Drama With a Healthy Goal

Documentary drama project helps teens in Uganda heal, learn HIV prevention.
Melissa Fitzgerald, in blue, works with a Uganda youth who was a drama student in her Voices of Uganda project. Youth chose themes of HIV prevention, peace building and reconciliation for their presentations, captured in the documentary "After Kony: Staging Hope," filmed in 2007.
Nov 28, 2012· 2 MIN READ

Just before Melissa Fitzgerald, a self-described Los Angeles ''actorvist," was planning to take off for war-torn Uganda in 2007 to do a documentary, she had to fend off many skeptics.

"A lot of people said, before we went, 'You're trying to make a film? What good will that do?' ''

Fitzgerald, a lifelong activist who played Carol Fitzpatrick on The West Wing, ignored them.

She recounted that story Thursday evening at the end of the Los Angeles screening of that documentary, After Kony: Staging Hope.

In fact, the documentary—which details the process of teaching drama to Ugandan youth as a way to help them heal and stay healthy—has done a lot of good, including addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Uganda.

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The documentary project is an outgrowth of Voices in Harmony, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit launched in 1995 to introduce at-risk teens to the creative arts.

When Fitzgerald and her crew of producers, actors and playwrights decided to take the program on the road to Uganda, they teamed up with the International Rescue Committee and the International Medical Corp.

They first visited with the families of the 14 youth selected. All lived in the squalid displacement camps, the Ugandan government's solution for housing the refuges from the North who had been terrorized by Joseph Kony, the vilified rebel leader (now in hiding). Kony is accused of kidnapping countless northern Ugandan girls and boys, enslaving them or turning them into soldier-killers.

Often, Fitzgerald says, she heard from skeptics that war refugees need food and clothes, not theatre.

"I don't disagree," she says. "But I also think young people [also] need education. And this was an educational program. I think people also need to feel their voices are being heard."

She got the idea for the documentary when she volunteered in Uganda in 2006. "One man came up to us when we were leaving," she tells TakePart. "He said, 'Please don't let us die in this horrible place. Please tell the people in America what is happening to us here.' "

During the two and a half weeks of drama preparation, the crew coaxed initially reluctant actors into passionate, sometimes hammy ones.

The young actors chose three themes: peace building, HIV/AIDS and reconciliation.

Some of these young actors had seen family members tortured, even killed. But a sense of hope and moving forward was a surprising but common thread in their conversations and their drama.

After intense rehearsals, the young actors, some anxious, took the stage—a roughly made wood platform—to share their hopes and thoughts with 1,000 villagers who gathered around to witness the short plays.

In the HIV presentation, the stage was filled with the young actors, dancing and belting out their sing-song message: "Wear a condom, every time."

It drew smiles and some embarrassed laughs from the audience.

Another skit included a myth versus truth dialogue on how HIV is transmitted.

After a recent decline, HIV is on the rise now in Uganda, according to the government's 2011 AIDS Indicator Survey. Among women and men 15 to 49, HIV has increased from 6.4 percent in 2004-5 to 7.3 percent in 2011. (In the report, the government notes that could be the result of more people with HIV living longer rather than ineffective HIV prevention programs.)

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Since the documentary, the Voices project has met with Senators to seek additional assistance for Uganda, and gotten it. To raise awareness, well-known actors (including Allison Janey of West Wing) have performed the monologues in the documentary at numerous programs, including the IRC Freedom awards. General Electric donated a million dollars to the IRC's northern Uganda program for girls' education.

Now, the drama program in Uganda has been turned over to the Concerned Parents Association, a local group, Fitzgerald says. "They're managing it now," Fitzgerald says. "The kids are doing the teaching. The productions are ongoing."

She wants to go back, to continue the efforts. "We need to raise the money to do it," she says. (Visit Voices of Uganda.)

Despite the distance, she's kept in touch with her young actors. At Thursday's presentation, as at every documentary screening, the audience was asked to wave hello for a photograph of the entire audience that would be sent to Uganda's drama troupe.

Fitzgerald is sure her young actors have not forgotten her or her crew—or their themes of HIV prevention, reconciliation and peace-building.

"They had an opportunity to be seen as someone different," she says, "as teachers and leaders and voices of their own generation."

In the process, one can hope, these new roles have helped the old ones—of sex slaves and soldier-killers—fade.