Medea Project presents: Dancing with the Clown of Love
I didn't know what to expect, certainly not an evening exploring the concept of loving oneself and releasing stigma attached to HIV and AIDS diagnosis, but I wasn't surprised. Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women tackled those tough issues, so why not HIV, another sort of prison, perhaps the worse kind where escape is virtually impossible.
Multi-layered with healing at its center, the large cast, some infected, everyone affected, shared stories written over the past two years at the Women's HIV Program at the University of California San Francisco, under the direction of Dr. Edward Machtinger, MD. The program opened with a short film directed by Jenny Chu which documented Medea Project at WHP. What I thought really remarkable and special was how in the talk back with the audience, people who were HIV positive in the audience self disclosed, many for the first time. It was amazing! I mean really.
Rhodessa in red silk pajamas with a black fedora, a fat cigar, and a bottle of rum blessed the stage, Gede incarnated --the spirit of the graveyard, sprayed the four corners and some audience members on the first rows, as the chorus sang. Next came the three Fates...for those who know Medea or Macbeth's encounter with the witches stirring... Medea is character who has a messy divorce and rather than give her children up or cooperate with her estranged lover, she kills them...a crime of passion. This is different from the mad man who drops his children from the window in Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who consider suicide when the rainbow isn't enuf (I need to check the title). I don't remember if men complained like they did when the Color Purple hit the big screen, but he and "Mister" were certainly brothers.
In beautiful costumes the Fates orchestrate the light and dark in the character's lives dancing in and off the stage at strategic moments. Using the entire theatre as its stage, Dancing with the Clown of Love encouraged the audience to be a part of the production as we were invited to dance with the women, get tested and ultimately refuse the stigma associated with this HIV disease, an illness, to choose life and health and love.
Several children participated in the theatre production, the youngest two, whom we meet in program notes, if not on stage--the actresses in costume were a bit to frightening for her.
With superb lighting by longtime collaborator, Stephanie Johnson, dramaturgy by Fe Bongolan, choreography by Lisa Frias, Angela Wilson and Gina Dawson, and again the costumes designed by Rene Walker, Dancing is as luscious as it is sad, these women have a life threatening disease, some of them clearly ill, others --you'd never know. We wouldn't know if they didn't tell us in the end.
In one piece a slightly built actress dances, her fragility an aspect of the play she embodies--she is the reality check, the reminder that this is theatre and life.
After my safe sex talk with a cast member during one of the shattered fourth wall moments, I got a red condom--my favorite color. I thought about my first cousin Roland, a chef, who was refused admittance at the hospital in Mississippi when my Auntie Henrietta took him there one evening. They told her to take him to New Orleans, an hour away. He died upon arrival.
I thought about all the black women with HIV disease over 50, the new face of AIDS and the youngsters becoming infected everyday.
This 30th Anniversary of Cultural Odyssey--Rhodessa and Idris Ackamoor's baby, and the 20th Anniversary of the Medea Project, is superb and shouldn't be missed. In conjunction with the theatrical celebration there is a wonderful exhibit in the Sargent Johnson Gallery, multimedia and interactive which visitors should see before the show or afterwards as there is no intermission.
"Telling truth creates beauty," Rhodessa says. The director believes that even when it is hard truth is a necessary ingredient for wellness. Like a coach, we hear Rhodessa's voice telling the women, most of them not professional actresses to "push it," as they do a ring shout and dance, as they tell their stories like one women from Austria who speaks of the gift her status has facilitated in her life. Another women speaks of how she has learned that intimacy is sacred, while another actress dances us through the sensuality of physical love which doesn't go away just because one has an HIV diagnosis, that there is life after HIV.
Visit www.culturalodyssey.org Closing weekend, shows are Friday-Saturday, March 12-13, 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM at the Burial Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco. Check the times and the intimate theatre was almost full Thurday evening.
Visit www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks to listen to an interview this morning with Rhodessa Jones.