May 17, 2002

Play Hits Home for Young Latinos

By Yvette tenBerge

Latinos and African-Americans make up the majority of those suffering from the AIDS virus in the United States, and a San Diego-based director and his cast are offering a brilliant new play in hopes of stopping this deadly trend.

Dr. Floyd Gaffney (far right) with cast of "Before It Hits Home."

For the second year in a row, award-winning playwright Cheryl West’s “Before

It Hits Home” is helping to raise awareness of the AIDS virus among the African-American and Latino communities of San Diego. The play will run at San Diego’s Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza from May 3rd through May 19th.

Directed by Dr. Floyd Gaffney, an award-winning emeritus professor of Drama at University of California, San Diego, “Before It Hits Home” tells the story of a covertly bisexual, African-American jazz musician who endangers himself, his family and his friends when he contracts HIV and fails to disclose his illness.

“This is not only a play about victimization, but rather it is a wake-up call to humanity, especially to communities of the people,” said Dr. Gaffney.

Although the flawless performance by a very strong cast should be enough to convince audience members to take a serious look at both the virus and their lives, Dr. Gaffney opens his play by allowing two young San Diegans, both of whom are infected with HIV, to step onto the stage, look into the eyes of the young people in the audience and tell them how their own lives have changed since they became infected. In this real life opening dialogue, twenty-year-old “Laura,” who has been HIV positive for five years, comforts twenty-one-year-old “Beto” who confesses to the audience that he learned that he was HIV positive less than one month ago.

Chris Capalar, 16, is a junior at Morse High who attended “Before It Hits Home” last week as an assignment for a nursing class in which sexually transmitted diseases are discussed. He confirms that both the play and its introduction truly hit home.

“I really liked this play because you learn about real life from characters that play normal people,” said Mr. Capalar, who comments on the way in which Dr. Gaffney chose to open the performance. “Personally, I have never known anyone who had HIV before, and I always protect myself, but these people and this play really had my attention.”

From the statistics released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in May 2001, it is no wonder that leaders of minority communities are looking for creative ways in which to effectively spread the word.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the minority populations of this country, primarily African-Americans and Hispanics, constitute 56 percent of the more than 700,000 cases of AIDS reported since the epidemic began in 1981.

Although “Before It Hits Home” is about a bisexual, African-American male, men and homosexuals are far from the only people affected. Almost 58 percent of all women reported to have AIDS are African-American, and as of June 2000, Hispanic women represented 20 percent of reported cases in females. As of June 2000, 85 percent of all pediatric AIDS cases occurred in African-Americans and Hispanics.

Charlotte Stoudmire, 52, teaches a nursing course at Lincoln High School, and she was among those responsible for packing the house last Thursday. She chose to bring 22 of her students to see Dr. Gaffney’s play as part of a Neighborhood House Association Teen Connection Program-sponsored course in which her students spend as many as 15 hours learning about sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. She also requires that her students get tested for the virus and that they pass along the information they learn to their peers.

“I brought my students here tonight because I care. Too many of our kids are dying because they are unaware of the seriousness of these diseases,” said Ms. Stoudmire. Days after Thursday’s play she revealed that her students were returning to view the production with their friends and family. “By taking those 22 students, we have impacted people who would have never thought of going to see ‘Before It Hits Home.’”

The chemistry between actors Jacques C. Smith, who plays the lead character, Wendel, in “Before It Hits Home” and who recently performed in the Broadway production “Rent,” and Monique Gaffney, who plays both his unsuspecting girlfriend, Si- mone, and a pregnant, young woman with HIV named Angel was electric and au-thentic. The performances of Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson who plays Wendel’s mother, Reba, Deborah Branch who plays Wendel’s surrogate aunt, Maybelle, and Antonio “T.J.” Johnson who plays Wendel’s father, Bailey, brought the audience to tears.

Fatima Negatu, 18, is a senior at Lincoln High and one of Ms. Stoudmire’s nursing students. She was among the audience members who watched carefully as a once loving mother, aunt, brother and son turned their backs on Wendel and his once cold, stubborn father stepped in to care for him until his painful death.

“I’d really recommend that everyone come to see this play. It will make those who are sexually active think twice about what they want to do with their partners,” said Ms. Negatu. “But most importantly, it will make people take a look at what society puts out there as acceptable behavior.”

“Before It Hits Home” is funded by California Endowment and supported by the Community Awareness Project, Comprehensive Health Centers, Agouron Pharmaceuticals, the Office of AIDS Coordination, the University of California, San Diego and Priority Pharmacy.

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.

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