Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
Anyone can become infected with the sexually transmitted diseases HIV and AIDS. Despite the hardships, pain, stigmas and social backlash that come with the disease, people affected can stay strong and live long, happy, positive lives. That was the theme of Citamard’s play “Despite These Marks,” which played at the Rafters Theatre in Dutcher Hall from October 4-6.
“Despite These Marks” is an 18-month process that originally started as a devised 20-minute play written by Millersville University students Josh Dorsheimer and Nicole Weerbrouck, with the consultation of Hal Matroni, which chronicled the effects and stigma of HIV/AIDS. The idea came after seeing Weerbrouck in “The Vagina Monologues,” which is a devised play based on multiple interviews and stories told by women.
“We saw Nicole in ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ and Hal said, ‘What if we did a play based on different interviews and created a devised play about HIV and AIDS?’” said Dorsheimer. As they started working on the play, Communications/Theatre professor Dr. Victor Capecce told them about Region II Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival, which was looking for submissions of 20-minute plays, with the theme being “5 Years From Now.”
They entered it and presented it in the 2012-2013 Region II Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival, where it received rave reviews and won the Certificate of Achievement in Devised Theatre. Afterwards, Dorsheimer, Weerbrouck and Matroni started to work to expand on the play by interviewing HIV-positive individuals and their friends and families, as well as HIV/AIDS activists, bloggers, doctors and others to create the fuller, hour-and-a-half long play that delves deeper into the reality of living with HIV/AIDS. That was the version that they presented this past weekend.
The play takes on several different themes dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic such as race, sexuality, charity, criminalization of individuals with HIV and acceptance from friends and family.
Christian Kriebel played the part of “Oppressed,” a man from a conservative Catholic family who comes out as bisexual and later becomes HIV-positive. Dorsheimer plays “Friend/Understanding,” Kriebel’s roommate and best friend, and Julia Werder plays his supportive sister, aka “Family/Understanding.” Weerbrouck’s character was “Facts” and would read off medical and social information about HIV and the stigmas, and also played the part of Kriebel’s doctor.
Sharon Mellinger represented “Past” and would inform the audience of stigmas, beliefs and medical myths that were popular whenever the HIV/AIDS epidemic first came about. “People started to say, ‘You better watch out, there’s apparently a gay cancer going around,’” her character said, “There was a look that was associated with it. They lost a lot of weight, they had the sunken eye look, and there was a gray, ashy complexion to them. People would say, ‘Wanna lose weight? Try lemon-AIDS.”
Michael Stewart represented “Social Media.” His character was based on the real-life HIV-positive blogger Josh Robbins, who runs the blog “I’m Still Josh.” Through his blog, he has been able to inspire and empower other individuals with HIV/AIDS.
Andre Henry played the part of a man who has “three strikes” against him: he’s African-American, gay and HIV-positive.
Karissa Montainer represented “Hospitality” as an HIV-negative woman who becomes involved with a local AIDS project.
Iryianna Fennell played “Accused/Politics,” her character was based on a real-life woman in the military and mother of three sons who learned she had contracted HIV from her husband after he had an affair with an HIV-positive woman. Then, when she started having a relationship with a man in the military, she faced criminalization for HIV non-disclosure. “They were going to register me as a sex offender,” her character said in her monologue, “They were going to take my kids away.”
Holly Meola played the part of “Stigma.” Throughout the play, she would throw insults and taunts at the other characters, telling them that they deserved to be contracted with HIV. She represented people who had said these things such as politicians, celebrities, professors and even HIV/AIDS activists.
The purpose of this play was not just to inform people of the hardships and stigmas of HIV/AIDS, but also to inspire, as there have been advances in medicine as well as support groups and activism everywhere that support individuals with HIV/AIDS. “There is a light at the end of the deep, dark tunnel,” said Henry at the end of the play.
For the cast and for Dorsheimer, Weerbrouck and Matroni this play has brought many learning experiences. “I didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge about the subject beforehand,” said Seth Sponhouse, who played the parts of “Companion/Education/Celebrity.” He added, “This was really an eye-opening experience for me.”
“I had my assumptions about it before working on this, but I’ve learned a lot from this play,” said Weerbrouck.
“It was very much a therapy for me,” said Matroni, who revealed that the part of Kriebel’s “Oppressed” character was actually based on himself. “I wanted to show that me being HIV-positive doesn’t define me; it’s just a part of me,” he said.
According to the writers, they are hoping to expand on the play further. “We want to continue to work on it and create other incarnations of it,” said Dorsheimer.
“Despite These Marks” was a touching, humorous and powerful play that was well-written, well-acted and well-composed.
Donations from this event benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.