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Positive: Retelling the HIV message

Trevor Rhone’s play, directed by Karl Williams.

By Antoine Craigwell

Trevor Rhone (1940-2009)

Dressed in black with a long red silk stole draped around his neck, he hovered in the background as a specter, visible to all, yet intending to be unseen by those he haunted. He chortled and skipped with glee, announcing “another one gone” when someone’s test results were positive or someone had succumbed and died from complications associated with HIV, and gnashed his teeth in chagrin when someone’s results was negative or despite his attempts at influencing, someone chose to use a condom. He was the embodiment of HIV.

Poster - Trevor Rhone's Positive
Poster – Trevor Rhone’s Positive

The image of HIV, familiar yet menacing, was the central theme of the play written by the late Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone (1940 to 2009). Set in the island nation of Jamaica, “Positive” explores and examines different sections of society, unconfined to the island, which remain as obstacles to effective dissemination of information, prevention, and treatment of HIV. Originally, Rhone intended “Positive” as a musical, incorporating the pulsating, suggestive lyrics, and beats of reggae, music from Jamaica. The play, when it was presented at the New Perspectives Theater on Saturday, Mar 6, 2010, although it was a first performance, the small theater space was packed, standing room only, with friends, guests, and possible sponsors. In this production, an old story of the devastating consequences wreaked on those infected, HIV was told with the definitive accent and vernacular of Jamaicans at home in their city, according to the director, Karl O’Brian Williams, at the post performance Q&A, without music. Two companies collaborated to produce Positive, Barata Productions and Banana Boat Productions, with a nine-member cast, whose intensity and passion found identification with the characters, and with the shifting scenes, at its conclusion received sustained and enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Trevor Rhone

The play examines frequently colliding and juxtaposed religious dilemmas and socio-economic issues, cultural mores and pressures, and of sexual abuse and promiscuity, which runs as an undercurrent in society. It tells of the story of Devon, played by Kyino Cunningham, a late teenager of his time, tall, muscular, lithe, and physically attractive, who is already jaded by the experiences of his life: the many family and friends who have died from HIV. He is caught in a position where he has to choose between the demands of his peers and immediate society to prove his manhood through multiple sexual conquests, and what he knows would protect him from the fate of those he mourn, as he declares resignedly, “there’s no tomorrow in my reality.” In exasperation he exclaims, when asked about his preference for not using condoms, that since he was about nine or 10-years-old, when he first had sex, condoms were too small for his penis and the girls he had sex with wanted the intimate feel of skin on skin, insisting that “true intimacy is sex without a condom.” As the play progresses, Devon meets and is smitten by Melissa, played by Annmarie Cole, who is voluptuous, sexy, beautiful and desirable; everything about her screams sex. She is a willing partner for sex, not only with Devon, who she desperately desires, but also with his friends in a sexual orgy, termed “to run battery”. She wants to prove herself, to her peers, and to share in the experience she has heard from her friends. She agrees to have sex with Devon, but he cautions her that it would not be with him alone, he tells her she would be having sex with six men. All the while, as Devon and Melissa negotiate their impending sexual encounter, HIV, played by Lemark McPherson, lurks behind them as a specter, miming, gesticulating suggestions, and as if he was a master puppeteer, manipulating the strings to ensnare one more victim. Melissa agrees and when the time arrives, in a simulation of the act, surrounded by the males in the cast, she falls to the floor, holds her abdomen and utters a guttural scream from the pain of the number of penetrations, which are imagined to be not all vaginal.

from a production of "Positive"

The playwright explores, addresses, and reconciles the conflicts the religious institutions experience when faced with the stark reality of the suffering of ordinary people. In one scene, Sister, a habited member of a Roman Catholic religious order, played by Hillary Roosevelt Ricketts, is recruited to assist with outreach. She quickly learns how removed she is from the real world when she answers a call to the agency from someone enquiring about how HIV is  contracted and about “eating at a two-foot table”, a term which perplexed and  embarrassed her when Joe, the head of the HIV prevention and outreach agency, played by Andrew Clarke, explained that it was another term for oral sex on a woman, “I’ve learned more out here than from all the books I’ve read,” she said.

