The stories depicted in Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s play “In the Continuum” are very similar to those of Hilda Mulholland, a native Bostonian, and Catherine Smith, a native of Kenya, who are living with HIV and empowering the people around them.
Diagnosed with HIV 14 years ago, Mulholland is strong, bright and busy debunking all of the myths and fears surrounding HIV/AIDS.
As an international HIV/AIDS activist and community organizer, Smith trains groups of women throughout Africa and India on developing a strategic plan that enables them to be self-sufficient and educated. She has worked for the United Nations and the Kenya Red Cross, and now resides in the United States, where she continues her work through Boston’s Multicultural AIDS Coalition (MAC).
Jennease Hyatt, a program manager at MAC, explained that “one of the biggest challenges with women and HIV/AIDS is lack of self esteem.”
As a result, Hyatt said, some women put themselves at risk by having unprotected sex to please their partners.
“Not having a perceived risk puts women at risk,” Hyatt said.
And perceptions are another major challenge for women living with HIV/AIDS.
Smith said that she tried to address that problem in the play by using firsthand experiences to show society’s disdain.
“We wanted to remove the idea of people who kept looking at us as people who are useless or as people who don’t have brains,” said Smith, who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1997 and asked that her real name not be used.
Mulholland has a different perspective as well.
“People are living long healthy lives with HIV, and with AIDS, it is not a death sentence,” said Mulholland, who once struggled with drug addiction.
Mulholland changed her life and became clean after she started going back to church. But she was later infected with HIV by a former fiancé.
“He wanted to have sex before marriage, and I said no, and he raped me,” she said.
Determined to not let her diagnosis and her partner’s initial denial bring her down, Mulholland created a network to help women who face similar challenges to cope and empower themselves.
“To some, it saved their lives, because it helped them deal with their problems head-on,” she said. “They have made a total change in their lives, with their families, the things they used to do [that] they don’t do anymore. They are helping other young women and other young men.
“I guess we have to see the good in having this virus. That might sound weird, but when we were out there shooting and doing drugs, we didn’t care if we lived or died.”
For Smith, a huge portion of her journey has been giving HIV/AIDS a human face.
“I am a well-known figure in Africa,” she said. “People see me [on] the TV screens and in the newspaper because of my work in the streets.”
Though Smith has committed her life to changing and educating others, she admits that the journey that brought her to where she is today has been long and sometimes dubious, crowded with doubts and fears, and even attempts of suicide.
“I was suicidal because … this is something that had never crossed my mind, because if you look at the lifestyle I was living, I was never immoral, I was faithful to my marriage, just my husband,” she said. “And you know, the way HIV is perceived people think that when you get it you must have been immoral, you must have been promiscuous.”
Today, Smith, like Mulholland, sees herself as a beacon for others.
“God had a purpose for my life,” she said. “God wanted to use me for a reason.”
Smith said she found healing in a support group she attended in 2000. A year later, Smith decided that she wanted to help others heal and started working as an AIDS activist.
According to Mulholland and Smith, one of the most important things for people who do not have the virus or disease is not to be afraid of those who are.
“I am still a real person,” Mulholland said. “I still hurt like you hurt. There is nothing wrong with me. It’s just that I am going through a little sickness in my body. Just love me, love me like you always loved me.”
Approaching AIDS Through the Arts is a special initiative of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition, The Bay State Banner and Up You Mighty Race Theatre Company. It is sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission’s State of Emergency Initiative, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
“In the Continuum” will run from Sept. 17 through Oct. 18 at the BCA Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street. Mulholland will be one of the panelists for “Removing the Veil: Black Women and HIV/AIDS,” a special audience talkback session that will follow the Sept. 19 performance.
To purchase tickets, visit www.bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.
Akiba Abaka is the producing artistic director of Up You Mighty Race Theatre Company.