Stephen Lewis on The Africa Trilogy and the HIV pandemic

Volcano Theatre held a fundraising event on On May 18th at The Elgin Theatre with The Africa Trilogy inspiration Stephen Lewis as keynote speaker. Below is the (slightly abridged) text of his speech and photos from the event taken by Amanda Lynne Ballard.

Stephen Lewis speaks to guests at Volcano's fundraising event at The Elgin Theatre on May 18th, 2010

That was a deliciously over the top introduction for which I am deeply appreciative. Christina Magill and I are extraordinarily privileged to be here tonight. That was an astonishing piece of work, the performance which the four [actors] fully represented – was extraordinarily moving and they are amazingly gifted and I can’t get over it. It augurs so auspiciously for what you people do at Luminato and beyond. And I must say, it was quite something to sit and listen and witness it.

I was very much taken a back by Annie Abeni I believe her name was, because it reminded me so vividly of a Ghanaian fertility doll and that immediately reminded me of the question of the transmission of the virus from mother to child during the birthing process which we call vertical transmission.

And I was also struck because I know Schimmelpfenig [author of Peggy Pickit], had indicated at one point that it was difficult to capture, theatrically, the pandemic of HIV, and yet, towards the end of the excerpt which we witnessed the exchange around the looming revelation of infection is completely consistent with the most current analysis of prevention around the pandemic. Analysis which is called concurrent partnerships, a phrase that was given particular authenticity by a women named Helen Epstein who writes for the New York Review of Books and has written a really quite fascinating book quite recently on concurrent partnerships.

Guests at the event began the evening with a special presentation of an excerpt from Peggy Pickit Sees The Face of God in our rehearsal studios.

The theory is that men will have perhaps three or four partners outside of the marriage – women may have one or two partners outside of the marriage – they are in this very tight web of concurrent partnerships and if one of them gets infected, let us assume a nurse has HIV, then everyone instantaneously gets infected. And it is generally felt that that’s the way the virus has moved so dramatically through southern Africa – this process of concurrent partnerships.

And the reason that there was a very dramatic reduction in the country of Uganda was because the women and the community at large understood the concurrent partnerships and moved in and broke them. Spoke to the women and spoke to the men who were engaged in the relationships and broke the concurrent partnerships and the prevalence rate dropped from 20% to 6% in the matter of eight or nine years. So I was much struck by what the play was verging on because it was so consistent with the contemporary theories on how this virus is taking its toll. And I really look forward to the full play and the other two.

Stephen Lewis with Volcano Artistic Director Ross Manson.

You’re a man, Ross, of such diminutive aspirations. I mean, you could have had a quartet and you chose merely a trilogy. It is a comment on your abridged sense of what the world might provide. But I must say that it is quite wondrous that all of this has been encapsulated. I feel honored – to be a part of all of it – however tangentially. I can remember when we got together in November 2007 for the launch and now we’ve got this huge group or team of actors, and directors, and producers and everyone else together in the phenomena of the Trilogy itself.

You can’t imagine how pertinent it is – I was in Pittsburgh today and I got back just before evening and I had while there participated in a discussion on national public radio of a terrible pattern which is emerging of significant cutbacks in funding to respond to the virus from the United States government in particular and a number of other G8 governments- and it’s causing panic in the AIDS activist community because people are being turned away from treatment. The lists are not being added to, people who are very ill even HIV positive pregnant women are being turned away from treatment because they have been told no further enrollment can occur. They simply do not have the money to fund it and this position is being defended and fought with no authenticity whatsoever by a number of hotshots in the Obama administration, and I was doing my best to give a subversive Canadian view on the truth.

But I thought while I was listening and participating and then my mind got back to what happened in Swaziland last week where over two-thousand grandmothers marched from fifteen countries in Africa- marched together- to protest against the policies of the King and to try very hard to raise consciousness around the situation of a country that has the highest prevalence rate in the world – somewhere between 25-30% of all those between the ages 15-49 are infected in Swaziland and whether the country can survive or not is highly problematic.

So to have one of the plays in the Trilogy [Peggy Pickit] evocatively express the sense of pandemic. And one of the other plays in the Trilogy [Glo], as I understand it giving the sense of globalization and therefore this constant tension between the way in which west behaves towards Africa and the multiplicity and complexity of responses within Africa. And the third play [Shine Your Eye]- Binyavanaga’s play- giving the sense of high-tech and of the dimensions which are coming to Africa now – of internet and technology in a way which is quite fascinating.

Trilogy Actress Maev Beaty (l) talks to guests at the post-speech and performance cocktail party on the stage of the Elgin.

And I don’t know how many of you read the issue of The Globe and Mail which was produced by Bob Geldof and Bono, or at least I hope it was produced by Bono because I think Geldof is a bit of a nitwit… its quite fascinating to see the emphasis on trade and technology and again the things which the play expresses. It is fascinating the way in which we have managed with these remarkable of playwrights and everyone else to hone in on what is real for a continent that continues to struggle, but is filled with people who have astonishing generosity of spirit, sophistication, intelligence… I have been visiting back and forth to Africa now for fifty-one years if you can believe it, and I love every minute that I am on that continent.

Ross, thank you for what you’ve done and for pulling it all together. [Brief segue to seek donations to the project.] And having made a financial pitch – I haven’t done that in twenty years when I was fighting for socialism… and let me say my financial pitches were invested with transcendent futility. But tonight I have a deep and abiding confidence that all of you will come together to support this really remarkable, miraculous, astonishing, theatrical venture. Thanks to everyone for being a part of it.

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~ by volcanotheatre on June 3, 2010.

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