Virus – Forum Theatre Review

5 Jan

World Aids Day fell on December 1st. A day that is commemorated in order to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. Most people in Sri Lanka no doubt know about AIDS and how it is spread but how attuned are we culturally to solving the problem?

Virus, a forum theatre production by the Beyond Borders Youth Group explored these issues recently at the Royal College auditorium. Being ‘forum theatre,’ members of the audience could give their inputs on what the problem was and what the solution should be and could go up on stage themselves to take the part of the actors to show them what to do / how to behave in their given situations. That was on the second run.

The first run showed the original, scripted and uninterrupted performance which led to a climatic, tragic ending, the ending the audience had to change – that of a young woman who had had unprotected sex, ended up testing HIV positive and kicked out of her home by her authoritarian father when he hears the news.

Something that happens only to others? It won’t happen to us or our loved ones? We are too careful / moral / intelligent / cultured? Think again. The Forum theatre slammed home how easy it is for this disease to spread through lack of understanding, youthful immaturity, overzealous authoritarianism leading to suppression / ignorance / shame, and cultural taboos leading to lack of opportunities in being open, safe and grounded on various issues that young people have, especially on their newly awakened sexuality.

17 year old Ishanka is the only child of her parents, closely protected and cosseted. Despite this, she manages to start a fledging relationship with Kasun, a pony tailed young man who clearly wouldn’t meet the approval of her parents.

Kasun himself is rather an ambiguous character – not quite ‘wild’ despite his appearance but unfortunately he hangs out with a rather unruly and obnoxious group of boys, who are older than him and makes him feel he should act in a certain way in order to be a ‘man.’

So on one side is Kasun, pressured by his friends to sleep with his girlfriend and teased about letting her call the shots because she had asked to wait and on the other side is Ishanka, naïve and youthful and even a little conservative, as brought up by her parents. But she too is subject to peer group pressure. One of her friends Shehara teases her about her naiveté in sexual matters but also seems to take it for granted that she would soon be getting ‘practical experience’ as she has a boyfriend now. And when the issue of protection is brought up by another friend, she whips out a box of morning after pills which she says she bought, implying that she herself is sexually active and takes care not to have any repercussions with those pills.
Meanwhile, Kasun, pressured by a friend walks into a pharmacy in order to buy condoms. But he is still in his teens and feels terribly shy to ask the pharmacist. It doesn’t help that the pharmacist is busy in some inaccessible corner and asks Kasun to shout out what he wants. A lady shopper is standing behind him and rather than ask loudly for what he requires, he turns away again. And this, despite the fact that he is not a virgin as he takes care to angrily inform his friends when they laugh at the possibility – he had apparently visited prostitutes before.

And so one thing leads to another, Kasun pressured by his friends pressures Ishanka; Ishanka led by her friend to believe that she is naïve and unsophisticated on the one hand, and emotionally blackmailed by Kasun on the other, gives in.

And then she falls sick. And then she gets a medical report even though she expects nothing to be majorly wrong. And she is shocked out of her wits when she reads that she is HIV positive. How could it be? She had had sex only once and taken the morning after pill to ensure no pregnancy would ensue. She had trusted Kasun, her loving sweet boyfriend. So what had happened?

When the floor opened up for the audience’s input, various issues came to the fore:
– Authoritarian parents who were culturally repressive and didn’t discuss sex with their children. (When Ishanka unwittingly asked them the meaning of a sexually explicit term, the father went wild and yelled at her to stick to her studies even though she had no idea what she had done wrong.)
– Peer group pressure especially by show-off peers who pressure naïve youngsters to behave in a manner they might not otherwise have behaved in.
– Ignorance about the repercussions of unsafe sex in youths – the belief that HIV/ AIDS is a faraway thing that only happens to someone else.
– Cultural taboos and perceptions – Kasun being unable to ask loudly for a condom because of the way he perceives the adult environment – Ishanka being thrown out of the house by her father when she admits to being HIV positive, even though she is the only child…

An audience member tried to demonstrate to Kasun how he should handle the pharmacist – just walk directly up and state confidently what you want. Except when he went up and asked, the pharmacist tittered in a knowing snicker – something bound to mortify a youth like Kasun. But not the young man who took his place, who just demanded, “Why are you snickering?”

Attempts to change peer group behavior however was not as successful. As amply demonstrated by the actors, heckling loud-mouthed peers just can’t be reasoned with and young people trying to be rational and balanced with them won’t work. These interactions also helped to highlight the various image issues that teens have and what it would mean to live up to them – to be a good daughter, to be a ‘man,’ to have a relationship… What is their ideal role in each and every one of these and how do the various and polarizing stereotypes of each role affect their behavior? Life is not easy, but as is universally acknowledged, being a teenager is especially not easy – that bridge between childhood and adulthood when various issues come to the fore, when parents are unwilling to see their children growing up and having ‘adult’ issues and teens having to grapple with new hormones, feelings, ideas and attitudes, not to mention the rub of authority by adults, who seek to keep all this in check, mainly through the much tried method of authoritarianism.

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