A new play debuting this weekend in Austin looks to not only entertain but increase awareness among African-American youths about AIDS.
Eyes Wide Open is a series of dramatic and comedic vignettes framed by a central story. It opens this Saturday at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St. Written by CJ True and directed by Second City member Ned Fulmer, the play introduces its audience to a young couple weathering the first stages of romantic intimacy. As they do, a character named “Common Sense,” a guardian angel of sorts, leads the duo through a series of skits and soliloquies. The play includes a cast of 10 young actors, mostly of high school or college-aged.
Fulmer said the fantastical narrative of Eyes Wide Open is similar to Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. The skits range from spoofs of game shows and modern dramatic television series, to more serious monologues about HIV/AIDS education, safe sex and dating.
“What we’re trying to do here is create an interactive experience for our audience,” said Terrell Brockington, a community activist working with Fight The Inferno, a community organization that’s sponsoring the play. “We feel that with the interaction, the audience will retain more of what we put out there.”
While the tone of Eyes Wide Open varies from dramatic to comedic, the message is aimed at youth ages13 through 19-for whom AIDS is shockingly prevalent. It’s also a message that both Fulmer and Brockington believe needs to reach its audience. During a recent rehearsal, Brockington reminded the cast that the play is based in stark reality.
“Remember, the scenarios you’re acting here are real-they happen,” he said to the actors.
Statistics from the Chicago Department of Public Health confirm that point.
City health officials reported that as of 2010, Austin has the highest number of STD cases for youth aged 13-19; and HIV infections in Austin for the same age group are the second highest in the city.
While the total number of HIV/AIDS cases have declined, the Chicago Department of Health found that diagnoses for that age group actually increased by a startling 95 percent. In 2008, non-Hispanic African-Americans accounted for nearly two-thirds of all diagnoses in Chicago. Currently, there are nearly 21,000 people living in Chicago with HIV/AIDS.
The all-too-common relationship between African-American youths and HIV/AIDS may be disheartening, but, for Fulmer, presenting this reality to an audience doesn’t have to match the seriousness of the subject.
“Some vignettes are funny, some are really touching,” he said. “There’s a lot of facts and numbers, and figures [to communicate]. It’s a way of getting information across in an entertaining way, but that also makes it stick.”
Fight The Inferno plans to develop more programs and plays, Brockington said-ones with a message about individuals in the community taking responsibility for their own sexual health.
“Over the years, I think the virus has spread exponentially throughout our community because there hasn’t been enough education and enough attention. I just think it’s imperative that we develop programs that we can relate to, understand and get that message home,” he said.
Along with educating audiences, actress Shalonda McClain said Eyes Wide Open can inspire optimism in those individuals living with HIV/AIDS. “A lot of people give up hope-just because you have the virus doesn’t mean that your life has to stop.”