AIDS is killing our babies, killing our mothers,
Killing our black/white sisters and brothers.
It's killing our youth, our tomorrow stars,
Those that live near and those that live far.
The plot is simple and relentless -- like the course of the disease.
The lyrics are stark and unequivocal -- like the diagnosis.
The music is poignant and painful -- like watching a loved one die.
At a time when health officials and educators despair of finding ways to carry the AIDS prevention campaign to inner-city young people, a group of District youths has taken the task upon themselves.
They have written, composed, choreographed and produced their own brief but compelling play about AIDS, called "Til Death Do Us Part."
The play's essential message to young people, delivered in rock-and-rap style:
Think twice before you share your body or abuse drugs. The decisions you make now can affect you for the rest of your lives -- or cut life short.
Now look I ain't lyin', don't want to confuse ya,
The wrong that you doin' is bound to abuse ya./Cocaine, smack and PCP
You see, we trying to make you s-t-o-p!
In about 25 performances since late spring, the group has carried that message to colleges, high schools and health fairs throughout the area -- as well as the national conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New Orleans. The play is produced by the Youth Ensemble of Everyday Theater, a private company that contracts with District agencies to train unemployed young people and produce musical dramas and videos highlighting social issues.
In its nine-year history, Everyday Theater has produced original plays dramatizing such topics as drug abuse, crime, teen pregnancy, child abuse, school dropouts, unemployment and homelessness. But none packed the emotional wallop of the current one on AIDS, said Thom Workman, associate director of Everyday Theater and artistic director for "Til Death Do Us Part."
"We wanted to produce a play that would speak to other youths who have sort of been
there," said Workman, a 31-year-old actor who recently played the role of the late South African resistance leader Steven Biko in "Tied Apart" at the Sanctuary Theatre. "Nothing on AIDS was really reaching minority youth."
Particularly in the arts community, Workman said, "this AIDS virus has come into our lives and cast a shadow across the land. It's killing our youth. There's a whole generation of potential being lost."
The point of the play is one that public health officials are trying to put across to the public: AIDS could kill you, but AIDS also can be prevented by avoiding unsafe sex and intravenous drugs.
"AIDS has been widely perceived in the black community as a gay white male disease," he said. "It has been sort of taboo in the black community. We're changing that."
AIDS has been the subject of a growing number of plays. But most are aimed at traditional theater audiences. This one, Workman said, "speaks directly to youth, and particularly to minority youth."
Not that its impact is limited to teen-agers. A turning point in the play's development occurred last spring at an early performance at Howard University, before an audience including many older persons.
From out on stage, Workman said, the ensemble could feel a community of emotion building. "We could really feel the energy," he said. "We looked out and saw tears streaming down people's faces. That's when we realized that this was more than just a piece of theater."
The play was performed last week at the former Randall School in Southwest before about 30 AIDS educators from local hospitals, schools and health organizations.
"It hit me hard, because every week I see the cases coming in," said Julie Druker, an
epidemiologist who keeps track of reported AIDS cases for the District Commission of Public Health and was in the audience last week. "And they're getting younger -- 23, 22, recently there was one who was 18."
As of last Wednesday, there were 851 reported cases and nearly 500 deaths from AIDS in the District.
"Til Death Do Us Part," was produced by Workman and a cast of about 20 District residents ranging in age from 16 to 24, with technical help from the District's Commission of Public Health and the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
"Talent isn't the only requirement," Workman said. "Even more basic is the ability to be flexible and open yourself up to new experience." Many of the youths were referred to Everyday Theater by the District's Youth Services Administration and other social service agencies. The District funded 20 internships at minimum wage last year at Everyday Theater, but cutbacks have reduced that number to 10 as of Oct. 1. Theater officials and District AIDS education coordinators said they are seeking to restore the funding to the current budget or buttress it with private donations.
The script of "Til Death Do Us Part" includes dialogue and songs ranging from slow ballads to fast-talking rap ensembles written in the syncopated jive rhyme that lends itself to on-stage improvisation. The songs are accompanied by amplified electronic music from guitar, saxophone and two keyboards. Staff has the last word on what gets in, Workman said, but the material and the script and the music come directly from the kids themselves.
The brief play opens with a teen-age couple in the bliss and innocence of romance, dreaming about their future like a rap-era Romeo and Juliet.
My life is fresh. My vision is pure.
My hand is steady and my stride is sure.
I have my youth and my energy,
The power to be who I want to be.
Then, in the first of several undulating ensemble raps, the couple is assaulted by a series of personified appeals, parodying the sex-appeal pitch of contemporary advertising.
Among the products touted are Flash- back ("absolutely the most powerful packed pill you can purchase without a prescription"), Sex Appeal toothpaste ("You never know when you need it"), Newmans licorice candy underwear ("They're delicious, delectable and eatable") and 357 Malt Liquor ("Answers every question, solves every problem and puts your momma in the mood").
The refrain is "Try it. Try it. Try it . . ."
As the characters change, you got to decide
Should the actors in the movies be your ultimate guide?
Then the time comes when you need to know --
Either go with your dreams or you can go with the flow.
The flow ain't kosher like the Mardi Gras,
The people ain't the same as the people you saw.
But the young couple falls prey to the siren song, which turns into a death song sung by a black-caped AIDS siren standing on a stepladder above the crowd. The horror envelops, fells and silences the entire ensemble, one by one.
In the final scene, the dead stand up and are escorted off stage by death sirens, to the musical accompaniment of a dirge. "I shouldn't have used drugs," wails a young woman, and the siren answers, "But you did!" "I should have used a condom," says a young man, and the siren replies sarcastically, "But you were too smart for that!" "I was gonna be a professional dancer," says another young man, and the death siren gloats, "Now, you can dance for me."
And then, carrying off a baby dead of AIDS, the siren speaks the play's final line:
"And what could he have been?"