When Magic Johnson announced last November that he was HIV-positive, Americans of every stripe—from pre-teen fans to President Bush, who appointed the basketball legend to his federal commission on AIDS—rallied to Johnson’s side, and he maintained his hero status. Tennis great Martina Navratilova astutely noted at the time that if Johnson had also announced that he was bisexual or gay, those same admirers would quickly have abandoned him. The world sympathizes with heterosexual males who contract the disease but has yet to embrace afflicted gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
In 1987, when fledging writer Cherly L. West of Champaign, Ill., was studying at the Jamaica School of Drama on an International Rotary Foundation fellowship, she heard startling reports from home about the ever-increasing AIDS epidemic. Those reports still mostly referred to the gay, white, male population. “But I knew right away that the repercussions of the disease in the black community would be terrible,” says West, “and that there would be great denial on the part of some blacks.” She decided then and there to write a play about the AIDS crisis and black denial, with a bisexual black male as the protagonist. It was some three years later that her controversial drama Before It Hits Home won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, following productions in Seattle and Washington, D.C. The play is currently running at the New York Shakespeare Festival in a production mounted by New York’s Second Stage.
West chose to make her lead character Wendal, a struggling 30-year-old saxophone player, bisexual in order to illustrate how a man challenged by HIV infection might interact with both a male and a female partner. This decision gave West the opportunity to create a highly charged, theatrically provocative scene: Wendal’s confession to his two lovers, Simone and Douglass, that he has the virus. Although audiences understand that he is visiting Simone and Douglas on two separate occasions, all three characters appear together on stage with the heated conversation overlapping between the couples.
The balance of the play examines Wendal’s relationship with his family—a doting mother, a proud, manly father and a successful younger brother in the armed forces who plans to marry soon. That old adage “you can’t tell a book by its cover” takes on new meaning here as those who we expect to be most understanding of Wendal’s plight prove the most hostile, and the seemingly indifferent react admirably to the crisis. An almost overwhelming sense of rejection dominates these scenes, as the family’s refusal to accept Wendal’s condition becomes a metaphor for the fear and suspicion of people with AIDS that is pervasive in black communities.
Before It Hits Home was first presented in 1988 at Parkland College in Champaign, where West directed several of her earlier works. The following year it was a winner at the Multicultural Playwrights’ Festival at Seattle’s Group Theatre, where Tazewell Thompson, an artistic associate of Washington’s Arena Stage, saw and liked it. He urged Arena to give the up-and-coming playwright wider exposure, and the theatre responded by making West an Allen Lee Hughes Fellow, enabling her to develop her play further before Thompson directed the Arena production in January 1991. A month later, West became the first African-American woman to win the Blackburn Prize, an international literary award given to a woman for an outstanding English-language play.
During the Washington run, audience reaction to Wendal and his male lover was often hostile—at several performances, men in the audience groaned, hissed and sometimes even shouted their disapproval. At the Seattle festival, controversy erupted even before the play opened: after obtaining an unauthorized copy of the script, a woman in the community declared the play racist because of one character’s assertion that AIDS is “a conspiracy by the white man” to kill off blacks, and threatened the theatre with a boycott if the play was presented.
Critics, too, had their problems with Before It Hits Home—some labeled it “agitprop,” one of those dreaded “issue plays.” “And The Normal Heart is not an issue play?” responds West, referring to Larry Kramer’s landmark drama denouncing government inaction on AIDS. “The white community has already made several plays and movies about the AIDS crisis. Once there are more artistic expressions of blacks with AIDS out there, one play won’t be singled out as being ‘preachy.’ For now, I don’t see what’s wrong with a little agitprop.”
West, who holds undergraduate and advanced degrees in criminal justice, rehabilitation administration and journalism, worked in the social services field for 15 years before turning to a full-time writing career last year. One of her last non-theatrical jobs was as an HIV-testing counselor. A generally soft-spoken, congenial woman, West shows flashes of irritation when discussing critics prone to categorize her as a social-worker-turned-playwright. “Being a counselor does not exactly prepare you to write a complex character or a family drama,” says West, who contends that she has always loved to write and had already begun work on Before It Hits Home before she acquired her job in HIV counseling. She discovered many rewards in the field of human services but notes, “There comes a point when you cease to feel that you are still effective.”
Being black, a woman and a playwright leaves West in what she sees as a precarious position. “There’s this idea that you only have one good play in you. Everything you ever do is compared to that one play, and opportunities are diminished for you. Some male writers—August Wilson is the best example—have been able to avoid that.” Then, she claims, there’s also the obstacle of “the artistic director who says, ‘We’ve done our black play this season.'” Still, West feels that she has been fortunate in gaining a wide audience for Before It Hits Home, and in her relationship with Arena, where a new play, Jar the Floor, had a successful run last December and January.
Jar the Floor‘s title originated in West’s own family dialogues. When, as a young girl, she would visit her great-grandparents in Mississippi, the grandfather would summon the children to “Jar the floor!”, meaning, get out of bed—get those floorboards creaking.
Jar the Floor portrays four generations of black women as they prepare to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch, MaDear. In Lola, MaDear’s talkative, uninhibited daughter who still “swings” with young men and avoids wearing the best-grandmother-in-the-world T-shirt that her granddaughter has given her. West finds a wonderful vehicle to display both her talent for the vernacular and her vibrant sense of humor.
The play’s other characters include Lola’s daughter MayDee, a talented professor of African-American studies who is more interested in her career and her daughter’s future than in gaining the attentions of shiftless men; Vennie, MayDee’s only child, a college dropout who wants to run off to Europe to pursue her dream of becoming a famous singer; and Vennie’s Jewish friend Raisa, who adds a bizarre element to an otherwise straightforward play. Raisa has recently lost a breast to cancer but refuses to wear a prosthesis—and goes even further by sporting tight halter-tops that demand a “second take.” Among this family of feuding black women, Raisa has a special affinity for the sometimes senile, sometimes cheekly MaDear. “MaDear and Raisa represent two opposites recognizing each other’s pain,” says the playwright. While the other women hide their emotional scars, Raisa actually shows her mastectomy scars to a sympathetic MaDear; and other traumas are revisited as hints of child abuse and molestation as hints of harder for the women to ignore.
There are no men in Jar the Floor. Yet each woman in the play has her opinion of them—most often negative. Some spectators may say that West doesn’t give black males a chance to defend themselves. “That’s probably true,” says West. “I wrote a play about women and movement, women and power. I didn’t intend to write a story about men. A man came up to me after a post-play seminar and said, ‘Next time, you have to tell our story.’ I was flattered that he thought me capable. But Jar the Floor is just one story.”
West is currently working on a play she describes as a “modern-day fable” about a married couple whose relationship is challenged, as well as a script commissioned by PBS’s Great Performances series about an experimental drug trial. “I would like to feel that my work opens up discussions and challenges certain attitudes that might be hurtful or harmful,” she says. “I’m not afraid to go where my work takes me.”
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