It was an unusual double bill this past Wednesday at Buddies in Bad Times, the queer theatre HQ in downtown Toronto, on the edge of the gay village. But here's the challenge: how to merge a panel discussion about 3MV, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP)’s flagship program for engaging young black men – and theatre? But not just any theatre – theatre featuring the testimonies of some of the program’s graduates. Did it work, you ask? It sure did. In fact the whole evening was quite wonderful.
The panel discussion, by the way, was broadcast live on the world-wide web as part of the CIHR-SRC Café Scientifique series.
But first you need to understand what 3MV is. The name stands for Many Men, Many Voices. It’s an intervention that’s been going three years here under Toronto Black CAP’s auspices. Groups of fifteen or so young black men, ages 16-29, meet for three days and two nights. The intensive work they do is designed to build community and enhance self esteem related to racial and sexual identity. In doing so, the program aims to address factors that may contribute to HIV and STI risk. So it looks at sexual health issues but from within a very broad social framework.
For the first part of evening, notable panellists included Black CAP’s David Lewis-Peart, whom I worked with on Ontario’s HIV Stigma campaign way back when. David’s description of the intervention – he has been instrumental in it from the beginning - included tidbits like how participants visit Toronto’s Hassle Free Clinic to observe a live point-of-care HIV test. Also notable was well known researcher Barry Adam who positioned this project in the context of an as-yet small group of interventions building on the resilience factor present in the gay, bi and trans men’s community, and the increasing realization that we have to support each other in order to thrive. Adam Benn and Lali Mohammed were good too, and Dr. Lance McCready was both knowledgeable and funny.
All this really served as a tasty appetizer for the main course. Four young black men, four microphones, four music stands and a creation called Picasso’s Black Canvas. That it is still in development - a two month old evolving script created by young playwright Antonio Cayonne and directed by Andrew Kushner – mattered not one bit. It made for riveting, pro-quality theatre.
The origins of the piece are intriguing. The script of Picasso’s Black Canvas (it’s a working title, by the way) is drawn from transcripts of interviews with 3MV participants – young black men talking frankly, often humorously, about their lives. It’s a 40 minute piece right now, using a technique called “verbatim theatre”. In other words, the spoken words, are real men’s words. As now staged – this was technically a reading, but delivered with considerable passion – the part-poetry part-prose piece is recited by the four young men on stage, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually. It’s both unique and riveting. What was remarkable about this performance though was the strength - in all senses of the word – of the four on stage. Their rendition was confident, poised and together – all characteristics , I suspect, of the young men that emerge from the 3MV experience.
The four had been chosen from auditions. Only one is a graduate of 3MV though; he was joined by a second young man with no previous acting experience plus two young men, experienced actors both. Their names? Watch these four – Samson Brown, Daniel Ellis, Tawiah M’Carthy, Thomas Olajide.
The play also is important in that it represents an unusual intersection of HIV prevention, research and drama. The drama piece reflects the partnership formed with Project Humanity, a not-for-profit that raises awareness about social issues through the arts. What am amazing extension of the work of the 3MV facilitators they have produced!
It was a memorable evening. Huge kudos to 3MV Coordinator Sebastiao Dinguana-Sivuilu and his Black CAP fellow staffers for pulling off an almost impossible challenge, and doing it with so much class.