Young director finds meaning in confronting social prejudices, says no need to delay getting rid of them
A scene in a play of Dung doi den ngay mai (Don't wait until tomorrow) project. HIV-infected actor Bui Tran Hoang (R) was not only chosen for his acting skills but also for his knowledge of the disease and ability to answer the audience's questions.
For a long time, Bui Nhu Lai shared the "normal" prejudices, a sense of loathing, against homosexuals and HIV/AIDS afflicted people.
Then his close friend began dying in front of his eyes. "Since I was a student, I'd boarded with him" Lai recalled.
"Then he became a drug addict, and caught the disease (AIDS). He deteriorated rapidly, and I decided to find out more about the disease.
"People are usually scared of what they do not understand. What I learnt about HIV/AIDS gave me a lot of insights, and I want to use my work to tell the community that HIV/AIDS is not as scary as we thought."
The 29-year-old director has since made a name for himself with art projects highlighting the plight of homosexuals and HIV-infected people. He also pulled off a coup of sorts recently by casting an HIV-infected person to act in his play.
A stage actor turned director, Lai's interactive drama series Dung doi den ngay mai (Don't wait until tomorrow) has won high praise. It was first conceived by Lai and script-writer Le Hung to fight against the social stigma of HIV/AIDS last October, and funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program.
The project featured three short plays centering on the lives of HIV-infected people as well as their families who have to endure unfair discrimination by the community.
In free performances held last year, the plays reached out to students at Hanoi and HCMC universities. This year, the project is being funded by the Philippines Educational Theater Association (PETA) and the plays were scheduled to be performed at Kon Tum, Nghe An and Thanh Hoa provinces' universities from March 28 to April 8.
Lai said that these provinces were chosen because of the high prevalence of HIV infections.
"The idea for a play about HIV/AIDS came to mind after reading articles and seeing the footage of the segregation that the people, especially their children, had to suffer. In my plays, there are emotionally strong stories about an HIV-infected schoolgirl who is fiercely objected to by other parents and a brokenhearted woman finding out after a long time that her ex-boyfriend had left her after finding out he was HIV positive."
The interactive play allows audiences to share their ideas and talk with the cast as well as HIV-infected people during the play.
Impressed by the project's effectiveness, the Kon Tum Youth Union has invited Lai to train their staff in making and performing interactive plays.
Magic can happen
Lai's use of a real HIV-infected person has been a master stroke.
Director Bui Nhu Lai
Hung, a student of HCMC's University of Technology (HUTECH) said that his mind changed after the performance.
"Do we need to wait until tomorrow to start living better or wipe out all the social bias and give them our hand? I was impressed by Hoang, the HIV-infected actor who was brave and confident enough to perform on stage and tell us his story. His answers to some of our questions really made things clear," Hung said.
At the performances, some members of the Vi ngay mai tuoi sang (For a brighter future), a organization established in 2002 in Hanoi to bring together HIV-infected people and get them involved in many social activities, especially in helping others sharing their plight, were also present and revealed their own stories.
"They really touched the audience and after some performances, many, mostly students and young people, went on the stage and hugged them," said Lai.
Lai said that Bui Tran Hoang, the HIV-infected actor, was not only chosen for his acting skills but also for his knowledge of the disease and ability to answer the audience's questions.
"The artists have the understanding, but it is those who are attached to HIV for years who know their status best. They are very confident and like to participate in social activities. The members of Vi ngay mai tuoi sang club have also invited me to arrange a play for them to perform. Because of some outstanding individuals, those HIV-infected people who treasure their lives in words and deeds are gaining more and more social respect," Lai said.
Lai said he would like others to carry his message, but limited sponsorship prevented him from inviting famous artists or holding more performances.
"I think my team and I have to be more dynamic and find more support to maintain the show. If the local enterprises give us just 10 per cent of their annual budget for entertainment shows or football, magic will happen."
The Stereo Man
Lai achieved fame in 2006 as an actor in a drama series called "Stereo Man," produced by the Hanoi Youth Theater. Changing themes annually, the series explores many social issues like gender discrimination, sex, HIV/AIDS and violence through stories inspired by the lives of real people. It uses a lot of body language and very little dialogue.
For instance, a pair of shoes and a pair of woman's slippers are placed on the stage. The character approaches them. There is joy and fear when he looks at the slippers and utter weariness when he considers the men's shoes. Finally, he wears the slippers, and although they do not fit him, he is truly happy.
The series paved the way for other works including Dung doi den ngay mai.
Lai said he is trying to explore the other functions of art, not just entertainment.
"Local artists now just focus on entertaining the audience, instead of evoking their emotions. I enjoy what I am doing now, it's very meaningful, and I am not afraid of criticism. I know I am doing the right thing and supported by many good people."