A Baton Rouge theater company uses dance to educate about HIV/AIDS
by Larry Buhl
When audiences at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sat in anticipation of the first performance of the 2014 season, they received something they hadn’t expected: a message about the shockingly high rate of HIV/AIDS in their community.
The executive director of the Manship, Renee Chatelain, delivered the message in a curtain speech.
“There were audible gasps in the audience when they learned how prevalent HIV/AIDS is in their community,” Chatelain tells A&U.
The announcement wasn’t meant to make the audience feel bad, or guilty. It was the kick-off of a platform to use dance performances for public education on HIV/AIDS in the Baton Rouge area, one of the more conservative and religious parts of the country. For the first time in its history the Manship Theatre is dedicating its entire dance season as a platform for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, and raising funds for children who contracted the infection before birth.
The initiative is called “Dance Speaks,” and while Chatelain admits that patrons of the theater are probably not the ones in the community at greatest risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, the fact that they are less at risk, and also less aware of the crisis, made it doubly important to reach them.
“In our community there are some good works being done by some groups,” she says.
“But as far as information, someone may get a small grant and put up a billboard in a low income area as a one-off measure, and there is generally no call to action and little follow-up.”
Chatelain says the theater wanted to build awareness over time in an ongoing way and counter the belief in the community that ‘AIDS doesn’t apply to me,’ and reinforce the idea that it affects everyone, directly or indirectly.
All dance companies on the season’s roster approached Dance Speaks enthusiastically, were eager to do whatever they needed to, Chatelain says. Many have participated in similar campaigns throughout the country and with the organization Dancers Responding to AIDS. In fact, that group, as well as Broadway Cares, were models for Dance Speaks, Chatelain says.
It’s not the first time the Manship Theatre has made improving public health a stated goal. Last season the theater with Baton Rouge General Medical Foundation on a melanoma screening campaign connected to the River North Dance Chicago residency at the theater.
This year, through Dance Speaks, the theater will raise money through targeted marketing campaigns, post-concert curtain speeches and donation campaigns by performers. All the funds will be directed to sending local HIV-positive kids to Camp Hope, a one-week summer camp in Texas. Dance Speaks media campaigns will bring awareness of the disease to the Baton Rouge area, and may be continued after the 2014–15 season is over.
Chatelain says the creation of Dance Speaks was largely influenced by Dr. Karen Williams, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, and the only doctor in Baton Rouge treating children who contracted HIV perinatally.
Williams, who works at Our Lady of the Lake Physician Group in Baton Rouge, recently established a donor-advised fund at the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, “Hope for Positive Youth Fund,” which will handle contributions to support youth living with HIV in South Louisiana and make it possible for HIV-positive children to attend Camp Hope this coming summer.
For several years Williams has encouraged her patients to attend Camp Hope, but she aims to send all of those who qualify to the camp next summer. The cost is $1,000 per child to attend the camp, and the goal is to send at least fifteen kids. Beyond Camp Hope, Williams hopes to expand support for her patients, who range in age from birth to seventeen, as they get older.
Camp Hope was started in 1996 and children from Baton Rouge attended for the first time in the summer of 2012. “Because of some of the success in treating HIV infection, we now have more children who are becoming teens and young adults, able to participate in activities such as those at Camp Hope,” Williams tells A&U. “But, they are often challenged by social circumstances including stigma, parental loss/illness, and medication adherence. At Camp Hope they are encouraged to take on challenges and supported as they take the medications that they must take every day to survive.”
Williams adds that HIV affects entire families.
“When there is a child who has contracted HIV perinatally, at least one of the parents is infected. Almost half of the kids we follow are not living with a biological parent. And kids have an issue with adherence. Younger kids have to take [antiretrovirals] in liquid form, which can often make them nauseated. If they miss doses, they can develop drug resistance, and unfortunately there aren’t many drug options that come in liquid form.”
Perinatal cases of HIV/AIDS are going down, albeit slowly, thanks to HIV screening early in the pregnancy cycle—and a bill passed in the Louisiana legislature this year mandating HIV tests in the third trimester should help as well—and effective prenatal regimens of antiretrovirals and AZT.
Nevertheless, the region continues to be hard hit by the disease. Here are the statistics that made the audience gasp: The Louisiana Office of Public Health ranked Baton Rouge first nationally among major metro areas in 2011 in estimated AIDS case rates. And according to the office’s Louisiana HIV/AIDS Surveillance Quarterly Report that came out last December, new cases are increasing among twenty-five to forty-four-year-olds.
Long-term, Chatelain says she hopes to advance understanding of the underlying community issues that help spread the disease—misinformation, poverty and stigma are the biggest—and be part of a support network that provides education and raises money for research and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Through an informal brainstorming group, Chatelain, Williams, and others developed a plan for reaching out to the city’s Department of Public Health, and they’ve had encouraging feedback.
The mayor of Baton Rouge, Kip Holden, has publicly made HIV/AIDS one of the four priority areas for the Healthy City Initiative and the office has said that it “welcomes the opportunity to broaden the collaborative group to include an innovative program like Dance Speaks in the conversation.”
Though regional, the Manship Theatre has been attracting nationally known talent. Du-Shaunt Stegall known by his stage name, Fik-Shun, the 2013 competition winner of Fox television’s So You Think You Can Dance kicked off the 2014 dance season and the Dance Speaks initiative. The theater also has musical performances ranging from R&B to rock to folk.
Baton Rouge native and global health professional Ashifa Sarkar Vasi is consulting on Dance Speaks and tells A&U that her main goal is to reduce the stigma of getting tested, something that contributes to the high rate of HIV transmission in the area. The fact that dance performance is the avenue for building awareness is helpful for luring the community to learn about HIV/AIDS without fear, Vasi, who is also a dancer and dance teacher, tells A&U.
“In a dance company, you get support from other dancers, and that’s the kind of energy we want to build here. We want to build a strong support network that’s even greater than the sum of its parts.”
For more information on Dance Speaks, please visit manshiptheatre.org.
Larry Buhl wrote about CDC’s We Can Stop HIV One Conversation at a Time campaign for the October issue.