The Use of Theatre in AIDS Education:

A Brazilian Example


Vagner de Almeida
Somos Dois Produções Artísticas

Richard G. Parker
Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro

Presented at the Second International Symposium on AIDS Information and Education, Yaoundé, Cameroon, 22-26 October 1989.




This presentation discusses the use of theatre as a medium for AIDS education.  It examines some of the ways in which theatrical forms have been used in both industrialized and developing societies in order to explore a range of problems related to HIV infection and AIDS, and draws on the example of a theatrical production focusing on AIDS in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in order to develop a theoretical discussion of the possible role of theatre in responding to AIDS.




What is perhaps most immediately striking in any discussion of these issues is the fact that for nearly a decade now, theatre, more than any other form of art, seems to have offered a multi-dimensional response to issues raised by HIV infection and AIDS.  In contexts ranging from the gay communities of major urban centers in the industrialized world to local-level community groups in many developing countries, theatre has served as an artistic medium for the discussion of AIDS-related issues.  From Larry Kramer's early work, The Normal Heart, to more recent productions such as Theatre Rhinoceros' works known as The AIDS Show, from the productions of theatrical groups (such as those represented here at this conference in Yaounde this evening), to works such as One of our Sons is Missing in Trinidad and Tobago and Adeus Irmão, Durma Sossegado (which we might translate as Goodbye My Friend, Sleep Well) in Brazil, theatre has responded to AIDS around the globe. 0ften on a shoestring budget, and with little in the way of financial return, theatrical productions have in fact been very much in the front lines of the fight against AIDS, and understanding at least some of the possible reasons that might lay behind this phenomenon can perhaps offer insights that may be useful in seeking to further it in the future.

In analyzing the role of theatre in responding to HIV and AIDS and its potential use for AIDS education, there are many different features that one might focus on.  In thinking about these questions, however, we believe that it is useful to examine at least three major issues that, in our opinion, characterize theatrical art and shape its potential as a response to AIDS:  (1) its social construction; (2) its cultural function; and (3) the medium itself, as a form of communication.

First, we believe that it is important to stress the role of theatre, cross-culturally, within a distinct social context, as rooted in particular communities.  While the popular image of theatre may conjure up the lights of Broadway or the productions of the West End – the fact of the matter is that theatrical art has traditionally emerged at a very local level, within the context of particular communities.  In much of the world today, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, theatre continues to be a traditional art form, and to maintain profound links with popular culture and local level communities.[1]  Even in settings in which both tradition and community have undergone profound transformations, theatre has re-emerged as an artistic expression of specific communities within pluralistic societies – the gay, black or Latino communities within contemporary American society, for example. In spite of its commercialization within a wider social and economic system, then, theatre has simultaneously continued as a form of art rooted in the life of specific communities, based in their sense of community, and this is an extremely important characteristic that must be taken into account in seeking to understand the ways in which theatre has offered (and can continue to offer) a response to AIDS.

Second, we believe that it is important to stress the traditional cultural function of theatrical art – and, in particular, its role in social and cultural criticism.  Precisely because of its link to perceived communities, theatre has had a particular role to play as part of the politics of culture.  If, on the one hand, many writers have stressed the importance of theatre in transmitting basic community values (already, as we note, an educational function), no less important has been its role as a form of resistance – as a response to both oppression and repression. It should come as no surprise, in light of the history of the theatre, that from colonial Africa to the contemporary United States, theatrical art has itself been the object of political repression, a perceived threat to political and cultural hegemony. It should come as no surprise as well, that the theatre has been at the forefront of resistance to such repression, that theatre should have been a cultural weapon in the struggle against colonialism in Africa and Asia, that it should have been a tool for the assertion of gay identity and liberation in the United States and Europe, that it should give voice to the struggles of the poor and the homeless in Latin Africa. As much or more than any other form of art, theatre has been a form of cultural criticism capable of responding to a whole range of oppression and discrimination, and once again, we think, this characteristic must be remembered in seeking to understand the potential use of theatre in responding to the issues raised by AIDS.[2]

