The six young performers had just two weeks to write the play. The short production would be their chance to share their life experiences before an international audience, a rare opportunity to show people far outside their community what it’s like to come of age in the District.
They were asked: What does it mean to grow up in a city with one of the nation’s highest HIV-infection rates, among uninformed teens having casual sex? What does this global problem look like in the city hosting the 2012 International AIDS Conference?
Ky’Lend Adams, 17, wrote about a woman at church who was shunned by her community when it became known she was HIV positive: “No one would sit next to her. . . . Everyone kept their distance, like they’d die if they got close.”
Terra Moore, 25, told of the challenges of romance as a transgender young adult: “I’m afraid to become intimate with anyone, which is a deal breaker for most men in the city.”
Angela Hughes, 19, questioned a public-education system that doesn’t address sex until after most kids are having it: “I didn’t take my first sexual-education class until 11th grade.”
All six have faced their own struggles, including Davina Smith, 23, who married at 16, had a daughter at 17 and split from her husband at 19. Now a single mother living in Baltimore, Smith said she didn’t learn much about sexual health or HIV until she first visited Metro TeenAIDS, a nonprofit HIV advocacy and educational organization in the District, as a young adult.
Their play, “Pulled Apart,” the result of a partnership between Arena Stage and Metro TeenAIDS, chronicles lives that largely go unseen and issues that often go unaddressed.
On Monday afternoon, as thousands milled elsewhere in the conference’s Global Village, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the performers rehearsed in a quiet, enclosed corner. In the midst of a massive and diverse event, where much of the discussion and discourse would focus on public policy and complex science, the D.C. natives weren’t sure what their performance space would be like or who would come to see them. But they adjusted their choreography and perfected their lines, getting ready for the moment to tell their stories.
Young people are playing an increasingly prominent role in the fight to end the global epidemic, said Emily Carson, 22, youth program coordinator for the AIDS conference. This year, about 3,000 people under age 30 — a demographic that represents half of new HIV infections worldwide — will participate in the event, Carson said.
“This will show the international community that we are stakeholders in the epidemic,” she said. “They’re going to make the leaders in the District and the rest of the U.S. look at HIV as a United States problem.”
The staff of Metro TeenAIDS knows all about the impact of the virus in their community. The group’s 45 peer educators — people between 14 and 20 who are employed and trained by MTA to conduct weekly community outreach efforts — come mostly from the District’s low-income neighborhoods. They are active in schools and community centers, on the Internet, on street corners. Many integrate their work into their personal lives, stopping by MTA’s Eastern Market headquarters to pick up pamphlets and condoms on the way to a party or a club. Last year, they reached more than 28,000 teens and young adults, according to MTA.
Mikeda Better, 19, is one of the peer educators — a large girl, with a strong voice and commanding presence. When she walks through the doors of a barbershop or a rush-hour Metro car and starts talking, people pay attention, she said.
“People who say they don’t use condoms — that’s when I do the most talking,” Better said. “It grosses me out to hear a grown man say he don’t use a condom. I ask them, ‘How many partners do you have?’ Most of them say, ‘Well, I got friends . . .’ ”
Better grew up in Ward 8. Her grandmother, with whom she is especially close, is HIV positive. When Better was young, she didn’t understand why her grandmother would sometimes get sick. Now she understands. But through her work with MTA, she sees “how many kids my age still don’t know about HIV,” she said.
It’s a sign of how far the District still has to go, said Adam Tenner, MTA’s executive director.
“The stigma around HIV is reduced, but it’s not gone. Education has improved, but not a lot,” he said. “D.C. is a hard city to make change in.”
Tenner appreciates the scope of the conference’s ambition. But amid all the elevated discussions and soaring rhetoric, Tenner’s goals are more fundamental: Maybe a broader audience might better understand the daily realities that his staff and the District’s youths are facing.
Those realities include a 16-year-old girl who, after receiving a positive pregnancy test at MTA, confessed that she didn’t understand how she’d gotten pregnant. And five young people, served by MTA, who were infected while still in the womb (there were six, but one man died a couple of weeks ago). And coaxing patients — such as Demario Patterson, 25, a college-educated, unemployed gay black man who takes more than 20 pills a day to help regulate his HIV, blood pressure and failing kidneys — through their treatment fatigue.
“I want people to know that people are still dying from HIV in our community,” Tenner said. “If a basic education comes out of this, that’ll be a win.”
Hearing from the youths who are most affected by the reality of HIV in the District is a start, he said.
“Young people are incredibly clear when it comes to telling the truth, especially their own truth,” he said. “So many are suffering in our community. These kids can bring a voice to their experience — to their hope, and to their hopelessness.”
At the Global Village, rehearsal time was over. Moore, Hughes, Adams and Smith entered the open lounge space at the conference’s youth pavilion, where they would present “Pulled Apart,” along with Jamir Nelson, 16, and Laneisha McCauley, 18.
The few dozen chairs set out for the audience slowly began to fill. It was a small fraction of the conference population, but the performers weren’t discouraged. They’d come to share their words with anyone who would listen.
Then, just before the play was to start, raucous music swelled from the main stage. Moore, an eyebrow raised, glanced at her co-stars: The performers didn’t have microphones. The noise of the surrounding events and the incessant, thumping beats from the bigger stage threatened to drown them out. But they knew what to do.
They stepped to their places and fixed their gazes on the audience. They raised their voices, loud, so they would be heard.