Poster - Smile Orange

Revealing is the reconciliation which occurred when the pastor of the evangelical church, played by Ian Forrest, demonizes Joe’s outreach enterprise, condemning to hellfire and damnation with vehement denouncements all those who lead lives of the flesh, “people must change their evil ways.” The pastor himself undergoes a conversion and comes to a realization when he meets Marilyn, played by Kara Colley, and a romance blossoms. He invites her to attend and hear him preach at a crusade, to dinner and just as he was making moves to consummate their relationship, Marilyn stops him, insisting that he use a condom and explains that she is HIV-positive. Meanwhile, the specter of HIV hovering in the background, turns away in disgust at Marilyn’s revelation. So enamored is the pastor that he approaches Joe and the Sister to discuss what he should do, especially since he couldn’t understand how someone as physically attractive and sexy with no outward manifestations of the disease as Marilyn could be HIV-positive. After a conversation with Joe and Sister, he renounces the hellfire and damnation vitriol, asks what he could do to help spread the word about HIV, and asks Marilyn if she would be his wife.

In another scene, a mother, Delrose, played by Camile Deans, comes to the agency asking for help. She does not know what to do,  she knows that her boyfriend, who tom-cats all over the town, having sex with many people, has also been having sex with her 13-year-old daughter. Although she has sent her daughter away to live with an aunt and had once evicted the boyfriend from her home, she is desperate, because his financial contribution to the home provides for her and the other children, but he demands that his turn to the house is conditional on the daughter coming back home. Joe and Sister are themselves shocked by the revelation and perplexed as to how to advise Delrose, except to suggest that the daughter stay with the aunt.

Then in another scene, the daughter, Jane, played also by Cole, comes to the agency one year later, because as she said, her mother told her that if ever she needed any help she should go and ask for the Sister. To the chortles of glee from the HIV specter in the background, she recounts that her mother had died from HIV and that she is also HIV-positive. She explains that she works in a strip bar and asks for some condoms so she could go to work. Sister hesitates, as once again she faces a conflict, the church’s stance against condom use and the desperation before her: as Jane explained that she is now the sole breadwinner of the family and has to work in the sex industry to support herself and other siblings. As if not wanting to seem complicit, Sister asks to be excused from the room, and as soon as she leaves, Jane grabs a handful of condoms and flees.

Poster - The Harder They Come

While audience participation in the post performance Q&A was spirited and engaging, asking questions and offering comments, there was no consensus on retaining the strong Jamaican accent and dialects, and how to address the sexual suggestiveness of some of the portrayals as Rhone intended, if the desire is to take the play into the New York City public school system. One of the objectives of the performance was to attract sponsors for future performances. The producers thanked Rhone’s estate for permission to stage the play.

Poster - One Love

Rhone, who died suddenly last September from a heart attack, was a prolific writer, producer, director, and lecturer, being involved in films such as the cult classic “The Harder They Come” (1969), “One Love” produced in Jamaica, and his stage works, which included “Smile Orange” (1971), “Old Story Time” (1979), and “Two Can Play” (1982). He was a consultant to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Global AIDS Program in Guyana, with oversight and responsibility for a serialized radio drama production. As a member of the Caribbean theatre, he advocated that his work should “mirror the lives of the ordinary man, and to reaffirm his strengths in such a way that he learns to diminish his weaknesses and to believe that he can make a positive difference in his society.”

For more information and for sponsorship opportunities, contact Andrew Clarke, executive director, Barata Productions at zuzu92_2000@yahoo.com

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March 12, 2010 - Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Blogroll, Caribbean, community, death, Guyana, Health, HIV, HIV Status, Jamaica, LGBT community, Male Health, Public Health, Theater

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