Finally, perhaps most obviously, it- is important to stress the medium itself, its nature as a form of communication, in short, the particular kind of contract created within the theatre between performers and public within the context of the performance act.  Rooted, as is clear in the finest work on the nature of performance, in structures such as ritual and festival, theatrical art involves a kind of immediacy of contact that perhaps exists in no other art form.  The interaction between performer and public, the exchange of energy and, we would add, information, that takes place between them is clearly not comparable to the exchange involved in reading a book, viewing a painting or watching a video.  It is a multi-directional exchange in which the audience's response to the actor's performance is as immediately transmitted as is the message of his art.  If, in terms of the transmission of information, more removed artistic forms tend to reproduce a kind of hierarchical relationship in which the audience receives a message in a relatively passive way, theatrical presentations at least offer the possibility of attempting to partially democratize such an exchange.  Depending upon the design of the theatrical experience, they create a link between performer and public in which both become partners in an evolving process.  No less than the social context and cultural function of the theatre, then, this particular nature of the theatrical medium and the theatrical experience must be remembered in seeking to think about the theatre in response to AIDS and as a tool for AIDS education.




Taken together, the various characteristics or features of the theatre that we have briefly touched upon offer a variety of special possibilities or opportunities, then, for the use of theatre as part of a response to HIV and AIDS, and it is perhaps no surprise that important theatrical productions have examined AIDS-related issues with power and compassion in such a wide range of different social and cultural settings.  Some years ago now, we began work on Adeus Irmao, Durma Sossegado – a collection of sketches about various aspects of AIDS, finally mounted in late 1988, and presented in Rio de Janeiro from May to August of 1989.  As we began preparing the text (written and directed by Vaguer de Almeida), we were particularly concerned with developing a work that would respond to the specific reality of contemporary Brazilian life.  We were aware that the few theatrical works that had been produced on AIDS had been translations of plays developed in the United States, and had thus responded to a rather different social and cultural reality, and we consciously sought to draw on (Richard Parker's) research on the social dimensions of AIDS in Brazil.  In order to capture some of the range of this experience, we chose to use a series of sketches, with an .ensemble of actors changing characters from one sketch to the next, in order to document some of the different situations and persons whose lives AIDS has touched in Brazil.

To give but a few examples, different sections of the text were developed to explore the reaction of parents whose sons and daughters had been diagnosed with AIDS, the reactions of religious officials, the life of a young male prisoner who had become infected with HIV shortly after his incarceration, the experience of two male lovers confronted by the illness of one, the solidarity between a young man diagnosed with AIDS and his closest female friend, and so on.  While these are in many ways very general situations, we also tried to focus on particularly Brazilian cases – for example, the case of a street beggar selling his blood in a society that has still not managed to effectively control the capitalist commercialization of blood and blood products.  We included a sketch focusing on the experience of risk on the part of a young male prostitute in a society caught between its religious and traditional/popular prejudices.  We drew on the transgressive figures of transvestite and female prostitutes in order to develop a sketch aimed at translating safer sex information from a more reserved medical/scientific language into the popular/comic language of the street.  And throughout the text, we focused on the forms of stigma and discrimination that have been directed against people with AIDS, and people perceived to be at risk because of AIDS, in contemporary Brazilian society: people denied access to hospitals and proper medical care, people denied their human rights and dignity, people denied their humanity.

As in the context of the text itself, the particular relationship between the play and the audience took shape, during performances, within the specific context of Brazilian reality.  While not situated or even responding to a single sexual community (in a society in which the notion of sexual community is clearly quite different for example, than the idea of a gay community in the United States or parts of Europe), there nonetheless existed a clear link between the work and the experience of any number of sexual communities.  We consciously directed publicity, through its design as well as its distribution, to the homosexual subculture, and found perhaps our strongest support within this community.  At the same time, however, we found that the text resonated strongly with a range of other alternative communities, and that the public ultimately included members of many of the other sexual subcultures that have perceived themselves most clearly at risk in the face of HIV infection-as well as an especially large number of young people, who responded particularly well to the themes raised in the performance.

Ultimately, then, stigma, discrimination, fear, sexuality, death, compassion, and solidarity were all themes that emerged in the different sketches that were tied together in Adeus Irmão, Durma Sossegado.  As the play took shape, we became increasingly convinced that these issues, and in particular the questions of discrimination, stigma, and fear, were crucially, perhaps centrally, important to whatever educational value the play might have.  Indeed, in discussing these issues with members of the public following performances (informal discussions, in this case, rather than structured debates or lectures), it became increasingly apparent that without confronting these issues, information on risk reduction would itself have very little impact – that a responsiveness to information on reducing risk was fundamentally linked to a wider context or climate in which issues related to HIV and AIDS were interpreted.  The question of risk reduction could only be confronted within this context, yet precisely because of the nature of the theatrical experience, this confrontation could be encouraged rather than avoided or ignored.

