Cliche Positive

When a bisexual man tests positive for the HIV virus, who should he tell first -- the man in his life, or the woman? This is one of the provocative questions that playwright Cheryl L. West asks in her domestic drama, Before It Hits Home, which is currently being presented by The Ensemble Theatre.

West raises a number of other issues in her 1989 play: how do you go about informing someone that you've tested negative when the person you want to inform has tested positive? Does AIDS give an estranged son the right to return home to die? Where should parents center their grief, on the fact of the disease or the fact that their son has been withholding the truth of his sexuality from them? What's more damaging, ignorance about AIDS or the prejudice that results from that ignorance?

Before It Hits Home is strewn with such dilemmas. In fact, it's littered with them. West brings up a myriad of subjects, but really explores none of them. She's so forthright in her concerns that she neither probes an idea nor develops her characters. There's no questioning Home's sincerity, but there's also no questioning that it's ultimately a sketchy, cliched family drama. Before West became a playwright, she was a social worker, and that history shows: her play feels sociological. Topicality was likely a significant reason the play won honors such as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Helen Hayes Award -- topicality, and the fact that African-American playwrights don't often take on material like this. While the play's heart and The Ensemble's production are in the right place, that in itself is not enough.

Beginning with nervous denial and ending with ambivalent affirmation, Before It Hits Home uses the character of Wendal, a bisexual saxophonist, to check off its agendas. At first, Wendal refuses to believe he's sick. Then he struggles to tell his girlfriend, Simone, and boyfriend, Douglass, about his disease. With his health deteriorating, Wendal returns home, where his parents are raising his young son for him. Traditional middle-class folk, Wendal's parents waver between narrow- and broad-mindedness.

In the indictment and embrace that is Before It Hits Home, West too often wallows in the obvious, delivering messages that, despite their urgency, come across as dated. It's not enough for a doctor to advise Wendal of his "responsibility" to inform his sexual partners about his condition; when Wendal leaves, the doctor has to continue with a soliloquy about others who must do the same. Wendal rails against being told to have a "positive attitude"; his mother repeatedly calls him "one of them people"; his aunt is so afraid to touch him that she bundles herself up like a firefighter; the play opens and closes with a pregnant woman with AIDS welcoming Wendal to "the family." Given such ponderously heavy-handed situations, one doesn't know whether to wince in sympathy with the characters' problems, or simply wince.

Not that it's easy to care for characters who are so underdeveloped. Wendal is a category -- bisexual -- not a person. His father doesn't like "softness." His brother is a serviceman; pointedly named Junior, he's his father's pride and joy. His mother loves and defends all. The family dynamics that come into conflict are mostly hackneyed.

Her house now "infected" in such a way that she no longer considers it a home, Wendal's mother flees to a hotel, leaving her husband to care for Wendal; she can't help herself because she can't help her son, which, in turn, brings out her husband's reserves. But rather than investigate what this does to the family, we're simply told that the mother spends hours bathing herself and watching her grandson -- Wendal's son -- sleep. As for the boy, West deals with his response to everything through a quick mention of off-stage fights with schoolchildren. As if afraid to miss anything, West also tacks on sibling rivalry. Weeks go by at a clip.

Taking on so much can't help but result in loose ends. For instance, what happens to Simone, who takes up no little space in Act One? What about Douglass, who happens to be married? And what happened to the mother of Wendal's son? If nothing else, don't we need a line to explain why she's not in the play?

Perhaps most damning, West gives little indication of how we're supposed to feel about Wendal. Her few attempts at commentary revolve around emptily ironic motifs, "artistic" forms serving as poor substitutes for significant content, such as when Simone and Douglass and Wendal say the same lines to each other in different situations.

Director Ntozake Shange doesn't help much. Through highly stylized actions -- someone calling "time out" and gesturing accordingly, characters appearing and disappearing behind a scrim as if in the background of another's mind, feet being massaged so dutifully it's religious -- she brings otherwise realistic encounters to a halt to hammer sentiments home. Though the play veers widely between comedy and drama, Shange goes for situation comedy and melodrama. On more than one occasion, she has her cast dance as if they're minstrels in a vaudeville routine; how this impacts the text is elusive. Shange can't seem to decide if she's going after the naturalistic vein of, say, August Wilson or the intentionally provocative manner of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. Shange manages a few effectively subtle touches -- such as when, with delicate blues playing in the background, Wendal and Douglass quietly build up resolve for Wendal's homecoming -- but she consistently undercuts these. Even the curtain calls are out of kilter.

If you really want to contemplate the complications that arise when someone discovers he's HIV-positive, there are plenty of good books and magazine pieces around to read. Leafing through them at your own pace and to whatever depths you feel you need, you can more fruitfully think about all that this overrun play -- and this overeager production -- bring up.

Before It Hits Home plays through March 10 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 520-0055.

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Peter Szatmary