Regaining voice through performance

Women with criminal records, HIV find self-esteem through stories

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

How would you react if you were diagnosed as HIV-positive? Keep quiet, pretend nothing happened and write off your past? Endure the agony by yourself?

A new documentary titled “Talk Back Out Loud” produced by an independent Japanese filmmaker asks viewers these questions, showing how American women with HIV have regained a sense of self-esteem by presenting their own stories through theatrical performances and audience interaction.

“Many of them became distraught and felt ashamed of being infected with HIV,” said Kaori Sakagami, director of the documentary film. “But they gradually retained their voices by keeping a firm eye on their past in the play, and have moved forward. I think it is an impressive practice.”

The play was created by The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, an amateur theater company.

It was initially launched in 1989 at a women’s jail in San Francisco to allow detainees to look back at their lives, their experiences with prejudice and abuse, including rape, and find an outlet for their suffering through poetry or physical expression.

Medea refers to a figure in Greek mythology who killed her own children to retaliate against her unfaithful husband. The director of the performance company, Rhodessa Jones, adopted the name after meeting an inmate who killed her own daughter to take revenge on her husband.

Based on an awareness that those with HIV also suffer persisting prejudice, given the infection is caused mainly by drug use and sexual contact, and withdraw into themselves, Edward Machtinger, a doctor who specializes in AIDS, contacted the theater company in 2008 to see if its approach to detainees could be applied to his patients.

Since patients often become isolated by concealing the disease, it is important for them to talk about it openly, he suggested.

In response, 16 women of various ethnicities and backgrounds, including former inmates, joined the first performance of “Dancing with the Clown of Love” in March 2010 in San Francisco.

Although only half are HIV-positive, all wore costumes bearing the words “I’m Living with HIV” on their chests. An HIV-negative performer who was a former detainee said she got on stage because she shared a sense of “sisterhood” with the others.

Among them was Cassandra Steptoe, an African-American woman in her 50s who was addicted to drugs and involved in prostitution. Steptoe was informed she had HIV in 1987 during a prison medical checkup.

Steptoe initially remained silent about her health after her family refused to accept her, but in the documentary, she said she had been freed from misrepresenting herself and her sense of shame after sharing her experiences with other members of Medea.

Another performer, Sonia Rastogi, was infected at the age of 21 when she was raped by an acquaintance while studying in South Africa. Since then, she has had to face the trauma of both rape and HIV.

During the performance, Sonia, who is Asian, told the audience she wants to marry and have children.

In the subsequent talk-back session, an audience member in her 40s said with tears that while she had never thought of having children since being diagnosed as HIV-positive at the age of 18, she was impressed by the way Sonia proclaimed her hope and wanted to encourage her.

Sakagami, who has audio-visually recorded the company’s activities since 2006, said she was moved by the project because it aimed not only to promote rehabilitation of the detainees, but also reconnection with their communities via expression.

She also said the talk-back session is an important part of the project as it “leads the performers and the audiences to communicate with each other.”

“The title of this film, ‘Talk Back,’ has two meanings: one is to claim and the other is to respond to each other,” she said.

Before completing the film, Sakagami held a total of 10 work-in-progress previews in Japan and the United States by inviting those with HIV, drug addicts and sex industry workers to provide their views on the film as a way to fine-tune it.

“In the face of their opinions, I have revised some parts, including how I should present each character in the film,” she said. “Even in Japan, those with health or drug problems shared the experiences of their U.S. counterparts and watched the film, with putting their own lives into it.”

Sakagami started her career by directing TV documentaries, including “Journey of Hope,” a two-week trip taken by families of murder victims and death-row inmates. She issued her first film, “Lifers,” in 2004, focusing on inmates who support rehabilitation programs at a U.S. prison while serving life sentences.

As her next project, she plans to focus on a rehabilitation program at a Japanese prison, she said.

“Talk Back Out Loud” will eventually be screened at theaters in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Her agent is accepting applications from those who want to show it through independent distribution channels. Sakagami also expects it to be screened at international film festivals.