Following more than four months of performances in Rio de Janeiro, Adeus Irmão, Durma Sossegado closed in late August of 1989, and preparation began for the next phase of the production. A number of revisions are currently being made in the text and production of the play on the basis of these initial performances, and in early 1990 we move out of Rio as a traveling production to be performed in other parts of Brazil.  What we are developing is but one example of the use of theatre in responding to AIDS.  Other plays, in other parts of Brazil, are currently being mounted, and, we hope, will continue to become an increasingly evident part of Brazilian cultural life.  There is no doubt about the urgent need for the open and honest discussion of HIV and AIDS in Brazil, as in other countries, and there is no doubt that the language of theatre has a key role to play in this process.




Increasingly, across cultures, theatre has been drawn on as a medium for AIDS education and health promotion, and this session, as well as the performance of a number of different theatrical productions, here in Yaoundé is an important example of its potential as a major resource.  Precisely within this context, at a conference focusing on AIDS education, however, we believe, on the basis of our own experience in Brazil, that it is important to stress the widest possible definition of AIDS education.  All too often, in our experience in Brazil certainly, but also in other settings that we are familiar with, AIDS education has been taken as more or less equivalent to the transmission of what we hope is accurate information about risk related behaviors – information that is intended, of course, to encourage rational decision making and the kinds of choices that will lead to the reduction of risk in the lives of particular individuals.

We believe, however, that the transmission of such information is but one part of the educational process – that reactions to HIV transmission and risk related behaviors are situated within a wider context, a wider set of issues, that shape the ways in which people respond to both AIDS and AIDS information, and that must ultimately be addressed within a holistic perspective if we are to have any hope of building a positive response to the epidemic of HIV and AIDS.  Stigma, oppression, and discrimination must all be confronted, as must sexuality, life, and death.  Compassion and solidarity are clearly as important as bleach or condoms, and the kinds of transformations that will be required to fully confront the threat of AIDS will depend as much on changing community values as on the behavioral changes of any given individual.[3]

Precisely because of its unique characteristics, the theatre offers special possibilities in responding to all of these issues.  Because of its link to a range of specific communities, many of which have directly experienced the Impact of HIV infection and AIDS, it offers the possibility of a community-based response in the fullest sense – a forum in which a whole range of issues impacting upon the community can be confronted, debated, discussed, and reflected upon, a forum in which the norms and values of the community can be examined and even transformed.  Linked to the life of specific communities, the cultural function of the theatre as a context for social criticism and political commentary is no less important, as it offers the opportunity of not simply transmitting AIDS information, but of confronting the kinds of social issues, the forms of stigma, oppression, and discrimination that in fact most severely threaten a positive response not only to AIDS but to people with AIDS – the kinds of issues that, if unaddressed, would threaten to undermine and inhibit the effect of even the most complete and objective  AIDS information.  Finally, because of its immediacy, its nature as a form of communication, the theatre offers the possibility for a kind of exchange, and a kind of reflection, that is perhaps impossible through any other medium – an exchange that, in conjunction with the other features that we have examined, opens up the possibilities of transformation in a fundamentally new and different way.

It is to seek to realize all of these possibilities that those of us who work in theatre and with theatre must be committed, and it is through this commitment that our own contribution to the fight against HIV and AIDS can become part of a wider effort.


[1] See, for example, James R. Brandon, Theatre in Southeast Asia, Cambridge, Mass;  Harvard University Press, 1967; Carlos Vaz, Para um Conhecimento do Teatro Africano, Lisboa: Ulmeiro, 1978; Lee Warren, The Theatre of Africa, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

[2] Augusto Boal, Teatro do Oprimido, Rio de Janeiro:  Civilização Brasileira, 1975; Carlos Vaz, Para urn Conhecimento do Teatro Africano, Lisboa:  Ulmeiro, 1978.

[3] Richard G. Parker, "AIDS Education and Health Promotion in Brazil:  Lessons from the Past and Prospects for the Future," in press.



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