Abstract: The therapeutic role of theatre and drama has remained useful to health experts as a preventive measure and for patients as a fast recovery antidote. This paper examines the medical dimension of the play Cauldron of Death by Tracie Chima Utoh. The play denotatively invokes the dangers of HIV/AIDS and serves preventive and life-sustaining purposes for HIV/AIDS patients. Utilizing the artistic and content analysis approaches, the paper re-examines this one-act play as a preventive and healing template for HIV/AIDS disease both for those who read the play as text and for those who view it in performance. As an HIV/AIDS conscientization play, Cauldron of Death is not only a tool for the usual conventional theatre pedagogy but also an invaluable resource material/drug for pharmacists, doctors, patients and disease prevention NGOs.
Keywords: Medicine, theatre as therapy, HIV/AIDS, Cauldron of Death
Thornton Wilder was right to think of theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which human beings can share with one another the sense of what it is to be a human being. The supremacy of theatre derives from the fact that it is “now” on the stage (qtd. in Louis Catron xii). This position is what has kept playwrights useful in all generations as they expose the narratives of their environment.
The role of drama became widened and expanded when psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud experimented with the use of drama to reactivate patients who were demented. Such experiments opened a new vista regarding the instrumental benefits of drama for the human race. Effiong Johnson observes that playwrights do not write in a vacuum but draw inspiration from happenings in their environments.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, Africa experienced the emergence of an epidemic that has engaged the attention of donor agencies and community health service providers. This epidemic is HIV/AIDS, one of the most dreaded fatal diseases of contemporary times.
The term HIV means Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and its final manifestation is AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, although the discovered retroviral drugs have been found to prolong the life-span of people who are HIV positive. Some of the symptoms observed in those who contract the HIV virus may include: diarrhea, fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, dry cough, night sweats, edema. This paper, therefore, discusses the medical dimension of drama in the fight against HIV/AIDS using Tracie Chima Utoh’s Cauldron of Death.
About the Play: Cauldron of Death by Tracie Chima Utoh
Using the dance-drama technique, Tracie Chima Utoh examines the causes, effects and remedies of the dreaded scourge of HIV/AIDS from the point of view of the family unit. Cauldron of Death chronicles the tragic experience of the family of Ikem in the pangs of the HIV/AIDS dreaded virus. The play begins with a surrealist dance glee where victims of HIV/AIDS lament their regrets for their current condition. In this dream state, Junior is prominent and pleadingly wails for liberation from death—the last stage of the disease.
In this dream state, Nneoma, his mother, wakes him and assures him that all is well in spite of his critical illness. The dramatic action becomes complicated as Ozoemena, his younger sister, returns from school depressed and begins to pour out her anger on Junior for donating blood to her when he knew he was HIV positive. Junior confesses to his mother to have had flirtatious sexual encounters with countless girls including prostitutes while in the University.
The tragic moment in the story climaxes as Mr Ikem, Junior’s father, returns with a letter from Sandra, one of Junior’s lovers. The letter reveals that Sandra had already been infected before having sexual affairs with Junior. Mr Ikem discovers that he has also had a sexual affair with Sandra while on a business trip. This discovery shows the entire family to have carried the virus through sex and blood transfusion. Dr Dike rushes in to announce the discovery of a cure for AIDS; however, it is too late for Junior to reap the benefits of this breakthrough because the infection has advanced to the point of destroying his veins. The play ends on a sad note as Junior gasps and dies.
Cauldron of Death as Cauldron of Life
The life-saving dimension of Cauldron of Death lies in the fact that the play is a serious comment on the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. In an interview with Peter Piot, Executive Director for UNAIDS in 2008, when asked what concerns him most about the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic today, he expressed his concern that, while they have made measurable progress on access to treatment, they do not have the same impact when it comes to HIV prevention. This implies that the greatest challenge of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not so much to find a cure for the disease, but, essentially, to prevent its spread. This position is more complicated when one observes that there is a poor awareness of how to prevent HIV/AIDS from spreading, especially in rural African areas—even though preventive measures are as simple as taking prophylactic measures during sex, or using sterilized needles for blood transfusions.
I recall the reaction of a spectator in one of the productions of Cauldron of Death when condoms were distributed to the audience. He asked me why he must be persuaded to prevent his sperm from entering his fiancé’s vagina during sex in the name of using the condom. In his opinion, HIV/AIDS was nothing but a deliberate ploy the elites had orchestrated in order to control birth rate in Africa.
This lack of awareness of the dangers of HIV/AIDS is one of the challenges NACA has experienced in Africa. In its undertaking to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS, Utoh’s Cauldron of Death amounts to social therapy for both the reading and the performance audiences who are now or yet to be victims. Utoh’s handling of the HIV/AIDS issue in Cauldron of Death presents her as a social therapist with in-depth knowledge of the causes and manifestations of the virus as well as the attendant challenges faced by victims of the dreaded scourge.
