When the first Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented case of AIDS was reported in 1980, much thought wasn’t given to it and as the disease spread among white homosexual men, many in the black community dismissed it as the “white gay man’s disease”. Further complicating this perception were the high profile deaths of actor Rock Hudson, musician Ricky Wilson, and other entertainment notables.
However, when NBA legend Magic Johnson held a press conference with his wife Cookie by his side to announce his retirement from the game as a result of his newly diagnosed HIV status, the black community finally took notice and concern grew amongst the black heterosexual community that contracting the virus could happen to anyone.
In Dallas, Texas, a female called into a popular radio station informing male listeners that she had AIDS and was going to try and infect as many unsuspecting men as possible by attracting their sexual interest in area nightclubs. The hysteria that ensued was terrifying, with black men confronted with the real possibility that they could become infected by making one irreversible choice to have unprotected sex. Likewise, black women were equally upset because they would have no way of knowing if the man they had slept with had been with this woman. The situation was later determined to be a hoax but it still didn’t squelch the fear that many in the sexually active heterosexual community had about a disease they knew virtually nothing about.
Around the time my freelance writing career started, I began work on a directly funded CDC minority HIV prevention grant program at the Urban League of Greater Dallas and North Central Texas. Through that work, our team reached more than 70,000 unduplicated numbers each year over a 3-year period. The experience was eye-opening, not just as a support staff member with duties also including health education sessions, but also witnessing the ignorance minority populations had about the disease. Religion often played a negative role in the process because blacks tend to be more religious and black ministers simply did not want to address the issue with their congregations, holding on to the erroneous belief that HIV was not of God and still a white gay disease.
Flash forward twenty years and that ignorance still has a strong hold in the black community with HIV/AIDS disproportionately affecting blacks at higher rates than any other ethnic group, even with the huge advances made in the field that are life preserving.
New playwright Lakenya Moss, producer of the stage play “Dying Alone”, attempts to tackle a number of these issues in a show with a running time of two and a half hours. With alternating storylines, some that were vetted well, others unnecessary, and some that could have been explored in greater depth, the production came off as an infomercial and would have been better served as an educational piece had the focus on HIV/AIDS not been so broad. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as the virus itself, is more complex medically, financially, socially, and emotionally than can be told within the scope of the time devoted to the subject in her script.
Directed by David E. Kemp, problematic were numerous production glitches which took away from the actual storytelling, including unnecessary sound effects, the under-utilization of the house band, microphones extending visibly from the orchestra pit, items going from stage left to stage right in the middle of the stage used for actor’s entrance and exit (including a visible hand and an item being pushed from one side to the other), and the unused of muted sound which resulted in the band being heard speaking during the production.
Add to that babies crying or speaking from the audience during the production, which could have been resolved with ushers present, only hampered direct focus on the material being presented on stage.
Despite theater production faux paux that can be easily chalked up to inexperience, the play managed to give the audience members a glimpse into the lives of the different types of people who fall victim to the HIV virus and their stories.
Acting standouts included Vincent Coulson as Daniel (pronounced Danielle), whose character was an openly black gay male living at Hope House for patients with varying degrees of HIV infection and/or AIDS; Rachel Webb as a young patient who brought down the house at the end of the 1st Act in the span of just 5 minutes with her rather adult view of her condition through a short monologue and singing; and award-winning actress Irma P. Hall as Mama Hall, who stole the show at the end of the 2nd Act and proved you don’t need a lot of stage/screen time (a’la Viola Davis in “Doubt” who received an Oscar nomination for her 5 minute cameo appearance) to make an indelible contribution on the story being told.
Coulson is an acting dynamo with his spot on comedic timing which enamored the audience to his character immediately. Typical in productions like these, black gay male characters come off as one-dimensional caricatures with stereotypes that are often nauseating. At a glance, this was case but Coulson was able to help you see his character as a HUMAN BEING and not just an urban theater production add on for laughs. Equally impressive was a scene where you get to see Daniel completely, good, bad, warts and all who pours out his heart as a result of being ostracized by his mother due to his condition. Although Coulson is relatively young in the profession, his star is definitely one to watch.
In her role as a young HIV/AIDS patient, Webb demonstrated a maturity beyond her years when consoling another young patient but it was her a cappella version of Grammy award-winning singer Yolanda Adams hit song “The Battle Is Not Yours.” Listening to her sing with such powerful EMOTION left one lamenting why there weren’t any record producers or talent scouts from reality TV shows like “The Voice” or “Sunday Best” in the audience waiting to sign her up. She would clearly blow the competition right out of the water. She is that good!
The storylines of Mya, played by stage veteran Maggie Simmons-Ward; Ashley played by Octavia Griffin; Lawrence played by Rashad Espie; and even Ms. Hall’s character deserved more intimate attention than given in the script, with each storyline potentially serving as its own sequel to this original work. Ward, Griffin, Espie, and Rachelle Wilson as Regina all delivered good performances but were hampered by a script that wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been.
As presented, it only left those who have very little about the disease as well as those of us who have more extensive knowledge wanting to know more about the emotional terrain a person impacted with the disease must navigate for self-preservation, as well as those indirectly impacted to provide necessary support for their loved ones.
The testimonial by Helen Goldenberg, a 29-year survivor of the disease and HIV/AIDS activist with AIDS Services of Dallas (a beneficiary of the event), was touching and heartfelt but would have been more impactful had the script been more fine-tuned. Direct correlation to her journey in the characters’ stories would have resulted in people pondering the thought “I could be her”…
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“Dying Alone” is presented by That’s Our Truth Productions, with sponsorship from the Holiday Inn, K104.5 Radio, Tha Afterparty, The Dallas Examiner, Dallas Public Library, Texas News Topics, Mountain View College, and BlackAccessGranted.com.
This production benefitted AIDS Services of Dallas (ASD), a non-profit organization whose mission is to create and strengthen healthy communities through the delivery of quality, affordable, service-enriched housing for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS. ASD’s mission includes advocacy, education, and the development of affordable housing options and community development opportunities, both for its residents living with HIV/AIDS, and for economically disadvantaged people.
To assist ASD in its mission through the donation of personal hygiene items for men, women, and children living at an ASD facility, contact Mary Beth O’Connor at (214) 941-4411, ext. 510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on upcoming productions by That’s Our Truth Productions, contact Ms. Moss at email@example.com