- Community Theatre and AIDS by Ola Johansson
In Community Theatre and AIDS, Ola Johansson asks outright, “What can theatre possibly do against the global onslaught of AIDS?” (4). Nearly a decade has passed since the publication of the last major volume to address this question, Louise Bourgault’s 2003 Playing for Life: Performance in Africa in the Age of AIDS, which in turn came nearly a decade after Marion Frank’s 1995 AIDS Education through Theatre: Case Studies From Uganda. In that time, the epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa has continued to dominate the global crisis. Along with Gregory Barz and Judah Cohen’s edited collection, The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing Through Music and the Arts, which also came out in 2011, Community Theatre and AIDS makes an important and timely contribution to our understanding of the complex relationships between performance and pandemic. Thoroughly dedicated to specific communities in Tanzania, Johansson’s case studies offer useful frameworks for evaluating community-based theatre within the complex web of localized social, governmental, and medical factors that contribute to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in any part of the globe.
Community Theatre and AIDS is a vividly detailed ethnographic study that often reads as a personal memoir of Johansson’s research experience. He records personal interactions alongside objective epidemiological and social scientific analysis that reminds the reader of the lives represented by the performances and statistics. He writes passionate assessments of not only community-based theatre, but also its interactions with governmental, social, and religious institutions. Johansson [End Page 108] offers a model for thinking about these complex relationships, himself the first to acknowledge that without the follow-up and support of authoritative advocates, the use of community-based theatre as HIV prevention will fail.
Johansson emphasizes four key points throughout the book: 1) more specialized than some imposed forms of applied theatre, community-based theatre is specific to local customs, traditions, and practices. Drawing on tools of epidemiology and specific traits of a given community, he argues against a one-size-fits-all approach to community-based theatre. 2) While he references the AIDS epidemic and theatre practice elsewhere, his work is specific to regions of Tanzania. 3) Gender is a crucial factor regarding the poverty that usually receives attention; he notes that twice as many young women as young men contract the virus in Tanzania, yet female characters rarely have primary roles in community-based theatre. 4) Finally, such theatre only works as prevention if there is official support for programming based on the actual risk factors at work.
The first and second chapters provide a cultural history of the epidemic in Tanzania including popular (mis)understandings about what AIDS is, how it spreads, and from whence it came. Johansson traces the parallel development between community-based theatre and HIV prevention. After examining an overarching “political unwillingness” to support community-based theatre, Johansson addresses the equally consequential opposition of many elders to the disclosure of ritual secrets (i.e. the use of the same set of instruments for multiple circumcisions for initiation rites).
By far the most memorable component of the book, the third chapter documents Johansson’s focus group discussions. Separate from the public action of theatre and institutional policies, these discussions reveal the true experiences behind such performances. The chapter places the reader in the room with Johansson, experiencing every long silence, every tentative speech act, and the momentum of the corroborative stories that follow each personal revelation.
The final chapter provides an honest assessment of community-based theatre as HIV prevention, concluding that its greatest strength is the engagement of the young people who create it and who represent the demographic most susceptible to the epidemic. Johansson struggles with the very idea of an efficacious community theatre in the face of HIV prevention, emphasizing its limitations and insisting on its “crucial qualities as a relational means for change” rather than something that can function by itself. While championing the value of community-based theatre, Johansson directs future institutional action (and scholarship) away from theatre alone: