Health/Fitness » HIV/AIDS

Theater-Based, Trauma-Informed HIV/AIDS Care Via The Medea Project

by Louise Adams
Saturday Dec 29, 2012

"I wanted to help him," said Austrian immigrant Marlene, age 36. "So I started a relationship. He was a kid, in and out of prison, and I felt sorry for him." Three weeks later, she thought she had mono. Marlene finally went to get a regular gynecological check-up, where they offered her an HIV test. She thought, "Why would I need that? I don’t have one-night stands," but felt that it was her "duty" to get tested.

On July 1, 2009, Planned Parenthood called her at work, where she’s a fundraising manager. "We need you to come in. We can’t talk over the phone," they said, but she knew she was going find out she was positive. Marlene’s heart sank. She sat, shivering, and pondered two thoughts.

"My parents just lost my older brother, so now they’ll never be grandparents," and "My life is over."

Marlene has lived in the U.S. for nine years, first working as an au pair in New York City. She didn’t speak English very well, but thought that, "this country has everything." She visited San Francisco, and felt that, "if I’m lucky enough to come back to America, I’ll live there." She got her wish, started a student job, and then worked her way up to her current position.

What little she knew about AIDS she learned at the end of the 1980s, during biology class in her hometown, a farming community south of Salzburg.

"I didn’t use a condom with that guy, which was stupid," Marlene said. "When I contacted him, first he said he got HIV from me. But then he admitted he had lied to me. He knew his status and never said anything."

After the diagnosis, Planned Parenthood referred her to the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center Women’s HIV Program, right away. The first time Marlene met nurse practitioner Susan, "she hugged me and said ’This is not a death sentence.’ She knew what I needed to hear."

The program also offered Marlene anti-depressants to deal with processing her diagnosis. "No, I’m Austrian!" she said. "We don’t do that!" But she still needed moral and emotional support. UCSF recommended the Medea Project, a theater group where women can express their feelings. "I had no idea what to expect," said Marlene. "But it sounded right."

Out of Pain, a Theatrical Outlet for HIV-Positive Women

A quarter century ago, theater practitioner Rhodessa Jones, sister of acclaimed HIV-positive dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, was invited to teach aerobics at the San Francisco County Jail. She asked her students, "How many of you babies have babies of your own?’

One of the incarcerated women, a Berkeley graduate, responded that she had smothered her baby in a cocaine rage. She had "loved a man, but loved cocaine too," said Rhodessa. "She said that because her man no longer found her pretty or fresh or interesting, she killed her child."

"Why do we kill our children?" Rhodessa wondered. "Women look for love in all the wrong places, then we think, ’You’re gonna mess with me?’ Well, watch this." The woman’s story inspired her to create the Medea Project, a theatrical outreach initiative to give women who have survived trauma a place to share what has happened to them.

Starting within the prison population, where there are many HIV-positive women -- because "abuse leads to infection," as Rhodessa said -- the group now includes all comers, all survivors of physical and mental ordeals and addiction. The women meet regularly to workshop their stories, and often begin by writing letters to someone they love, or hate, or to a childhood self, or to heaven, or the grave. Rhodessa then helps the storytellers shape these narratives into performance pieces, dances or raps, which are shared at various conferences and events.

"I’d never been with such a diverse group of women before," said Marlene. "Some had been incarcerated, some were social workers, some were theater people. Sometimes it was so loud!"
Marlene’s physician, Dr. Edward Machtinger, UCSF’s Women’s HIV Program Director, met Rhodessa in 2008, and marveled that "this fabulous lioness and her project held such promise for HIV-positive women who had a history of trauma." He’s been referring patients to the Medea Project ever since, and said the program is "a transformational experience that has changed my career."


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