Performance reflects on young victims of HIV/AIDS

Sigh/Omelas begins without fanfare. There is no curtain, only a fairly straightforward toplight, and on the left wing, a dark blue stool, on which sits a green baseball cap with the letters N and W in a goofy unrecognizable font. A single character kneels center stage under these lights, reading aloud from a book mimed in his left hand. He does this for a while, then puts down the mimed book and says: “you could have done it better.”

The show is a one-act, one-man play, written and performed by Steve Kidd, professional actor, and class of ’97. In a nutshell, the work is an examination of the ramifications  HIV/AIDS has on the unfortunate children who are diagnosed with it, as well as what all this means for society as a whole. The play is told in a series of three monologues detailing the life of a child diagnosed with AIDS, interspersed with selections from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

I met with Steve Kidd, a middle-aged, stocky man with a bit of grey around his temples and piercing blue eyes in the lobby just outside Strider Theater. When he walked in, he recognized me instantly from the night before, shook my hand and reintroduced himself as Steve. “Okay, so this play.” He repeated: “This play.”

Steve is a lifelong actor, and since writing Sigh/Omelas, his career has taken off. He earned his master’s degree in theater from Brown University and is currently working as a resident actor with the Gamm Theatre, for which he has performed in over thirty shows. All that experience certainly paid off in last Friday’s show.

“You could stand up in a classroom and give a report about AIDS statistics, and that would all be very useful information,” said Jim Thurston, Associate Chair of the Theater Dance Department of Steve’s performance, “but we’re thinking about the children, about what this disease has done to them and their families.”

Indeed the stories the characters tell have strong ties to the playwright’s own life.

Steve first got the idea for Sigh/Omelas about seventeen years ago, when he took a volunteer position at AmeriKids, an eight-day summer camp that serves children living with AIDS and sickle cell disease. While there, he met a fourteen-year-old camper by the name of Victor, who was suffering from AIDS.

Victor lost his eyesight as a result the disease, and several weeks after camp ended, passed away. It was Victor’s story that ended up becoming the centerpiece of Sigh/Omelas.

“Being 23, 24 years old,” said Steve somberly, “I was struck by the injustice of a life cut so short, and I wrote his stories out just to keep them in the world.”

Modern treatments, such as prenatal testing, have significantly lowered the prevalence of HIV, especially in children, however this was not the case two decades ago. For example, according to UNAIDS, when Steve graduated from Colby in 1997, 2.3 million people worldwide died of AIDS, about 460,00 of which were children under the age of 15. At the time it was written, Sigh/Omelas helped to spread awareness, as well as to demystify the disease. Today, it functions both as an emblem of the not-too-distant past and as a reminder of this disease’s presence today, despite the effectiveness of these treatments.

But it is even more than that.

There is an air of wonder that surrounds Sigh/Omelas, which seems to permeate every aspect of it. Steve remarked on the fact that, especially for such a complex piece, the writing process was fairly straightforward; all three of the character monologues in the play came easily. “It’s a rare experience for a writer,” he explained, “and I haven’t had that kind of experience again.”

Perhaps the most evocative moment in the play is its resolution: a final soliloquy spoken by the stepfather of the child whose voice the audience heard for the first two monologues.

“For me, that moment is very real,” says Prof. Thurston. “In life, sometimes there are happy endings, sometimes there are very difficult endings, and you’re not left with either of those extremes, just this really wonderful sense of respect.”

This sense of respect seemed to be the unifying reaction to Sigh/Omelas. It is a respect for the work, a respect for the artist, but most of all a respect for the people Steve makes come alive with his work.

I ran into Rachel Prestigiacomo ‘17 in the lobby of Johnson. She seemed half asleep, but perked up at the mention of the play, and agreed to take a break from chemistry to speak with me about it.

“I was riveted,” she said, gesturing more and more vividly as she spoke. “I couldn’t take myself out the moment if I tried, and I didn’t want to. You have to respect that: someone who can command a stage, and take you somewhere, and teach you so much with nothing, nothing but himself.”

Her gaze took on a certain distance as she re-imagined the performance.“It was just so…” She gesticulated wildly, trying to find the right word, “beautiful. And I had never seen something like that performed.”

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