From the opening glee of this one-act drama, AIDS, which Utoh presents as a character in its own right, claims its victims as belonging to him, their having sipped from his cauldron of death:
AIDS: Yes! You all belong to me now! Come unto me all you who have taken the sip from my cauldron of death. Come! Come! Come! (He takes two steps forward and dancers all shrink back in horror. They attempt to run away but discover to their horror that they cannot move from one spot). (Cauldron of Death 117)
The monologue above exposes to the audience the dangers experienced by victims of the dreaded scourge and restates that the only way to avoid being a victim is to avoid sipping from the HIV/AIDS cauldron. A typical HIV/AIDS victim is captured in the pictures below:
AIDS victims in a care home
This pictorial display replicates the status of victims as presented in the character of Junior in the play. His immune system has been attacked by the virus, and what awaits him is nothing but painful death.
Junior’s lamentation on his sick bed cautions individuals in the society to avoid unprotected sex and blood transfusion through unsterilized objects like needles and razor blades. Junior recounts to his mother his reckless sexual intercourse with different girls at different places and times:
JUNIOR: I had my first sexual experience when I was thirteen years. Does that shock you?
NNEOMA: (dully) nothing shocks me anymore
JUNIOR: Do you remember Vera?
NNEOMA: Vera who is Vera?
JUNIOR: . . . I had my first sexual experience with Vera
NNEOMA: You should not have indulged in such an illicit union. Where did you abandon all the moral training we gave you . . .
JUNIOR: . . . at what point.
The conversation above unveils the dangers of youths abandoning their moral codes and engaging in unprotected premarital sex. Junior’s confession betrays his rebellion against his parental upbringing, which is one of the reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Against this backdrop, Utoh discusses the ramifications of the emerging social reality in contemporary Africa, with too many young people entering sexual life with very little knowledge of the repercussions of unprotected sex in the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Alongside the role of age, the playwright reveals the role of infidelity in the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa as demonstrated through Ikem’s character—Junior’s father:
IKEM: (sounding delirious.) I met her six months ago. During a business trip. We spent the night together. She was so beautiful that I threw all caution to the winds. She looked reserved and responsible. I was deceived by her looks. I did not take any precautions. I did not know. How could I have known? I should have worn a condom. I should have protected myself (Utoh 148-9)
Ikem’s traumatic realization points toward the dangers of infidelity, which is a common phenomenon among African men. This “cauldron” Ikem sipped spreads to his unwitting wife after having sex with her. The ideological focus of this experience in the text teaches couples to be as faithful as possible to their spouse to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. Similarly, the experience of Ozoemena, who was not a victim of unprotected sex but of blood transfusion, is a clarion call on individuals to screen blood before transfusion irrespective of the donor.
The resolution of the play reveals that it is of vital importance to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS through any of the available methods. Dr Dike’s arrival to announce the discovery of the cure for HIV/AIDS may have provided a ray of hope for the Ikem family, yet Junior’s defeat to death does not allow the audience to linger on this prospect for too long. The playwright’s intention, therefore, is to advocate for absolute abstinence from actions that can lead to contracting the deadly virus.
This paper has carefully reviewed the use of drama in the campaign against HIV/AIDS as captured in Tracie Chima Utoh’s Cauldron of Death. Apart from the usefulness of the play in an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign, the thematic thrust in the play presents a healing balm for victims.
The play is also a dictionary of prevention mechanisms for the spread of the virus. The play not only provides a medical template for victims but also serves as a social counseling platform and therefore supports the practice of medicine.
The delineation and careful development of characters attracts the attention of the audience who are members of different families. Utoh’s use of the family unit to tell her story draws members of the audience closer to the dramatic action. A dominant feature of medicine-centered plays is the introduction of a doctor who educates and counsels patients on health management and disease control procedures while it promotes the practice of medicine.
As suggested in the title of this work, the cauldron of death for the characters in the play becomes a cauldron of life for members of the audience. This is because the enlightenment, education, escape and entertainment implications of the play empower the audience to save themselves from death by abstaining from sipping from the “cauldron of death.” The enlightenment ensuing from the conflict in the Ikem family is a life-saving grace for the many who attend the play. Similarly, victims of this dreaded disease embrace the hope of the discovered cure and the retroviral mechanism the play presents.
The paper, therefore, recommends that the play should be given adequate exposure and be performed in various HIV/AIDS camps and campaign gatherings in order to take advantage of the healing and counseling potency inherent in the text. More research on other ailments that are ravaging lives in Africa should be carried out and documented in dramatic form so as to deepen the collaboration of theatre and medicine in the twenty-first century.
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*Sunday Edum, PhD, teaches Directing, Production Workshop and Theatre Practice in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He is a committed Stage Director with over thirty productions to his credit. Some of these productions include; Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame, Ahmed Yerima’s The Sisters, Rich Orloff’s Oedi, Julie Okoh’s Edewede, Trials, Throes of Leadership and Benjamin Ejiofor’s Raising from the Past.