Theater: Fighting AIDS Stigma

Atop a small stage set against the backdrop of Kenya's biggest slum, a group of young actors is telling the story of one family's struggle with AIDS. Two daughters contract HIV, one through consensual unprotected sex and one through being raped by a friend who believes that sleeping with a virgin will cure him of the disease. At first, both girls are ostracized. But the rape victim courageously goes to the hospital for treatment; a year later she gets a clean bill of health and marries the boyfriend who stood by her. The other daughter goes on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), stays symptom-free and gets a job working at a television station. The family reconciles as the crowd cheers at the happy ending.

Audiences are doing a lot more than cheering. Inspired by the play, produced by an NGO devoted to removing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in Africa, the country's difficult-to-reach slum population is increasingly seeking testing and treatment. After a short series of performances last year in the rough neighborhood of Mathare, 500 people turned up for testing at a clinic, and 50 eventually went on ARVs. And while the play is powerfully instructive, it also provides topnotch entertainment to a cultural-ly deprived community. "There is nothing worse than a bad play," says Nick Reding, the British actor behind the production.

For Reding, 42, the play fulfilled a crucial need. After starring in Tony Kushner's AIDS play "Angels in America" at the Royal National Theatre—as well as in television and Hollywood film roles—Reding traveled to Kenya to help open the country's first pediatric AIDS unit. Profoundly disturbed by the dying children he saw, he decided to do a "really big play about AIDS." He discovered a group of actors, and together they created Sponsored Arts for Education (SAFE) Pwani (Coast), and got to work on a script. "We needed something that could create debate, discussion and make people laugh," he says. It also had to appeal as entertainment. Unlike bad NGO theater, which has little impact, says Reding, the play works because it tackles tough issues with a sense of humor. The audience giggles at the clumsy kissing scene but goes quiet when the daughter comes down with HIV.

Reding raised $14,000 from the theater community, which paid for an initial two-week tour. By the end, they had reached more than 30,000 people. But Reding was amazed at how little people knew. Owiso, the troupe's driver, confided that when his own brother was dying of AIDS, he was tempted to run away. "'But I remembered what you'd said in the play, about how you couldn't catch AIDS'," Reding recalls Owiso's telling him. "'And so I held him when he died.' And I thought, if $14,000 resulted in Owiso's brother's being held when he died, then this can work."

Reding then moved to Nairobi, where he hired 17 actors from the slums for SAFE Ghetto. The play addresses issues like condom use, HIV testing and rape, which aren't often discussed in public. "Every day in the slums you hear about kids being raped because of this stupid virgin myth," said Krysteen Savane, 26, one of SAFE's actors. "It's a huge responsibility, but we are educating people."

To date the SAFE troupes have performed for more than 450,000 people. An impact assessment sponsored by the Ford Foundation found that after a performance, up to 80 percent of the audience said they would use condoms and 95 percent said they would get tested for HIV. Still, the challenges remain daunting; though the Kenyan government has created 800 voluntary testing centers, the rollout of free drugs and counseling have been slow. But it's a start. "At the beginning of any given show up to 2,000 people know little about AIDS except what mystery, rumor and prejudice tells them," says actor Alan Rickman, a SAFE trustee and star of such films as "Love, Actually" and the Harry Potter series. "An hour later they go back to their villages knowing everything through stories they can identify with."

For Reding there is nothing more gratifying than the sound of applause after a show. "I felt so impotent in L.A. to make a real difference in this work," he says. "Once I went to the clinic I felt empowered. I still love acting, but this is hugely creative. It's transformed my life." And luckily for Kenya, thousands of others' lives, too.