. And she laughs, girlishly, at the thought that she never had a chance even to play stereotypes. "In terms of theater, television, entertainment, it was like 'no one ever makes a living at that unless you can sing.' And I can't sing a lick."
The fully developed version of "Before It Hits Home" had its debut in 1988 at Parkland College in Champaign. The next year the play was spotted at the Multicultural Playwrights' Festival in Seattle by Tazewell Thompson, an artistic associate at Arena and now the director of its production. At the Seattle festival, the play won the grand prize. Since 1987 West has written five plays, words about contemporary life that were composed while the sounds of James Cleveland, Tremaine Hawkins and Sweet Honey in the Rock soothe her.
During this play's odyssey, West has been fighting some resistance for daring to bring the subject of AIDS to the stage. It is not just the statistics. Segments of the black community are ashamed of homosexuality and don't want to acknowledge the number of drug users; others who remember the Tuskegee syphilis experiment are suspicious of the spread of the disease. Some people, she says, "don't want to hear 'blacks' and 'AIDS' in the same sentence." Others object because they assume she is a meddling white playwright.
"People even told me they were scared to go to the play because a lot of people would think they had AIDS. A lot of people were afraid to go to the play because they thought people with AIDS were there, and just by breathing the same air ..." she says. In Seattle a woman called the theater objecting to the play, and when told that a black woman wrote it, responded, "She must be a black white woman." West has developed a philosophical shield: "Every writer has to come to terms that there are going to be times when you are going to get hurt."
Her passage into a full-time writer has been crammed with many theoretical questions. She is trying to figure out whether the reason for criticism is that she is black, a woman or tough. "I don't write gently. It is hard to always tell which way it is coming," she says.
She is trying to decide when to listen to her inner voice. So far West has been right on the money in two instances she describes.
One day a "fleeting thought" prompted her to change a pivotal character in "Before." The switch adds layers of electrifying complexity to the story. Another day she had "an idea" to combine the separate scenes in which Wendal, the son, tries to tell his male lover and his female lover about his AIDS. All three are together on stage engaged in a swirl of conversation. The triad is riveting as Wendal stands between the two struggling to tell the truth while the two lovers alternate with flirting, disbelief and rage. Yet it is as seamless as a duet of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald or Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald.
"I wanted to show how fractured those two worlds are ... how different they were, how similar they were, what he may have been getting from each of them," says West.
She wonders about the responsibilities of a black playwright and the onerous demands if the writer is one of the few being produced. Even though she is not shying away from presenting both the female and male perspectives, West hesitates to criticize others who have been accused of misportraying either gender. "I think maybe you don't do everything well. We keep aiming," she says slowly, as if the conclusion is still forming. "It depends on where you are sitting. I think August Wilson writes beautiful men and I can appreciate him for that."
However fast her success comes, she plans to be guided by the words of her mother, who is nonchalant about her tales of new stardom. The story about her trip to Hollywood and how 20th Century Fox sent a Porsche to pick her up at the airport. The story of how thrilling it was to watch actresses Mary Alice and Ruby Dee do a reading of "Before" in New York.
Her mother always says, she recalls with an understanding smile, " 'That's wonderful, baby. We will see how it all goes.' My mother keeps a little bit of reserve. So if something doesn't work out you don't get too, too excited when you come crashing down."